“I Hate Feminists!”
December 6, 1989 and its Aftermath
“I Hate Feminism:” An Account of December 6, 1989, and Its Aftermath, by Melissa Blais. Melbourne, Australia; Spinifex Press, 2015,
A scholarly account of how feminists, non-feminists, and antifeminists shaped the collective memory of the 1989 killing of fourteen young women in Montreal who were studying to become engineers.
On December 6th, 1989, Mark Lepine entered the Ecole Polytechnique where young women were studying for their final exams. Declaring “I Hate Feminists!,” he killed fourteen of them and wounded fourteen more before shooting himself. A note found in his pocket and released two days later listed other women and men whom he planned to kill. These were vocal feminists or female leaders who had achieved success in traditionally male professions.
Melissa Blais is interested in how groups develop collective memories of specific events, especially horrible ones like these murders. She defines herself as a feminist and is interested in the role that feminist analysis has played in the process of social creation of memory. This book was originally her dissertation for a Ph.D. in Sociology. She has conducted careful research into the response to the killings in its immediate aftermath and at the commemorations of the event 10 and 20 years later. The book is not easy reading. At times her writing becomes entangled in academic jargon and attention to what other scholars have said on the topic of the collective memories. Her determination to present all positions fairly sometimes results in confusion over who took which position. Her work is important, however, both inside and outside academia. She helps us see just how feminism gets attacked and diluted by those who oppose its fundamental message.
The initial response to the killings was dramatic. Expressing outrage and fear, feminists viewed the attack as linked to the high rates of violence against women and their overall debasement in society. Although their specific positions varied, feminists quickly reached an overall consensus. Some men, whom Blais calls profeminists, were supportive of feminists and shared this consensus. All stressed the factual evidence of Lepine’s intent to harm feminists and other women stepping into the public sphere. Their efforts to commemorate the killings after ten and twenty years are evidence of their continuing commitment to express their views and work for social change. Their voices received limited mainstream coverage, however.
The positions taken by non-feminists were more varied than those of feminists, and they reflect views frequently voiced against feminism more generally. Some leaders and journalists sought to play down the tragedy in order to move on, with both women and men working together to forget their pain. A similar position urged that silence and contemplation was the best response to avoid more pain to the relatives and friends of those killed or to the reputation of the school where they studied. These responses increased in the years following the killings. Another approach was to shift attention away from this particular event to focus on the need to end mass violence through gun control. While these positions were not explicitly anti-feminist, they turned the focus away from the fact of women’s vulnerability and any need for social change.
Other responses shifted blame onto feminists and the factual evidence of the killer’s goal of killing feminists was ignored. Psychologists claimed that Lepine’s personal problems were the cause of his action. The violence against him as a child and his failure to succeed in the military or in college were at fault, not negative social factors. Lepine, rather than the women he killed, was the victim. Who he happened to kill was irrelevant. Their focus on the alleged ways in which feminism threatened led to men stating publicly that they were sympathetic to Lepine. Some praised him as a hero who acted out what many men were feeling.
The idea of male suffering grew in importance over the years and contributed to the rising popularity of groups that Blais identifies as “masculinists.” Male suffering became a basic part of the collective memory of the event. Unlike those of feminists, these views were widely expressed in the media. Over time Lepine’s misogyny has been acknowledged, but feminism itself is still seen as the “real” problem. Discussion of the killing includes stereotypes of “bad feminists” who allegedly hate men and refuse to work with them and “good feminists” who are seen as having given up their anger and their calls for change. Those making such claims declare that the women have reached equality with men and feminism is unnecessary. Blais provides strong evidence that statistics on assaults by men on women tell the opposite story.
In 2009, a film was made about the shooting and the debate between feminists and anti-feminists resurfaced. Blais notes that Polytechnique contained elements of both feminist and anti-feminist analysis. The leading woman was a strong woman, wounded in the attack but helping other women to survive. The leading man, however, is more central to the plot. He watches the shootings and is unable to try to stop them. Afterward he is so upset that he commits suicide. While Blais includes men in feminism, she refuses to let pity for men overshadow a feminist analysis of this event.
In her conclusion, Blais discusses the ways in which media shape our collective memories, in this case muting and silencing factual, feminist analysis. She lays out the methods by which this is accomplished and urges women not to let the needs of men to overshadow what happens to actual women in the formation of our collective memory.
Although Blais’s writing is sometimes hard to follow, I believe this book should be read by all who even marginally consider themselves feminists.