Homophobia near and far

Among the most challenging tasks of activism (for me, at least) is persistence: having the energy to keep on keeping on. This is especially true in relation to battles that I thought were done (at least in relative terms). The anti-gay legislation in Russia -and, importantly, its violent effects- clearly illustrate that incomplete civil rights gains can be retracted and taken-for-granted social norms (navigating more or less thinly veiled homophobia) can shift dramatically. If you haven’t read Masha Gessen’s piece on this point, you should.

Russian anti gay laws

The situation is frightening, and the best thing I can say about the upcoming winter Olympics is that at least it is providing opportunities to draw attention to these laws and their effects.

Persisting in the face of hate speech is exhausting–it takes a physical, mental, and emotional toll. This is why there is, in my opinion, a place for equalities legislation and inclusivity policy. Yes, it will always be an incomplete project, and yes, it should be understood as a process rather than a product; still, these strategies have value. They are not enough, but they help to identify the kind of civil society we want to live in and help to hold people and governments accountable for their (in)ability to enact that vision.

So, in another part of the world (and one with which I am more intimately acquainted), in a very different context than the situation in Russia, I am watching with great interest the municipal response to a hate speech incident which targeted my colleagues-friends. The situation was widely broadcast in the local media and beyond: a Lethbridge, Alberta-based theatre received complaints from some neighbouring business owners that qualified as homophobic vitriol: “homosexual lifestyles, transsexual endorsement, child molestation, rape, indecent exposure and acquiring STDs from the building’s toilets”. The “concerns” were taken to City Hall, and the administrative response was a swift modification to the permitting process (the theatre company had moved and was in the midst of dealing with licensing). The result: the theatre could not re-open without City Council approval, and it was being re-framed by the City as an “adult theatre”.

Over the course of the past two days, the situation seems to have been resolved in a relatively neat fashion. The theatre company posted the following on their website today:

theatre outre commentary-11 2.12 PM 30 janI am heartened by the response that Theatre Outre received from supporters, their landlord, and some City Councillors. However, I think that the situation Theatre Outre faced indicates that there is much work to be done to confront homophobia within City government and among Lethbridge’s diverse communities. I addressed these concerns in my letter, pasted below and sent earlier today, to the mayor and City administrators.

30 January 2014


Dear Mayor Spearman and members of the City of Lethbridge administration,


I am writing in response to the issues surrounding Theatre Outré’s Bordello, and the City’s response to this controversy. Bordello is both an important theatre venue and an essential community resource in Lethbridge. Theatre Outré, which operates Bordello, is a theatre company that has been celebrated locally, nationally and internationally. It is strongly supported by local citizens and financially supported by the City of Lethbridge and the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. It is not an “adult space” and should not be treated as such by City administrative policy.


Bordello welcomes audiences from across the gender spectrum and tackles important social issues like social difference (whether in terms of gender, race, sexuality or other type of diversity) through an arts-based practice. This kind of resource is essential to any community, and it should be especially valued in a community like Lethbridge, which has made a commitment to developing a “healthy and diverse city” and a “culturally vibrant city” through its ICSP/MDP Corporate Strategic Plan and by signing onto the CMARD policy initiative. Supporting Bordello and making sure that this theatre can thrive in Lethbridge fit neatly within these strategies, which makes facilitating the re-opening of Bordello in the best interest of the City.


It appears that homophobic hate speech from some of the community’s business owners was able to trigger an administrative response by the City, to re-route Bordello from one type of licensing process to another (unwarranted) licensing process. This demonstrates a disconnect between the City’s social policy initiatives, which aim to support building a welcoming and inclusive community, and its business practices, which did the opposite in this case.


As a former member of the Lethbridge community, and as a person who conducts research on the life stories and experiences of exclusion (and being made to feel different) of Lethbridge’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer (LGBTQ) communities, I am well-placed to comment on the effect that homophobia and uneducated hate speech has on those who call Lethbridge home. The type of defamation directed at Bordello feeds intolerant and violent attitudes and behaviours, which profoundly affect people’s understanding and experience of the place they call home. Thus, the City’s response matters tremendously: it can either facilitate further intolerance or shut such divisive behaviours down. I hope that the City chooses the latter route and shows leadership in educating the diverse population of Lethbridge that bullying one community has a immense negative impact on the community as a whole.


