26 years ago, as a third-year university student and feminist volunteer at the Queen’s Women’s Centre, I felt murder breathing down my neck.
Walking to class every day, the ever-present Kingston slush seeping cold and damp through the seams of my knee-boots, I felt it.
I felt it peering down at me with contempt and loathing from the windows of the men’s residences on campus. The boys, being boys, had once written in their windows with masking tape, in ugly block capitals: NO MEANS YES. NO MEANS SHE’S A DYKE. NO MEANS MORE BEER. NO MEANS KICK HER IN THE TEETH. (I, being a humorless feminist, couldn’t grasp what was so funny about being disregarded, mislabeled, forced to drink, or assaulted.)
I felt it, too, when some asshole tried to call me, “just to talk”, about a letter I’d written to the editors of the Queen’s Journal about those unfunny jokesters and their idiot defenders. (I guess he didn’t like my sense of humor, or indeed the idea of any woman having one that was better than his. I’m glad I wasn’t in when he called.)
I felt it leering at me from behind the trees in Sir John A. MacDonald Park — locally known as Pervert Park because of all the rapes that had happened there. (I never went through there alone by night, and was always on the alert there by day.)
I felt it whenever I rode in a local taxi. The local cab companies, it was rumored, sometimes hired paroled rapists from the local federal prisons: Kingston Pen, Collins Bay, Millhaven. (I always took the back seat, on the opposite side from the drivers. I always kept a hand on the door handle in case I needed to jump.)
And I felt it, most of all, the night one of my fellow volunteers called me to let me know what had happened in Montréal earlier that day. A gunman showed up in an engineering class at a university, she said. First he separated the men from the women. Then he shot the women.
Fourteen women died that day.
Fourteen women paid with their lives for being women in a so-called man’s world.
Fourteen women died because one man was a loser. He wasn’t bright or disciplined enough to make it as an engineer, so he took his rage and frustration (and his years at the hands of an abusive father) out on innocent strangers who had made the cut. They were women entering a field that had been traditionally male until not so long ago? That made them “feminists”. And that, by his perverse reckoning, made them fair game for him and his human-hunting assault rifle.
Fourteen women died just for being women.
And the media couldn’t handle that hard fact. They made a racket about how “insane” the shooter was. Yet they studiously overlooked the fact that he was sane enough to get his hands on a rifle and go undetected for the longest damn time. Too long to save the lives of those fourteen women who died just for being women.
They also didn’t want to make his suicide note public. Officially the reason was “so as not to inspire copycat killings”. Unofficially, however, it was because they could not process the fact that the successes of feminism, as incomplete and frustratingly few as they were, had somehow awoken in this loser a murderous rage. A rage which he nurtured and nourished, silently hatching a vendetta against a hit-list of well-known Québec feminists. A vendetta which had been initially directed against notable media targets like Francine Pelletier, only to be aborted and redirected against easier, less visible targets: the women at the École Polytechnique.
In the end, Mme. Pelletier got her hands on the note, and its contents were made public in their entirety. They revealed not a raving lunatic, nor a pathetic victim, but a calculating, politically motivated murderer with a casus belli, as he himself termed it. (And yes, he used Latin words. He may not have been good enough for engineering school, but he was no illiterate, this bastard.)
Did the media not want to advertise the fact that he had tried and failed to kill members of their own tribe? Members who had gone up against the entrenched sexism of print and broadcast newsrooms and (occasionally, partially) won? Did the media chicken out on revealing the full, true motives for the crime because they, too, felt murder breathing down their necks? Or was it because they, in their own way, were complicit in the silencing and squelching of women?
In the end, the media too committed a massacre, a silent and bloodless massacre. They committed it by not daring to admit a terrorist act as being what it was. They committed it by never uttering the word TERRORISM. They committed it by siding heavily against women, even though we kept raising our voices, demanding that the political and antifeminist nature of the original crime be made widely known. And demanding that something be done about it, damn it.
In the media, as in all other spheres, our feminist campaign for truth and action met with frustratingly small success.
We went on talk shows, and got sneered at and talked over and past by men. Who, being men, always knew better about everything than we women. Of course. We had been given space (but little, and grudgingly) to say our piece, but we could only say a small part of it. We were trotted out to create “debate” but it was not a debate; it was sound-bite sensationalism, designed to get eyes on advertising, not issues.
And then we were shut out again. Everything just flew past us over our pretty little heads…not because we weren’t smart enough to understand it (we did, and better than anyone) but because it was flung by longer and better financed arms, whose reach we could not hope to equal because we were the peons. The playing field was far from level, even if we were finally (all too briefly) allowed to invade the pitch.
I can remember coming back from a taping of the Shirley Solomon show in Toronto the following year. The theme was the Massacre, and once more, the outcome was predictably frustrating. I had a bad feeling about staying in the city, so I bought a Voyageur bus ticket and headed back to Kingston. Once again, something I could not name seemed to be breathing down my neck.
