New Book Broadens the Lens for Teaching About Gendered Violence

With violence against women increasingly under the spotlight, we invited authors Chris Bruckert and Tuulia Law to discuss their new book, Women and Gendered Violence in Canada: An Intersectional Approach.

Contemporary feminist actions – everything from Slut Walks to the #MeToo movement – are drawing renewed attention to the ongoing urgency of violence against women. This is certainly encouraging. All around us we see feminists ‒ socially engaged, mindful of intersectionality, and critical of essentialist presentations – build on the work of earlier socialist, working class, Indigenous, and racialized scholars and activists. But sometimes it feels like we keep having the same conversations, leading us to wonder: what has really changed?

In Women and Gendered Violence in Canada, we balance celebrating the significant progress made ‒ certainly it would be unthinkable for today’s parliamentarians to laugh and jeer as they did in 1982 when Margaret Mitchell raised the issue of battered women in the House of Commons – with acknowledging that much remains to be done. Consider, for example, the compelling, emotion-evoking, and all too familiar representation of gendered violence ‒ a lone (often youthful and white) woman, bruised, dejected, looking away/down or staring forward with terror-filled eyes. This image, though deployed to admirable effect, obscures much – context, agency, resistance, diversity ‒ at the same time as it limits the frame to interpersonal violence (by individual men). Endeavouring to expand beyond these parameters, Women and Gendered Violence in Canada attends to a range of inter-related and mutually reinforcing sources, forms, and sites of gendered violence.

Women and Gendered Violence in Canada mobilizes the concepts of intersectionality and interlocking systems of oppression to unpack the ways violence inflicted on women is rooted in social, political, and economic systems that work through and with patriarchy, including colonialism, neoliberalism, capitalism, and national and global economies. From this point of departure it follows that women’s vulnerability to, and experience of, violence is shaped by intersecting aspects of their identities, social location, and negotiation (or rejection) of gender norms. Our use of the term gendered rather than gender-based violence reflects our conceptual framing; while gender is the unifying thread, the diverse instances and forms of violence women experience are rooted in a multiplicity of factors intersecting with gender. This allows us to include violence to which women are vulnerable that does not originate in gender but is a more indirect outcome of gender inequity and scripts (e.g., nurses’ experience of violence from patients and their families, violence for which they are routinely blamed by supervisors). It also broadens the scope of perpetration beyond individual men to violence committed by agents of the state (e.g., the neglect and abuse of Indigenous women by police), by women (e.g., domestic workers at the hands of their employers), by co-workers and customers in the workplace (e.g., the verbal violence endured by call-centre workers), indirectly as the result of policies (e.g., austerity measures that culminate in ill health), and emanating from the criminal justice system (e.g., the deployment of psychotropic medications to regulate incarcerated women).

At the same time we hold that recognizing gendered violence as embedded in our social fabric and acknowledging the complex ways it ripples through women’s lives is not tantamount to ascribing women the master status of victim. All too often the many ways women have contested, challenged, and subverted that which would oppress them is written out of history (an erasure that is, of course, another manifestation of gendered violence). In Women and Gendered Violence in Canada we pay homage to our resilient and brave foremothers – the Indigenous women who, in the face of violent assimilation efforts, kept oral history alive and safeguarded traditional teachings; the generations of Black women who fought tirelessly against segregated public spaces and services; the women garment industry workers who stood shoulder to shoulder with their union brothers to contest exploitative labour practices. We also highlight and celebrate the many faces of contemporary women’s resistance – from everyday acts, to subtle (and not so subtle) calling out of sexism, to clever social media campaigns, to dramatic protests ‒ simultaneously drawing attention to the ways intersecting identities and interlocking systems of oppression constrain (or facilitate) the tactics and strategies women can mobilize. For us, foregrounding individual and collective action, and the limits of what is possible, is part of a larger commitment to grounding the analysis in women’s lives and experiential knowledges. To that end we also spotlight first-person accounts throughout the book.

Women and Gendered Violence in Canada is organized to reflect the progression of an undergraduate course while providing pedagogical flexibility. The introductory section lays out the conceptual and contextual framing for the remainder of the text. The following three sections (each with three chapters) are organized around types of violence: interpersonal, workplace, and structural. In turn, each of the substantive chapters highlights specific elements/manifestations of gendered violence. We have endeavoured to bring cohesion to the collection not only through consistent engagement with the contextual and conceptual framing presented in the introductory section but also via recurring themes that cut across the chapters, including: historical context; resistance, subversion, and agency; the impact of neoliberalism; critical consideration of criminal justice solutions and protectionist policy; reflections on feminist approaches; consideration of the dialectic relationship of myths, social judgement, and state responses; and the foregrounding of experiential evidence. Throughout, we draw on rich Canadian scholarship, illustrated using examples from regions across the country, and put the focus firmly on our unique legal and policy contexts. Inevitably this means harsh light is shed on the ways structural inequality and bias manifest in, for example, anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, and ongoing colonialism. It also means some beloved national myths ‒ multiculturalism, meritocracy, post-racism ‒ are challenged.

In our experience, today’s students welcome the opportunity for critical engagement. They also welcome the opportunity to see themselves in the material they study. To that end we self-consciously sought to ensure the book feels relevant to university-aged students by examining topics they encounter in their daily lives (e.g., sexism on campus, routine intrusions on the street, school dress codes, cyber bullying); this helps to render the links between everyday occurrences, social structures, and gendered violence visible and positions readers to appreciate the ways we are all caught up in systems that create the conditions of possibility for gendered violence.

Like teachers everywhere we dream of classrooms that are dynamic learning environments filled with engaged students as excited about the material as we are. All too often our experience falls short; we find ourselves trying to lay the groundwork with little opportunity (or time) for nuanced engagement to manifest. In writing this book we sought to make theories accessible through application, as well as to introduce students to key concepts, pivotal ideas, and foundational knowledge upon which instructors can build to make the material fresh and timely. After all, in the perpetually-shifting terrain in which gendered violence occurs there are (sadly) always emerging issues to explore: a new provincial government that promises to revitalize neoliberal policies, a novel and exciting (or depressing) social media campaign, a pivotal court ruling. In this way the book can be useful for educators who are interested in integrating active learning and student-centred pedagogy into their classrooms through exercises and activities that facilitate deep learning. To that end, we included a suggested activity at the end of each chapter that teachers may wish to use or adapt. The last activity asks readers to consider how their thoughts have evolved since beginning the text. This reflects our (admittedly lofty) goal of contributing to what we are seeing all around us ‒ contemporary feminists (and others interested in social justice) taking on gendered violence, stubborn stereotypes, and tired tropes in creative and innovative ways.

Chris Bruckert is Professor of Criminology at the University of Ottawa, and Tuulia Law is Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Science at York University. To find out more about their new book Women and Gendered Violence in Canada: An Intersectional Approach, click here.