I look forward to learning how City leaders and administrators will respond to this issue. Please contact me if I can be of assistance by, for example, sharing the data that I have collected from the Lethbridge LGBTQ oral history project. I would be happy to do so for City leaders and for the community at large.




Tiffany Muller Myrdahl, PhD

Ruth Wynn Woodward Junior Chair

Simon Fraser University


Principle Investigator: The Lives of (Sexual) Others: Social difference and urban change in Lethbridge, Alberta

This is an ongoing SSHRC and University of Lethbridge funded research project



Garth Sherwin, City Manager, City of Lethbridge 

Bary Beck, Director of Community Services, City of Lethbridge 

Diane Randell, Community & Social Development Manager, City of Lethbridge 

Theatre Outre

beyond the journal article

This fall, I was given the opportunity to bring my research into the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery as part of a larger exhibit about queer lives and social activism. I designed the exhibit to highlight a few of the themes that have emerged through the oral history collection: as the images below illustrate, the small wall of the exhibit offers an introduction and overview and the larger wall consists of the three topics -Policy Matters, Keeping It “Normal”, and Being & Feeling In Place- around which I organized narrators’ quotes. (Read more about the research and the exhibit content here.)IMG_7678

The exhibit opened last Thursday. It was incredibly gratifying for me to see the work that has occupied most of my waking hours in the last six weeks come to life on the walls of the gallery. More than that, though, it is really exciting to be making these stories visible to a wider audience, and in a format that is different than the typical scholarly options (journal article, book) that remain the most valued form of research dissemination. IMG_0835

The fact is that most of the narrators who have contributed to this oral history-social geography project won’t be interested in reading a scholarly monograph, even if it is priced and written to be accessible to a more-than-scholarly audience. As a result, without an exhibit like this, most narrators would not get a sense for how their stories and their experiences of queer place-making compare to others’ stories and experiences. The LGBTQ ‘community’ here has much in common with queer communities in other cities: what may appear to be one ‘LGBTQ community’ in Lethbridge is in fact many communities, divided by the usual factors (e.g., generation, class, race) as well as some additional features (like one’s status as a local or transplant to southern Alberta). Thus, while stories of queer place-making and comfort and safety are certainly shared among friends, the opportunities for dialogue across LGBTQ folks in Lethbridge are limited. IMG_0836

Given that this archive is a community resource (and, in the best case scenario, a tool for community building), I feel a sense of responsibility to share these stories in a way that will make a difference to the narrators’ lives. There are a number of ways that the project aims to enact ‘making a difference’; for instance, it has been clear from the start of the research that the oral histories would be donated to the local historical society, to become part of a public archive and contribute to the official local historical record. This exhibit is another effort toward ‘making a difference’: it gives LGBTQ voices and experiences space and visibility not often afforded in the Lethbridge region. And I hope that it will spark conversation within the LGBTQ communities and beyond, in a way that considers the opportunities and challenges of queer place-making in and around Lethbridge.


Re-framing the story of the city through feminist urban futures

This is the keynote I gave at the Women Transforming Cities conference in May, along with the accompanying powerpoint that wasn’t captured in the video. The three main points:

  • Re-frame the story to shift the policy. Here, I focus on troublesome existing models of stakeholders interests and re-visit Ford’s “war on the car”.
  • Embracing, tweaking, and expanding the tools at our disposal. I discuss participatory process and other interventions (equity lens, tactical urbanism, collaborative art practices, etc) with a critical edge.
  • Addressing equity in cities means using an intersectional lens: our experiences of the city are marked and produced through multiple and intersecting power relations.

T Muller Myrdahl Interventions keynote

[Podcast] Making Cities Work for Women: Gender Equality and Social Inclusion in Urban Policy

the city


Dr. Sylvia Bashevkin and urban planner Prabha Khosla speak at the Women Transforming Cities National Conference convened on May 30, 2013. Dr. Bashevkin is Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto and author of Tales of Two Cities: Women and Municipal Restructuring in London and Toronto (UBC Press). Ms. Khosla is an urban planner who works on cities, equalities, and democratic local governance. She has worked on issues of women’s rights and gender equality, social inclusion, urban sustainability, urban environments, democratizing local governance, water and sanitation, and training and capacity building for close to twenty years. Her recent publications include A Training Package: Improving Gender Equality and Grassroots Participation through Good Land Governance and Gender in Local Government: A Sourcebook for Trainers.

