Women with Opinions


Woman verses Nature: A Review of Tracks 

Woman verses Nature: A Review of Tracks 

by Amira Abdel-Malek

The narrative of the lone survivor and nomadic adventurer has existed for centuries. The story usually goes like this: boy becomes man as his encounter with the vast wilderness humbles him into maturity. Recent films such as 127 Hours and Into the Wild are contemporary versions of this archetype, but one thing hasn’t changed: the agent of the story only represents half of the planet’s population. So I was excited when Tracks, a film based on the book and real-life experience of renowned travel writer Robyn Davidson, caught my attention at the beginning of the summer. Davidson’s international bestseller has been successfully transformed into a refreshing film that takes the ‘Man vs Nature’ theme and places a dynamic female at the helm. Mia Wasikowska brilliantly conveys the complexity of Davidson’s personality: at times she is reserved, often alienating, but also loving, authentic, strong and vulnerable. Disenchanted with 1970s Australian society, Davidson embarks on a journey with four camels and her dog Diggity across 1700 miles of Outback to the Indian Ocean. Sponsored by National Geographic magazine, aided by a friendly photographer and an Aboriginal elder, she struggles both physically and internally to come to terms with her history as well as her present solitude. Rest assured, though, this film is not an overly sensationalized effort, regardless of its wide shots of rippling horizons and pulsating soundtrack. The cinematography is in the service of an understated art film that may have gone under the radar of movie goers. Unlike the attention received by her more epic counterpart in Into the Wild, Davidson is not as concerned with her immortalization. Both protagonists reject the greedy and hypocritical aspects of their societies. However, rather than having messianic goals, Davidson goes down a path of self-reflection and self-acceptance. For that reason, her travel tale forms a striking contrast with our modern Zeitgeist ruled by social media and global connectivity. While Davidson was able to disappear from view, this inspiring film returns her to the public eye and recaptures her unique nomadic adventure. Anyone who appreciates an off-the-beaten-track story will find value in this one.






Becoming Fearless: Lifespan Lessons from Harriet Tubman 

By Cecelia Davidson, Ph.D.

“ I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”

These are the powerful words of Harriet Tubman, perhaps one of the most renowned leaders of the Underground Railroad. Not, an actual railroad but a secret route to safe houses leading enslaved Africans from the southern regions of America to the northeast during the nineteenth century. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law legalized the return of runaway slaves to the South and posed the threat of kidnapping to free people of color. Courageous Harriet Tubman picked up a rifle and followed the stars leading caravans of people to St. Catharines, Ontario. Only escaping slavery herself in 1849, this petite framed abused woman made this journey hundreds of times. She could have remained comfortable living in a small peaceful community of freed Africans, but she didn’t.

The reason was simple. Enslavement was abolished in British controlled Canada. Freedom was the right of all people. For Harriet, the risks of a treacherous journey outweighed the risks of rape, torture, cruelty and forced labor from an institutionalized economically driven system of inhumanity. Harriet was driven to be a conductor for the Underground Railroad by love and fear; love for her people and fear of continued life without liberty. “I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Institutionalized efforts to remove the identity of people and separate their connections to family and culture reinforced the belief in many that enslavement was destiny if you were an African in America.

Harriet teaches us about misapplied fear that results in self-enslavement. Fearlessness and the power to change human condition begin with directing the fear where it belongs. Belief in shared political rule requires a belief in gender equality. Those with wisdom and skills should lead. Wisdom and skills aren’t confined to a single gender. Our survival will not be insured by the problem solving efforts of one part of humanity. The destiny of men and women is intertwined. We should fear what our world will become if we don’t have collaborative problem solving. Women who fear taking a lead and men and women who fear each other’s power are misapplying fear and remaining enslaved to ideologies and behaviors that aren’t serving us:

I offer an unbiased plan for becoming fearless drawn from the spirit of Harriet Tubman: 

  1. RESIST false beliefs in stereotypes of male and female abilities.
  2. EMBRACE belief in the power of human potential regardless of gender.
  3. PERSIST with individual, group, and community efforts that offer opportunities for female leadership.
  4. FORGIVE mistakes. We should do our best with good intention. Mistakes shouldn’t mean abandonment of commitment.

Fear of what will become of us…that is the real fear. Fearlessness in our commitment to change will bring priceless rewards.


Activism and Voting? 

Can we be serious activists and voters at the same time?

