I live with 14 women I have never met. Each holiday season, I grade final exams, choose my Christmas tree, shovel my driveway and wrap my gifts, all the while remembering what happened on December 6, 1989.
On that day in Montreal, 14 young women were in school studying to be engineers. They were doing their final presentations, much the same as my own women’s studies students are doing this week at our university in New Hampshire.
A man wielding a Ruger Mini 14 and raging with beset manhood stalked the Canadian school’s halls on that December 6, breached the classrooms and forced the men out. Left alone with the women, he killed them because they were women, women doing manly things, manly things he wanted to do and couldn’t do. Their education so enraged him he felt entitled to take their lives, leaving a suicide note peppered with Latin (to demonstrate his erudition) and a list of the names of 19 “feminists” he wished he had had time to kill.
Women in engineering comprised less than 20 percent of any engineering student body in 1989. That statistic is virtually the same today. So where was the threat? There are plenty of spots for guys in engineering, and for white guys it’s a coup. But writer Ursula K. LeGuin explains why even a small number of women engineers could spark fear in some: “One alien is a curiosity, two are an invasion.”
It is the 24th anniversary of that massacre at École Polytechnique. And while tiny lights flicker in my neighborhood and a balsam-scented candle burns atop my wood stove, I cannot help but remember. These women have haunted me since I committed to writing their story. I have visited Montreal. I have met those left behind. I have witnessed the pain and shock that remain because there are so very little tools to heal but education, and education is still so fraught for women and girls.
At the international colloquium “The Massacre at École Polytechnique 20 Years Later: Male Violence Against Women and Feminists” in December 2009 at the University of Montreal at Quebec, a man at one of the coffee breaks asked me about the book I was writing. I told him that I am telling the story of the women killed or targeted in the massacre.
“What story?” he asked. “They have no story. They were victims.”
They are human beings, coffee man—not victims, not numbers, not aliens. They are real breathing people, like our precious world renowned education activist Malala Yousafzai who was shot by the Taliban because she believed girls should be able to go to school. The women killed in Montreal had robust lives and families and fiancés. They had mad skills and plans and dinner dates. Endings that are tragic and wasteful and rendered by males too pathetic to create their own stories do not nullify those aborted narratives. Rather, femicide, rape, harassment and intimate partner violence should serve to highlight them, to bring them to the attention of the public, so that we might finally educate ourselves about how very real are the lives that sexism cuts short.
On this anniversary of the Montreal femicide, my book about the lives lost on December 6 is in the hands of a Canadian publisher, due out next year at this time. My students are doing public presentations, telling their own stories of rape and assault and harassment, and they are inviting women in the audience to join them on stage to share their own experiences. They’ve memorized the statistics. They’ve read the feminist analysis, but they know that a kickass and lasting lesson comes when one woman tells the truth about her life. Then the world splits open.
Photo of memorial to the 14 women killed in Montreal from Wikimedia Commons