Dr. Bashevkin’s speaks to the question – How do women transform cities? – and Ms. Khosla discusses gender equality and social inclusion in municipal policies and…

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Women Transforming Cities, the conference (part 1)

Last Thursday, May 30, the first Women Transforming Cities (WTC) conference was held in downtown Vancouver, hosted by Simon Fraser University. It was a remarkable event: the culmination of a year (plus) of planning and organizing, and one of the rare instances with a structured forum for discussion among elected officials, planners, academics, activists, NGO leaders, students, and others (none of these groups being necessarily mutually exclusive, of course). Moreover, it was one of the few opportunities in a conference setting to participate in a focused conversation about how the full diversity of women are and are not being served by and within their municipalities. And the conference was unique in its emphasis on outcome: alongside the keynote speeches, there were six break-out sessions whose goal was, in part, to identify and develop best practices and recommendations to address the barriers that women face in their everyday lives. The intent is for these best practices and recommendations to be passed onto municipal leaders through a series of (not currently coordinated) efforts:

  • the advocacy of the electeds in attendance, who would raise the profile of the issues both in their home venues (wards/ constituencies/ etc.) and with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) conference, which the WTC conference preceded;
  • the advocacy of the FCM, from its leaders and from the organization, ideally;
  • by WTC and its ability to maintain the profile of these issues through its web/social media presence, through ongoing events, and through coalition building, and this may lead to:
  • the involvement of other NGOs, artists, funding agencies, and others to develop their own leadership role in generating change for a full diversity of women and girls in cities.
Note taker during break-out session. Photo credit: Ellen Woodsworth

Note taker during break-out session. Photo credit: Ellen Woodsworth

I served as both an organizer and keynote speaker at the conference, having become part of WTC through my position as Junior RWW Chair at SFU. I will write more about the content of my keynote in an upcoming post, but here I want to revel in the opportunity the conference provided to hear from leaders in so many different fields, all of whose work is making a tremendous contribution to making cities work for women, girls, and marginalized communities more broadly. The following are just a few of the highlights that I had the chance to see:

  • Lillian Howard, Co-Chair of the City of Vancouver’s Urban Aboriginal Peoples Advisory Committee, provided greetings and offered a blessing. In her address, she relayed that the Urban Aboriginal Peoples Advisory succeeded in one of its key recommendations: to encourage the City to designate a Year of Reconciliation in Vancouver. The Year of Reconciliation will begin on June 21, 2013. For me, Howard’s message highlighted the important movements that can begin out of institutionalized opportunities for under-represented groups to become involved in municipal politics and city building.
  • Kristyn Wong-Tam, Councillor for the City of Toronto, emphasized the need to attend to city financing when addressing equity in cities. Whereas participatory budgeting is picking up steam in cities around the world, gender budgeting is not. This means two things: first, attention needs to be given to how city budgets address the needs of women, girls, and marginalized communities; and second (my addition), participatory budgeting is insufficient if it too is not fully inclusive. In short, it matters who participates. Wong-Tam is also the first elected I’ve heard talking about public banks, which I’m now excited to learn more about.
  • Caroline Andrew, Director of the Centre for Governance at the University of Ottawa and President of Women in Cities International (among other activities), provided lessons for developing and maintaining partnerships to transform cities. Two of the most significant take-away points for me were: a) partners may not have shared aims at the outset of a project, but those shared aims can/must develop over time; and b) establishing trust between partners is often not a short term investment. As such, workable partnerships that are grounded in trust often sit in tension with funding cycles. Consider, for example, one-year project funding: this time frame likely encourages NGOs to seek out others with whom they have already worked (which may be to their benefit, and it may have the (unintended) consequence of reducing the field of possible players involved). As I have written about previously, the vagaries of funding -and the ways that funding drives social change activism- are an interest of mine. After hearing this conference address, I’m adding trust between partners to my list of the many invisible elements that are implicated in the relationship between funding and change activism.
  • Angela Marie MacDougall, Executive Director of the Battered Women’s Support Services, described in clear terms the sacrifice zones inhabited by many women in the Downtown Eastside. One of the most striking moments of MacDougall’s talk for me was the following question, which was recorded in the Vancouver Observer by fellow panellist Linda Solomon: “How can it really be that we could create a climate in the city that would create apathy when members of our community were dying?” In retrospect, I wish that MacDougall had forced a pause following that question, long enough for the audience to become uncomfortable. Because it should make us uncomfortable. And it should make us enraged. And it should compel us into action.


