I stood up, overflowing with anger, enraged by the pervasive sexism, visible everywhere. It was long before #MeToo and, closer to home, before #AgressionNonDénoncée and Décider entre hommes. It was at the outset of the 2010s, and the new feminist revolution had yet to be started.

I titled my blog La semaine rose, a tribute to the pioneers of the defunct magazine La vie en rose. I wanted to spark a social conversation that might make things happen. Then, everything came together: media interviews, speaking tours (women’s groups, CEGEPs, universities, unions, etc.). I wrote one book, and then another one.  Without realizing it, I now had two feet firmly planted in activism. I had become a leading figure, one of those people who exist only for a cause.

Over the years, I became a “standby feminist,” almost a mascot or a caricature. I sensed that things were not going well, but I had to carry on, for the cause. And then one day, everything froze: I couldn’t go on any more. Just thinking about it made me nauseated, gave me a stomach ache. I was exhausted. I gave up all together. I ended a high-profile column in a renowned magazine. I stopped giving lectures, and I declined all radio interview invitations.

Surviving activist burnout

Marilyse Hamelin studied journalism at UQAM before working in Québec media. she is an author, a freelance writer and an independent editor.

Happily, a renaissance ensued, along with the joy of rediscovering myself as a multi-dimensional human being, obviously a feminist, but also interested in myriad cultural issues and topics. My activist burnout, coinciding with the pandemic, forced me to redefine myself. I am now an editor and a writer. I take pleasure in circulating ideas. I stay away from microphones and projectors, except to promote books.

I don’t know if I’m still an activist, but the quest for social justice underpins all my thinking: gender equality, equality between women, all women, equality for trans and non-binary people, equality for people with disabilities, anti-racism and equality for Indigenous peoples, environmental protection and ecofeminism.

Our collective responsibility

We need to further our thinking and discussion so that individuals are not forced to bear the brunt of burnout. It is important to refrain from the reflex of turning toward activists as though they held all the answers, to stop labelling them, and to stop denying their right to be human beings and thus their right to experience contradictions. In a world where everything happens in the fast lane, simplistic thinking is often a tantalizing commodity…

As organizations and more broadly as a society and in the media, we must avoid resorting to preconceived ideas. Instead, we can ask activists to bring their perspectives to the forum we wish to provide them. For example, instead of saying “here is the topic of our feminist congress; you are feminists, so come and talk to us about such and such an angle on feminism,” why not check whether or not they have an angle to propose? The outcome might exceed our expectations.

It is important to understand that activists give of their time to enter into a dialogue with society and that they are not there to provide a mere “service” to organizations.  We frequently encounter clientelist relationships, even in the union sphere of influence. As a result, we are collectively sticking straws into the activist, who is often working freelance and in precarious conditions, in order to extract all the juice.

Not the only one

Martine Delvaux, writer, university professor and feminist activist, is among the committed people who “make the effort to speak in public.” It is important for her to address the vast spectrum of exhaustion, because between burnout and a certain fatigue, if not inevitable fatigue, there are several rungs on the ladder…

“I don’t know if I was exhausted, but I regularly felt the need to step aside when things started to become invasive,” she recalls. “I turned away somewhat from the media to concentrate on writing.” She says “I needed to protect myself from cynicism, the feeling that my work had no purpose.”

This sense of loss of value of one’s involvement counts as one of the symptoms of a fatigue that can lead to activist burnout. That is why it is important to be attentive to the signs, despite the importance of the cause being championed. In an economic system that destroys not only the environment but also people, it is important to listen to one’s survival instinct.