Hope has been in short supply lately, whether we look at the climate crisis, the unhoused in some of Canada’s richest cities, the opioid epidemic, gender-based violence or, particularly south of the border, reproductive choice. My time with the Renfrew County inquest and, much briefer, with the Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission inquiry have left me feeling especially hopeless when I read or hear stories about male violence. Some days, I have found myself wondering whether there is any hope at all for its end, when institutions as diverse as the Catholic church and Hockey Canada — to name just two –seem unable to meaningfully understand the violence and toxicity of their cultures or take responsibility to end it.
Women who have heard my name somewhere and have nowhere else to turn often reach out to me. I’ve developed a system to respond to them while also somewhat containing the emotional impact their stories can have on me, but every now and then I receive so many requests for help that I sink into a mire of despair. Last week was one of those weeks; I received two to three emails a day from women who needed much more help than I could offer.
One call for help came from a former client whose file I closed almost 30 years ago. Her ex-partner’s abuse has reactivated, this time focused on her adult child and her grandchildren. Could I help her?
Another came from a woman whose ex has recently been released from jail after being found guilty of sexual abuse of underage girls and now intends to seek significant parenting time with his three young daughters. What should she do?
I also heard from a young woman being stalked by a fellow student who could not get help from her educational institution and from a woman who is terrified about being cross-examined by her father, who is representing himself in criminal court in a case dealing with multiple abuse charges laid against him.
Where’s the hope in any of those stories?
Right in front of me, it turns out. Sitting on my desk, as yet unopened, was a birthday gift from a friend: Maude Barlow’s most recent book, Still Hopeful: Lessons from a lifetime of activism. As I leafed through the first few chapters, I found myself, unwillingly at first, drawn into her hopefulness. As she writes in the first chapter:
“Hope often defies logic and gives us the strength to continue when all the “facts” tell us things are hopeless. Hope helps us to put one foot in front of the other when despair would tell us not to move.”
Barlow is not promoting the naïve hope that everything will turn out all right in the end; she doesn’t believe in what she calls “uninformed optimism.” It’s wise hope; hope that “embraces the possibility of transformation and the understanding that what we do matters. . . .”
Rebecca Solnit wrote about the importance of hope in her 2004 book, Hope in the Dark. Admittedly, there was more reason to feel hopeful then than there seems to be now, but its message still holds meaning today:
“Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. . . To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”
My need for hope found another boost when I stumbled onto a recently released documentary called “The Janes”. It’s available on Crave — watch it if you possibly can.
The Janes was the nickname of an organization officially called the Abortion Counselling Service of Women’s Liberation, which operated in Chicago beginning in the 1960s until Roe v Wade made abortion legal in 1973.
The collective of volunteers reached out to women using signs and ads that read “Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane,” and included a telephone number. Using a closely protected and carefully curated list, callers were referred to doctors who would provide abortions. (The list included notes about doctors not to use because they sexually assaulted women or were otherwise problematic.)
Over time, the women learned how to perform abortions themselves, even though none of them was medically trained, which they saw as preferable to referring women to male doctors who did the work just for the money.
It seems almost a miracle that, except for one police raid in 1972 in which seven members of the collective were arrested (the charges against them were later dropped), the Janes were able to perform 11,000 abortions, without a single loss of life, between 1968 and 1973. One collective member, when reflecting on this, comments wryly in the documentary:
“Men’s underestimating of women’s capabilities worked very well for us.”
The work of the collective was rooted in a commitment to women’s substantive equality that went much farther than just access to abortion. As one woman said:
“I was a warrior for justice.”
Similar networks have existed – and, in many countries, continue to exist – around the world. They are powerful examples of what women can and will do to support one another. They are also proof of the power of people coming together, of movements, of hope.
“Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”
Since action Is undeniably needed, we had all better dig deep to find the hope to inspire us out the door and into the street.