Angela Marie MacDougall. Photo credit: Ellen Woodsworth

Angela Marie MacDougall. Photo credit: Ellen Woodsworth

The next post will feature another instalment on the conference, including additional highlights from the speakers and sessions. Stay tuned for Thursday!

Taking account of social change

How does substantive social change happen? There are myriad responses to this question, obviously. For some, meaningful change takes place through policy and in the courts. Others argue that the root of change happens in classrooms. And there are those who suggest that change only comes through on-the-streets activism. Certainly, #IdleNoMore and Occupy remind us that innovative uses of public space – and the claiming of public space – play a significant role in generating action that aims to change hearts, minds, laws, and policies.

To my mind, the answers to this question are not – indeed, cannot be – mutually exclusive. The legwork of social change happens on the streets, in the classroom, online, in the hallowed halls of government, in the less hallowed halls of not-for-profit agencies (NGOs), through the media, and so on. Indeed, having too narrow an imagination for social change strategies is a recipe for disappointment. At the same time, developing an over-reliance on one method or site of social change will inevitably fail to produce the kind of change that its proponents seek (assuming, of course, that proponents are aiming for fundamental social or policy shifts).

This is, perhaps, a less idealistic, more pragmatic view of strategizing for social change. It is one borne of privilege, certainly; being assigned and located within privileges based on certain race, class, and other markers of social position informs my outlook on working outside and inside systems of governance. Equally, this view stems from being/ having been situated in various activist and institutional contexts that approach social change very differently. Although I am currently located in academia, my NGO and policy school days are anything but a distant past: both continue to inform my outlook on social change strategies.

During my former NGO life, I worked in a variety of direct service and management capacities where I learned to balance the immediate needs demanded by service work with the organizational politics associated with NGO survival. This meant, among other things, needing to continuously demonstrate one’s value to funders. In the NGO where I primarily worked in my early 20s, the demand to showcase the worth of any given program functioned as a layer over and above internal strategies for program evaluation. And it involved crafting stories to concisely characterize the outcomes of our programs in a way that was quantifiable and legible to funders. This was no small task given that the mandate of our volunteer-driven programs was to provide supportive resources for women to improve their own lives. How one quantifies the needs met by, say, a coming out support group (to name one example), and does so while remaining accessible (as in, free to users), is tricky. Fee-for-service models or demonstrations of growth as a result of client demand – tactics suggested by funders and supported by some management staff – were not adequate measurements of our program delivery. So, we all did a dance that appears to be commonplace in the NGO sector: a precarious jig that keeps programs afloat in a way that serves the client-population, while somehow providing deliverables that meet the needs of funders.

From the NGO sector, I went to policy school, where I was trained to look at social change differently: although the approach was couched in the language of social change, it focused on deliverables and evaluatable outcomes, and deliverables were defined in part by the ease with which they were evaluated. I struggled with the prevailing logic there, which foregrounded program evaluation and left under-theorized the systemic violence that policies and programs are meant to address. Which is to say that I struggled with the tools that I was being taught to use to facilitate social change. Yet, it was also in policy school where I learned to look with critical eyes at the troublesome investments that we make by expecting institutions to engender widespread social and policy reform. In particular, I have Sally J. Kenney and the texts we read together (Bureaucracy and The Hollow Hope spring to mind) to thank for encouraging a thoughtful interrogation of the (dis)incentives that bureaucrats and institutions have to initiate substantive change.

As an academic, I have a privileged distance to the kind of program development and delivery I conducted as an NGO worker, and an equally privileged distance to the kind of policy development and implementation that many from my policy school cohort pursued. Since I sit on the board of two NGOs, I am not completely removed from grantwriting or program development and evaluation. However, my relationship to the way that social change strategies function within these sectors is qualitatively different now that I am situated as a participant-observer of sorts. Whatever challenges come with being located in the academy (and there are many), this position offers an opportunity to take a wider view: of political-economic context in which the demands for social change emerge; of the intended and unintended effects of social policy and participatory planning; and of the relationship of process to product.