The snow was just starting to fall, in big loose flakes, as I got on the bus; overnight it would grow so heavy that my comrades from the Women’s Centre, who had stayed at a friend’s place overnight in the city, would be barely able to drive through it all. A two-or-three-hour drive would become several hours more before the snowplows and salt trucks finally cleared the roads.
The snow, I thought, smelled like tears. Just as it had the night I cried myself blind on my way back from the memorial service, big wet flakes falling all around, and nameless fears breathing down my neck. Always, in the back of my mind, there was the thought that I could be among the next batch of victims of some man who hates women. It followed me all the way to my graduation and beyond. It didn’t stop me, but it sure as hell STALKED me.
And now, a quarter-century and a year after that massacre, there have been so many other mass shootings. All were described in the same terms as the Montréal Massacre: “senseless crime”; “shocking”; “unexpected”; blah blah blah. Always the shooters were described as “lone”, “mad”, blah blah blah.
And always, the real reasons, the sense behind the “senseless”, would trickle out much later. The reasons varied from crime to crime, but misogyny, like all the bigotries, was heavily represented. Abortion doctors were shot at, wounded, even killed. Women’s clinics were bombed. And always, the perpetrators had a deep-seated loathing for women, disguised hypocritically as “pro-life” glurge. The recent Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado: What is that, if not misogyny feeding terrorism? The shooter even had a record of spousal abuse. How much more blatant a case of anti-woman terrorism could one get?
Well, the Montréal Massacre, maybe. But that’s about it, as far as publicly visible cases go.
At least now, the media are finally starting to get the message: Misogyny, the regarding of women as lesser beings than men, is murderous. It kills thousands of women, all over the world, every day, in acts of domestic terrorism too many and minor to be named as such. It prostitutes indigenous women on the streets of Canadian cities and towns, and then “disappears” them seemingly without a trace. This gradual, belated visibility of the problem has been due to feminists working relentlessly to make the media see and report it. If not for us, they’d still be sweeping it under that big old rug.
And yes, sometimes we’ve won outright victories. The long gun registry was the work of feminists lobbying for new firearms legislation that would put assault weapons out of the reach of anyone not in uniform. It was a proud moment when that one was signed into law, over the “protests” (read: death threats and letter bombs sent to feminists) of those who’d bought into the gun lobby’s violent propaganda.
It was a sucker punch to see that one gutted by the Harper government. It came as no surprise to see “deranged” shooters taking immediate, ruthless advantage of that gutting. If we don’t want to lose big-time, again, we have to make sure that guns, the ultimate silencers, are kept out of hateful hands.
And it is now our job to get the registry back, the same way we got it enacted in the first place: through years of relentless pushing, letter-writing, petitioning, and voting for candidates who would make it law. Already Québec is leading the way by proposing one of its very own at provincial level. Vive la Belle Province…
And in the US, they have a bigger battle still. Politicians are being actively bought off by “campaign contributions” from the NRA. I don’t envy my friends down there for the “freedom” that could kill any one of them at any moment, unchecked. I don’t envy them their Second Amendment, which has made so much bullet-ridden hash of their First. And I certainly don’t envy them the amount of work they have to do, in the wake of a year of unprecedented bloodshed — more than a mass shooting a day! — to finally get some political action, rather than just “thoughts and prayers”, on this long-festering problem.
Bill Clinton recently pointed out that once the federal assault weapons ban expired, in 2005, the number of mass shootings went up dramatically. Just a malign coincidence, the gun lobbyists cry. And the media back them up, too, nitpicking his claim to death and ignoring its larger truth. Define “mass shooting”, as narrowly as possible! Blame the crazy people, the drug addicts, Reefer Madness! Blame everyone but those who really are to blame. After all, the gun cartel must get its pound of flesh…otherwise all that sweet, sweet lobby money will have gone for nothing! It works the same way for handgun and assault-weapons manufacturers as it does for the entirety of the Military-Industrial complex; they’re not happy unless people are killing or dying, because mass death drives the sales up something awful.
The biggest difficulty, as always, is getting one’s message out over the clatter from the right-wing noise machine that has dominated politics and media for too long. But it’s essential to do that, because how else are you going to get politicians to listen and act? How are you going to get out the vote? How are you going to make sure that there is, in fact, a noise-free space to debate in at all?
I have no advice for our US friends other than to learn from our history and follow our example. Remember the fourteen women of the Polytechnique, yes. Remember all the other victims of mass shootings, too. But don’t just remember; do something. Keep doing. Keep pushing. Keep writing letters. Keep petitioning and keep voting.
It’s only the winds of full-scale social change that can blow the breath of murder off your neck, in the end.