R.E.A.L. Women and the ‘Pro-Family’ Movement


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Opposition occurs along side demands for equality and justice. Patriarchy, like related prejudices such as racism and homophobia, always has defenders. Canadian ‘antis’ who had resisted women suffrage had successors in R.E.A.L. (Realistic, Equal and Active for Life) Women founded in 1983 as a supposedly ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-family’ lobby. Claims to those values were a clever tactical move. In reality the group defended one kind of life and one kind of family, namely a narrow version of the middle-class, heterosexual, and Anglo-Celtic model for which it claimed moral universality. Representative of the ‘New Right’, best known in the United States in the person of Phyllis Schafley and the Eagle Forum, this group has been associated with the Christian Heritage Party and Ontario’s Family Coalition Party. They have opposed birth control other than abstinence and the ‘rhythm method’ and condemned homosexuality as unnatural. They targeted all efforts to give women real control of their own bodies, namely access to birth control and abortion, but their wider agenda constituted an attack on women’s right to determine their own lives in every arena, from employment to politics. R.E.A.L. Women channeled not only conservative hopes for continued entitlement in bedrooms and boardrooms but more pervasive fears about the unpredictability of change in the modern world.

In the U.S., the modern anti-feminist movement organized in response to modern feminists’ renewal of efforts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment beginning in the 1970s. Like her Canadian counterparts, Schlafly idealized the ‘homemaker’, ignoring the reality of most women, who were expected to balance the competing demands of work at home and in the market place, and the failure of the status quo to provide for the protection and security from violence and poverty of women in domestic space. Ironically, however, many Canadians and Americans, not to mention many others in the rest of the world, have attacked feminism as an assault on ‘the’ family and even as an expression of ‘godless Communism. The ‘pro-family’ candidates in the 2011-12 U.S. Republic primary campaigns embody such fears and contradictions. Related apprehension helps explain the similar emergence in Italy of “Eowyn, a group of women associated with the neo-fascist party,” which fought “abortion, divorce, and daycare as destructive of the family,” and Australia’s ‘Women Who Want to Be Women’ (Steuter 297).

Despite its resistance to expanded opportunity, R.E.A.L. Women applied for funding from Canada’s Secretary of State’s Women’s Program, although it had been established to promote equality. That application, successful finally in 1989, prompted strong resistance from Canada’s umbrella feminist group, NAC (the National Action Committee on the Status of Women) that had been founded to promote the recommendations of the Report (1970) of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. The emergence of R.E.A.L. Women encouraged feminists to explain more fully their own perspective on families, namely to distinguish “between what types of families are seen as unacceptable (where there is exploitation, violence, abuse, incest, stifling of growth) and which ones are not only acceptable but indeed deserving of social support (where there is mutual caring, support, respect, commitment and growth)-irrespective of their structure and composition” (Steuter 303).

At the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century, R.E.A.L. Women continues to exist. In the midst of neo-Conservative victories in Ottawa, it is, however, far less visible on the political landscape. Even as the gap between rich and poor deepens and women and children increasingly join the lineups at Food Banks, anti-feminist women and men appear as parliamentarians. In the meantime, it is easy to suspect that R.E.A.L. Women, neo-Conservatism’s ‘reserve army’, will reappear whenever feminism becomes again, as it was in the 1980s, a significant force on the national stage.


Resources & Further Reading

Dubinsky, Karen. 1985. “Lament for a Patriarchy Lost”: Anti – Feminism, Anti – abortion and R.E.A.L. Women. Ottawa: Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women.

Dubinsky, Karen.
1987 a “Really Dangerous: The Challenge of R.E.A.L. Women”. Canadian Dimension 21(6):4-7.

Eichler, Margrit.
1985 “The Pro-Family Movement: Are they For or Against Families?” C.R.I.A.W. working paper, pp. 1-37

Kamerman, Sheila B. and Alfred J. Kahn. Eds. 1997. Family Change and Family Policies in Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Steuter, Erin. 1992. “Women Against Feminism: An Examination of Feminist Social Movements and Anti-feminist Countermovements.” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology. 29:3. 288-

Tatalovich, Raymond. 1997. The Politics of Abortion in the United States and Canada: A Comparative Study. Armonk, N.Y.. M.E. Sharpe.

Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag, Ph.D, FRSC, is a Canadian historian specializing in the modern history of women and children in Canada. She is Professor Emerita of Women's History at the University of British Columbia. In 1988 she won the John A. Macdonald Prize (awarded to the best book in Canadian history) for her study of the lives of women in Canada between the wars, entitled The New Day Recalled. In 1993–94 she served as president of the Canadian Historical Association. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2001. In July 2012 the Royal Society of Canada announced that Strong-Boag would be awarded the J. B. Tyrrell Historical Medal "for outstanding work in the history of Canada."