My current academic position also allows me the opportunity to create forums to discuss questions like this one, about the tools we use to generate social change. The first of these forums, a Policy & A Pint event called “Engaging Diverse Communities”, will be held on February 7 at SFU Woodward’s. The panel, which includes a fantastic set of folks representing the City of Vancouver, the City’s Urban Aboriginal Peoples’ Advisory Committee, NGOs (Purple Thistle, PeerNet BC, and LOVE BC), and the Vancouver Foundation, will address how structures like funding streams create opportunities for diverse communities to develop programming and have access to policymakers, while at the same time pose a challenge in the way that they reproduce divisions across a diverse population. My goal will be to facilitate a dialogue – among panellists and with the audience – that will give people a forum to share the successes and constraints of existing social change structures, with the aim of generating some take-away lessons: perhaps a tangible practice that could inform the writing of granting guidelines or program development, or maybe a process-based approach that might influence the City’s ability to engage citizens in ways that reflect an intersectional reading of Vancouver’s diverse population. Or at least the dialogue may provide a starting point toward tangible outcomes.
Eventbrite - Policy & A Pint: Engaging Diverse Communities

The event is free and there will be light snacks and a cash bar. Please join us for what will certainly be a stimulating discussion! Click here to download the poster.

policy and pint ad final-rev

technocratic tendencies

sennett tweetLoath as I am to squash the dreams of the young and impressionable (or the wise and not-impressionable, for that matter), Richard Sennett’s recent piece in The Guardian compels me to address a common misapprehension about urban planning: that is, urban planning is less “sidewalk ballet” and more “instruction manual”. Those who come to urban planning via Jane Jacobs’ idealistic descriptions of Greenwich Village, or by way of the smart writing about Canadian cities in Spacing, may be surprised to find that the work of planners is often dominated by bureaucratic concerns, such as negotiating zoning policies that have longer staying power than any sitting city council.

Indeed, urban planning’s technocratic tendencies are caused in part by its function: that is, planning as a strategy to govern space. The very origins of urban planning can be located in the division of land into “appropriate” uses – and users. Thus, it should be no surprise that urban planning is at its base focused on the procedural elements of municipal policy (in particular, how to operationalize policy within a context of a) competing interests and b) bureaucratic disincentives to change).

Yet, there remains a tension between the romantic ideals that are ascribed to planning – as in, the ability to create vibrant communities through urban design – and the functional purpose of planning. This is the tension that I aimed to draw out in my snarky tweet about Sennett’s article: “What? A GPS won’t provide a sense of community?!”

Don’t get me wrong: interesting, dynamic, well-used public spaces are often the product of good planning, just as poor planning can inhibit the use of urban space. But, as Sennett identifies, planning is best when it responds to and reflects the “complex tissues of local life”. Planning that is only prescriptive in its attempt to shape the urban experience is planning at its worst.

The thing that strikes me most about Sennett’s argument is that he even needs to make it. The fact that he needs to specify that “efficient” urban living may be attainable but is not desirable should serve as a reminder that urban planning must actively confront its masculinist drive to retain top-down control over the spaces that fall under the purview of a master plan. (I’m using masculinist in Cartesian terms here; it refers to an expectation that mind – and men, literally – can control matter.) Top-down control, as Sennett points out, creates passive urban consumers rather than citizens who take ownership over urban spaces to carve out their own sense of place.

“Smart cities” are simply the most recent iteration of the technocratic tendency in urban planning. Given that smart cities can be read to combine a functional definition of efficiency with a clearly defined centre for command and control, I find it entirely unsurprising that they entice planners who subscribe to a Le Corbusier ethic of urban life. However, urban life should not always be efficient (or perhaps efficient needs to be re-defined in a way that accounts for its long-term implications). (On “inefficient” urban life, take a look at this story about learning to look at one’s neighbourhood.) Moreover, many of the most vibrant urban spaces – the spaces that people want to live in and travel to and experience – are those that are defined and developed by their users.

