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Research capsule

A feminist look at society

As a young mother in the 1970s and a professor in the Department of Sociology and the Institut de recherches et d’études féministes at Université du Québec à Montréal, Francine Descarries was drawn to the feminist movement, which was becoming increasingly vocal. The subject came to her attention less through her reading than by her own observations of the situation of women at work and in society in general.

Feminism may have been very vocal at the time, but universities were not yet in tune. When Descarries proposed her Master’s thesis topic at Université de Montréal (UdeM), she was one of the few to work on a feminist topic. Published in 1980 under the title L’École rose… et les cols roses, her book offered an early feminist view of the gendered division of labour and social reproduction at school and in the world or work. It would also contribute a great deal to the rise of gender relations analysis in Québec.

In 1978, with two other lecturers, Descarries designed the first course on what was then called “the condition of women” at UdeM. At the doctoral level, she was forced to branch off into the sociology of science, as there was no professor able to direct her in the writing of a feminist thesis. It was not her first compromise. As a teenager, she left school after the death of her father to go to work, so that her brother could continue his medical studies. It was at the age of 27, at Cégep Édouard-Montpetit, that her journey towards higher education really began.

Transforming social—and domestic—relations

Today, Francine Descarries is a seminal figure in feminist studies in Québec. “For me, feminist studies form a critical approach and an issue for action that aim to profoundly transform gender relations, and the way we think, speak and act about gender,” she explains.

More of a sociological feminist than a feminist sociologist, Descarries tracks gender bias in the production of knowledge and cultures, deconstructs dominant theoretical models in order to impose gender as a critical category for analysis, introduces the words and experiences of women in methodology and questions the production/reproduction of inequalities between men and women and between women themselves. Because women do not form a homogeneous group and have very different needs depending on their social position, the feminist analysis must adopt an intersectional perspective.

Descarries observes that feminist studies are still marginalized in the field of science, but she believes that the knowledge they generate imposes new directions on mainstream thought and challenges many of its paradigms. The Expert@ database, published on line by the Réseau québécois en études féministes (RéQEF), lists more than 300 university researchers working in the field of feminist, gender and women’s studies. Québec now has four university institutes of feminist studies.

Changing behaviours and mindsets is a long process. “The mental load of family life, for example, weighs heavier on women and is an obstacle to many careers,” points out the researcher. “The structures of society have evolved, and attitudes as well, but that is difficult to translate into everyday activities. We need to rethink social relations in terms of greater equality and equity.”