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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Girl talk : feminist rights discourse and the struggle for equality Dearing, Christine M.

Abstract

The customs of Western society face increasing pressure as the "postmodern" notion that knowledge and reason are constructs of a discourse that suppresses some aspects of experience and highlights others, gains legitimacy. Feminists have seized this notion of discourse to challenge the way society has marginalized women's existence. Canadian feminists, in particular, have developed a counterdiscourse of rights to challenge the dominant discourse and its formal approach to equality. By lobbying the federal government to entrench a more substantive notion of equality in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; by seeking to protect the spirit of the equality guarantees during the discussions on the Meech Lake Accord; and by acting as intervenors before the Supreme Court of Canada in Andrews v. The Law Society of British Columbia, feminists broadened the conception of equality to include the notion of disadvantage. Many feminists question the use of rights discourse to challenge inequality because of the tendency of traditional legal discourse to rely on precedents that are intrinsically androcentric and to frame issues in rational terms that overlook the relative experiences of women. However, rights discourse can challenge the dominant system by exposing unquestioned norms and symbols; redefining women's identity; and developing a body of law sensitive to women's equality issues. In Canada, rights discourse enjoys additional authority because of the practical and symbolic force of the Charter's constitutional guarantees of equality. Canadian feminist rights discourse illustrates the potential of rights language to shift the dominant meaning of equality by introducing a feminist voice into discussions previously carried out by men. Nonetheless, Canadian feminist rights discourse faces a number of challenges. The postmodern scepticism about theory in general also undermines the theoretical basis upon which feminism is built and allows other counterdiscourses to compete with feminist rights discourse to challenge dominant meanings. As well, feminists must acquire legitimacy for their discourse in the face of institutional structures that give men greater power. The issue of representation must also be addressed to allow feminist rights discourse to speak for the range of women in society. Feminists must work to gain recognition for the idea that society is gendered and that women have suffered oppression as a result. And they must continue to challenge traditional understandings of equality to move us closer to the day when the dominant discourse conceives of equality in substantive terms that incorporate the notions of disadvantage and oppression.

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