Nov 28 Qs

Pre-meeting Qs from students for the Nov 28 class meeting

On Modlich, Women Plan Toronto (1985 – 2000) and Toronto Women’s City Alliance (2004 – and struggling on)

In the Modlich article we touch on the disconnect between urban planning practices and the needs of women. Does this apply to Vancouver?  Who is favoured during urban planning practices? What are some actions that can be made to avoid this issue?

In Modlich’s article, a woman who had recently immigrated to Canada gave this quote: “I do like to be asked about what we are looking for. Who would ever ask us any other time in our life? It is difficult to get into that frame of mind to be able to speak freely. And after this I have to go back into that other world again and I have to go back and forget about all I have dreamed today.” How does this reflect the current immigrant status in our country?

Based on any intersectionalities or conflicts (perhaps already discussed in class) that you, or anyone you know faces as a woman living in Greater Vancouver, what would your “wouldn’t it be nice” be, if you were asked to take part in a similar participatory research project like the immigrant women in Toronto participated in?

After reading Modlich, I correlated much of what we have learnt this past semester regarding women in geographies, accessibility and sense of place. For instance, while reading Modlich, I got a hint of the semester’s topic on “An Embodied Sense of Place”. The misfits between women in transportation, housing design etc are brought up in this course numerous times, but when does the equality of genders come forth?

On Houston, et al, Still methodologically becoming: collaboration, feminist politics and ‘Team Ismaili’
To what extent is epistemological and ontological unity among researchers engaged in collaborative research necessary? How might tensions affect the outcomes of the research? Should more research be transparent in regards to the power dynamics among the researchers involved in the process?

In the still methodologically becoming article we learn about a collaboration of feminist politics.  What are some examples of feminist politic collaborations in Vancouver? Are there examples in which challenge and reconfirm assumed hierarchies?

On Browne, Power and Privilege

Browne takes a risk by criticizing feminist geography’s heteronormativity; however, she states that she also does “not seek to… point to a right way of doing feminist geographies”, for fear of producing a hegemony of her own. In this postmodern context, how can we present anything as a “feminist” way of doing things, without running the risk of creating power structures that dictate inclusion? Is there a way of doing feminist geography, for example, that we could point to as the best choice, or will we always run into the issue that Browne wanted to avoid?

I enjoyed reading the analysis and “[…] critical examination of the relations of privilege and power […]” that Kath Browne provides in this chapter (p. 140).  I appreciated the fact that Browne presents us with a very optimistic/hopeful outlook on the conflicts and problems she raises, for on page 146 she states that: “[…] we could seek to understand diversity and difference sensitively and positively engage with this in our writings and our interactions with each other.” I really liked this statement because it appears that Browne genuinely supports, and is advocating for individuals to utilize an intersectional lens when dealing with (and dismantling) “[…] power relations between feminist geographers” (p. 140).  I think that this reading serves as a great source for the conclusion of this course/semester, because it addresses and reinforces some important issues that we have also been learning about over the last three months.

Looking at Browne’s critique of power and privilege in institutions and the academy, how does this apply to other careers, or even other aspects of life? What are some ways we can then account for this problem and attempt to correct it, or create more equality here?

Kath Browne’s chapter makes me stop and think about what happens when feminism gains acceptance: when we make progress and establish space, how do we practice our politics? Feminism focuses such a great deal on the process and the fight sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of what happens when you get there. Browne forces the reader to analyze feminist politics, power dynamics, privilege and behavior based on assumptions. [break] In the context of Feminist Geography, Browne notes that feminism as an academic and social movement has a long history of working for recognition within traditional disciplines, in this case geography. Browne notes that feminism can offer much need insight and dynamic perspective to this field but there are steps that need to be taken in order to do that. Feminists must critique their own political dynamics and structure of knowledge recognition and disrupt normative discourses and privileged assumptions in order to add authenticity, value and justice to academia. [break]  This made me question our own academic practices: do we sometimes get so caught up in the process of acquiring knowledge and privileged validity on an individual basis that we lose sight of our own power dynamics and hierarchies within feminism? How does this affect the way we see our environment and subsequently contribute to it? In regard to feminism and feminist geography do we experience sociopolitical trends within the movement that grant value and legitimacy to certain knowledge and individuals over others? Does the concept of post feminism encourage greater knowledge inclusivity versus wave feminism?