By Rita Fromholt                         

One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed  by your inferiors.”  Plato

Much discussion has been generated recently, particularly in social media, about the need for a “revolution” to bring about the critical changes required to create a more sustainable and just society. And correspondingly, whether such a “revolution” would be co-opted by voting and engaging in conventional politics.

So is the act of voting a means of condoning a system we know is fundamentally flawed and incapable of bringing about the radical changes in society that we believe are so necessary? But what if we don’t vote - does that kind of apathy actually make the status quo stronger and allow the anti-progressive 1%’ers to continue to dominate our lives?

It is easy to assume the system is so corrupted and biased towards corporate interests that even “good” (i.e. honest, innovative, visionary, you know what I mean) people, if they manage to get elected, can’t make a difference anymore. In a time of “senate scandals” and crack-smoking mayors, even a political junkie like myself is left shaking her head. 

But I am going to argue here that no matter how “radical” you think the necessary changes are, you still gotta vote. And there is no reason to think we can’t be both serious activists and engaged in the political system at the same time. Such attributes are certainly not mutually exclusive.

Many of us are hugely dismayed by how our federal and provincial governments behave - but the reality is, as Canadians, we got the government we deserve. Often majority governments are elected because a lot of progressive people, especially young people, didn’t bother to vote. That’s the hard truth. Why do we still not have a national daycare program or a system to relieve student debt? Because those who get into positions of power don’t see them as priorities. Not enough women, not enough young people.

Voter turnout of young people in the last federal election in 2011 fell to just 38.8% of those aged 18-24, compared to a national average of 61.1%. Even worse was the 2009 BC provincial election that saw only 34% of people 20-24 cast their votes. Municipal elections are likely not much better, with overall voter turnout usually around 40% or less.

I think it was noteworthy at a recent youth climate justice conference in Victoria, Powershift BC, attended by approximately 1,000 people mostly under the age of 25, that there was a noticeable absence of talks and discussions about how to use the political system as part of a campaign strategy. For example, why not include voting, running for office, trying to directly influence political party policy, on the list of possible tactics? There was much talk about what is wrong with the political system, but little regarding to how to fix it or how to create a new power paradigm.

Youth often cite one of their major reasons for not voting is that the candidates don’t campaign on issues that matter to them and that they all sound the same. Well, this of course is a self-fulfilling prophecy because if candidates don’t think the youth will vote for them, they won’t focus on issues that matter to them like student debt, unemployment as well as take strong positions on social and environmental issues. And the situation continues to get worse with each election.

In a democracy, you can get rid of a government you don’t like by organizing and voting to have it defeated in the next election. I know there are lots of reasons why this is not as easy as it sounds, but in fact, is it really that complicated? We need to support “good” people, especially youth and women, who are brave enough to run for public office, and organize to get other people to vote for them en mass. We need to pressure the political parties to work together on issues of common interest, and push for electoral reform including a system of proportional representation. That’s the only way the system is ever going to change. You can protest, occupy, scream, shout, email, Facebook all you want, but without some “good” people in positions of power, you’re not likely to ever be very successful.

One young woman organizer of the Occupy Victoria movement responded to a question on a panel at UVic last year about why she didn’t support a particular city counsellor in the last municipal election who was very supportive of the Occupy Movement by stating, “Oh, I never vote.” There was a collective sigh in the room and she immediately, for me, lost all credibility.

You have to admire people like her, and the Russell Brands of the world, for taking bold positions on important environmental and social justice issues.  But those who wear their non-voting status like a badge of honour are not only missing the boat, but can’t even get to the dock. No doubt we should be critical of our out dated first-past-the-post parliamentary system, controlled by old white guys and manipulated by large corporate donations. But we need to get inside the system in order to reform it. It’s certainly not the only tactic to focus on, but no talk of “revolution” and protests is ever going to change it purely from the outside.


The Power of the Vote

Afghanistan’s First Parliamentary Election in 33 Years 

by Kathy Santini

“It’s a good day to die,” my co-worker Jim Chiavelli said half-jokingly, as he puffed on his stogy. I wasn’t so sure, but it was a distinct possibility, given that we were both working as journalists covering the first parliamentary elections in Afghanistan in 33 years. Security was tight and tensions were high, as the Taliban and other groups had threatened violence. Reports had it that several candidates had been killed in the days before polling.

Dressed in a flack vest, army helmet and a shawl which covered my head and helmet, I set out early on Sept. 18, 2005, to watch Afghans vote, many for the first time. After 33 years of communist and Taliban rule, civil war, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the toppling of the Taliban regime and Afghan presidential elections which were held in 2004, today’s vote would elect a parliament.

