Francine on Feminism: Journalist Analyzes Polytechnique Shooting

It’s been just over 25 years since the massacre that shook Quebec to its core. The shooting at Ecole Polytechnique, which left 14 women dead, raised urgent questions about the state of feminism. Two and a half decades after this volatile act of violence against women, how much progress has been made?

The question was addressed at this year’s Readers Digest Lecture, “Breaking the Silence After École Polytechnique: Women, Violence, and Media.” The talk was held at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business on Friday.

The keynote speaker was Francine Pelletier, a Montreal-based journalist who co-founded the feminist newspaper, La Vie En Rose.

The Polytechnique shooting, carried out by Marc Lepine, occurred on Dec. 6, 1989. The day represents a milestone for feminism, according to Pelletier. The event brought to light the issue of violence against women in the most extreme fashion.

“Nothing this horrible had ever happened here before, and never before, in the long history of mass killings, had women been singled out,” Pelletier said. “And I stress, singled out.”

In one of the day’s most brutal moments, Lepine entered a classroom, told all the men to leave, and then proceeded to gun down nine female students, six of whom died. Before he opened fire, he explicitly told them he “hates feminists.”

Equally disturbing was the media coverage of the shooting, and the hesitancy among some news outlets to label the massacre as violence against women.

“The essence of what happened that night, the fact that women were being murdered because they were women, was ignored and obscured,” Pelletier said. “The closer you were to the event, the greater the denial. But denial there was.”

According to Pelletier, there was a very noticeable difference between French and English media coverage. She mentioned that a Quebec City publication, Le Soleil, didn’t just ignore the sexist motivation behind the massacre, but stated that the killings “had nothing to do with women.”

It took 10 years for the city of Montreal to build a commemorative space for the 14 women, she said.

“And 25 years before there was a collective reckoning, before we all agreed, from the police chief down, that this indeed had been a crime against women,” she continued.

“The fact that it took such a long time to admit the obvious is a sign, I think, that despite visible progress, the last 25 years have not been that kind to women,” she said.

Pelletier brought into question many other issues pertaining to gender inequality. She asked why, despite soaring academic success, women still make less money in the professional world than men?

She attributed this to two major obstacles: violence and hypersexualization. Both of these issues contribute to worldwide sexism, which reinforces the wage gap phenomenon.

The Jian Ghomeshi affair “blew the lid” open concerning violence against women, according to Pelletier. More and more people have chosen to come forward about their experiences with violent sexual abuse since the former “Q” host’s exposure.

While the Ghomeshi scandal unfolded, Sue Montgomery, a former reporter at the Montreal Gazette, along with Antonia Zerbisias from the Toronto Star, created the hashtag, “#BeenRapedNeverReported.” Within 48 hours of its creation, there were over 8 million tweets that acted as “mini confessions of sexual abuse.”

In regards to hypersexualization, Pelletier cited a Princeton study that discovered that anyone, be it man or woman, that is exposed to a naked person will automatically perceive that person to be less “human.”

“The more naked the person, the less we perceive that person as having emotions, intelligence and ethics,” she said.

Hypersexualization is partly due to second wave feminism, according to Pelletier.

She conducted her own study on the subject, where she discovered that most women believe that being sexually assertive contributes to feminism. Results of the same study concluded that men disagree with that notion and do not think that hypersexualization is liberating.

Despite some discouraging facts, Pelletier is still content that feminism is back on the rise.

“It’s acknowledging that we’re not there yet, much more has to be done, and hell yes,” she said, “we’re ready to go the extra mile.”

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