That distinction matters. Here’s why
When Marc Lépine walked into Montreal’s École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989, he was there to kill feminists. He was very specific about this, both in the manifesto he wrote and the things he said as he rampaged through the school. “You’re all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists,” he spat when one of his victims tried to defend herself and her classmates. His suicide note blamed feminists for ruining his life and included a list of 19 “radical feminists” that he would have killed if he’d had time.
Lépine left little room for ambiguity when it came to his motive, but when the story is re-told, the word “woman” is often used as a substitute for “feminist,” with turns of phrase like “he was hunting women.” On some level, this transposition is understandable—after all, many feminists are women, feminism is primarily occupied with promoting the advancement of women, and, of course, the 14 people killed by Lépine were women. Further, the anniversary of the massacre is now observed as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women and Lépine’s actions are recognized as a symptom of a broader cultural problem with misogyny. Isn’t it just academic quibbling to insist that Lépine was targeting feminists? But ignoring that means erasing a more complex truth: Lépine’s violence had its origins not in some vague hatred of women, but in a very specific fury over a social movement that promotes women’s basic humanity.
“There’s a difference between saying that it’s a crime against women and a saying it’s a crime against women who are trying to change how society works,” says Francine Pelletier, a prominent Québec journalist whose name was on Lépine’s list. “It’s beating up on women because they’re rattling the cage.”
The shooting at the École Polytechnique is far from being the only mass killing rooted in a hostile opposition to women’s equality; it’s not even the only mass killing to fit that description here in Canada. In 2018, Alek Minassian drove a van onto a crowded Toronto sidewalk and killed ten people shortly after making a Facebook post that said that the “Incel Rebellion” had begun. The term “incel” is a contraction of the words involuntary and celibate, and has been adopted by an online community made up of men who feel disenfranchised by the fact that women don’t want to have sex with them, which they believe is a basic right for men. Unsurprisingly, many of these men indulge in misogynist fantasies in which they punish women for not sleeping with them. Sometimes, like in Minassian’s case, those fantasies turn into real-world violence.
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Neither Lépine nor Minassian were ambiguous about their apparent motives, and yet we still struggle with calling their crimes what they truly were: violence against women asserting themselves as equal in public and private realms. Violence against women who want the same education and career opportunities as men. Violence against women who want to be in control of their own bodies. Violence against women, yes, but violence especially against women who step out of their place. Even though some of the women Lépine killed might not have identified as feminists, the fact is that he set out to kill feminists. Even though some of the people Minassian killed were not women, the fact is that his rampage was inspired by his fury that he didn’t have unlimited access to women’s bodies.
Pelletier describes Lépine’s actions as “a crime against the future,” because what he was trying to destroy was the idea of women someday achieving social and economic equality. He targeted female engineering students because, to him, they were not just women but women who were trying to take the place of men. It’s tempting to call these killings senseless, but it’s important to remember that both Lépine and Minassian had a strong sense of purpose, and that purpose was terrorizing women back into what they thought was our rightful place.
But really, you might ask, does it matter what we call these killings?
Yes. It does.
Just ask Pelletier. After the École Polytechnique massacre, she received a phone call from a man who told her that if she wanted to understand what Marc Lépine was thinking, he would tell her. She agreed to meet with him in a public place and listen to what he had to say; she wanted, after all, to understand why the killings had happened. But when she wrote a column for La Presse about the things this man described—how men’s anxieties and frustrations over feminism bubbled over into violence—she was told that it wouldn’t be published. No one wanted to acknowledge that Lépine’s anti-feminist beliefs had deep and widespread social underpinnings.
“We were told to shut up,” says Pelletier. “In Canada, we like to think that we’re a progressive place, so this completely upset the apple cart. How could this happen here? There was so much denial. It had a very chilling effect.”
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I know that I’ve personally been guilty of inaccurately describing the École Polytechnique killings as “violence against women.” Of course they fit within the broader context of gender-based violence, but why did I remove the word feminist? The answer is as silly-sounding as it is sad: because I thought it would make it more palatable. Because even people who hate feminists still have women in their lives that they love. Because I was afraid.
It’s been over 30 years since Marc Lépine killed 14 women at the École Polytechnique for the crime of being present at an engineering school, and yet feminists are still routinely harassed, stalked and tormented. Hatred of feminism is especially virulent online, where people will happily compare demanding equal rights for women to a terminal illness; don’t forget that until Milo Yiannopolis made a comment that seemed to defend the sexual abuse of children, many platforms, including a major publishing house, had no problem with him saying things like “feminism is a cancer.”
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that we can’t fight against violence that we can’t name. So this year I’m saying what I’ve been too afraid to articulate until now: Marc Lépine was hunting feminists on December 6, 1989. His followers are still hunting feminists, and they don’t care what labels those feminists use. We can’t save ourselves by trying to appease men who see us as less than human. All we can do is keep rattling the cage until it finally breaks.
This article was originally published in December 2018.