Withstanding the presidential election the year before, can you imagine living in a country whose last election was 33 years ago? Given that the legal voting age is 18 and the country has an average life expectancy of 50 years, a whole generation of Afghans had never voted before the September 2005 election, having died before being given the opportunity.

With voting such a foreign concept and heightened security concerns, it’s impressive that voter turnout was 50%. In a country with dauntingly rugged terrain, a rural population of 80%, limited transportation options, and a literacy rate of 28%, the turnout shows an impressive desire by Afghans to exercise their voting franchise. (Compare this to the recent provincial election in B.C., where turnout was 52 %.)

It was an incredible honour and professional highlight to watch women vote, the same women who were for many years kept prisoners in their homes by the Taliban regime. And to see that despite years of Taliban rule, there were a number of women brave enough to run for office. I wondered if the women voters were voting based on their own convictions, or had they been influenced by others, say their husbands? In my admittedly limited poll of the eight women I asked, some indignantly replied, that they were their own women.

The ballots were different than the ones we’re familiar with here at home. Because of low literacy rates, all candidates had an icon next to their names on the ballot. Pictures of footballs, cars and different kinds of flowers are just a few of the symbols used.  A shortage of icons resulted in some candidates having multiple images as their symbol, for example, four footballs, instead of one. Symbols were chosen by the electoral committee, to limit the chance of a candidate gaining an advantage because their symbol was viewed favourably by the Afghan culture, while another was not.

If you leave with anything after reading this short piece, let it be this: that being able to vote is an incredible privilege, and not one to rationalize away for whatever seemingly valid reason. Libyan and Egyptian nationals are just a few examples of citizens who have demonstrated and died in the streets for a chance to have some of the basic freedoms that we, who have elections more frequently than every 33 years, take for granted. So protect our democracy, get your voice heard, and as the Nike ad says, Just Do It.



Revealing the Story in History...

Chase Going Woodhouse, U.S. Congresswoman


by Vanessa Winn

While researching my novel The Chief Factor’s Daughter, I learned that a granddaughter of my main character became a U. S. Congresswoman.  Canadian-born, she was the first Democrat woman to represent Connecticut.  Intriguingly, I discovered recently that this distinguished politician and feminist, Chase Going Woodhouse, lived with, and was inspired by, her maternal grandmother.  Apparently Margaret Work, my book’s heroine, had another story later in life.

Born in Victoria, B.C. in 1890, Chase’s earliest memories included looking out her bedroom window to see “Indians” waiting for help from “Granny” with issues such as justice and housing.  Margaret’s role as an advocate for First Nations people followed closely the footsteps of her Métis mother, Josette Work, who helped to end slavery among the north coast tribes, and who at her death was recognized by the legislature for her “many good deeds” as an honoured pioneer.[i]

Public service was a natural choice for Chase.  She came from a family tradition of political activity, beginning with great-grandfather John Work, a Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and a member of Vancouver Island’s Legislative Council.  Others served, at all levels of government.  As Chase grew up, her youngest great-uncle, Edward Gawler Prior, was Premier of B.C.

Of course, in this era women were barred from public office.  Woodhouse recounted her grandmother Margaret taking her to elections, where she voiced her anger as an unrepresented taxpayer to the men at the polls.  Afterwards she would tell young Chase, “But you will have the vote.” [ii] Indeed she would, and a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Chase’s father moved the family to the U.S. by the time she graduated from high school.  However, with her parents’ encouragement, she returned to Canada to study at McGill University, where she was one of the first women to receive a Masters Degree in Economics in 1913.  Against societal expectations, she persevered with doctoral work at the Universities of Berlin and Chicago. 

Following her mother’s teaching profession, Chase Going Woodhouse taught at the college and university level.  After serving in significant government appointments, her desire for socio-economic change for women propelled her to seek office.  She was elected to Congress in 1945, and subsequently re-elected for a second term.  In between, she held the fascinating post-war appointment of economic advisor to the Allied Military Governor of Germany – a long way from her roots in Victoria.  Yet, like her grandmothers and mother before her, Woodhouse proved her endurance at the forefront of change.  Fittingly, she named her only daughter Margaret.

©Vanessa Winn

[i] British Colonist, January 31 & February 1, 1896.

[ii] Brooks, Andree.  New York Times, May 10, 1981.

See more info and reviews of Vanessa's book, The Chief Factor's Daughter