The promise of trade unionism demands that you take risks but that then makes you vulnerable (Canadian unionist, 1998)
Union women inhabit the territory where the cultures of the labor movement and the women's movement collide 
Feminist politics always struggled to have effect in labour movements, but it is also the case that union politics have rarely been given much space in women's movements. Both may be concerned with liberation, justice and equality, but their different standpoints produce, at least, ambivalence. Divisions among feminists also mean that some see labour movement politics as (irredeemably?) male dominated; others see it is materially important to women's interests; for others again, it is simply irrelevant. Women's movement politics are also seen variously as benefiting middle-class white women, as always hostile to all males, or as a limited project, 'a politics of partiality'.  The sharpness of these divisions among feminists have become blunted, or appear far less urgent, perhaps because as feminist theorising travels away from its materialist political concerns of the 70s and 80s, those earlier sites recede from view as well. And yet, in parallel with the problematising of the political within feminism, th e possibilities for generating feminist politics from within the labour movement seem to have grown in recent years.
This article looks at women unionists' perspectives on sexual politics within unions, and how this connects with wider women's movements. Women unionists are challenging male dominance in labour movements, on an international scale. Women at times may be welcomed and encouraged by men in unions, but they are frequently confronted by men's trenchant resistance and hostility. Much of this is invisible or subsumed by union research and political strategies that marginalise women's interests as irrelevant to the central men's business of trade unionism. How then do women's movements and feminisms grapple with the issues and effects, discourses and practices of this sexual politics?
The discussion draws on a larger comparative study on (English) Canadian and Australian labour movements I am undertaking over a number of years, on women unionists who occupy positions in unions that cover workers in a wide range of industries and occupations, as well as positions in related organisations, such as Working Women's Centres. I have conducted semi-structured interviews and made observations at discussions, debates and forums in each country.  There are longstanding patterns of gender relations in common, but the circumstances in each country have differed, in part, from the differences between their centralised and decentralised industrial relations systems and the related distinctions between their labour movements. However, both labour movements are now facing similar and serious challenges. Increased attacks by the state and the restructuring processes of globalisation are changing labour markets, eroding welfare states and reconfiguring the relations between public and private spheres. U nions in Canada and Australia come to share more common characteristics as they grapple with these difficulties.
One of the striking similarities between the Canadian and Australian women's movements may be found in their approach to the state. Australia had women's advisers to government departments and government Ministers, change through legislation and some funding for relatively autonomous women's services at the same time as the Canadian women's movement regarded the state as responsive to their concerns. In Canada, this partly grew out of the implementation of some of the recommendations of the report of the Royal Commission of the Status of Women in 1967. Agencies such as the Women's Bureau in the Department of Labour and the Office of Equal Opportunity in the Public Service Commission sound familiar to Australian feminists. Likewise, the Canadians had no difficulty in recognising our 'femocrats'. Perhaps an important variation, is the Canadian National Action Committee on the Status of Women, known as NAC, that was established in 1972 as a kind of peak organisation for women's groups and organisations. Although buffeted by reductions in state funding and shifts towards neo-liberalism by Canadian governments, as well as internal conflicts, and complaints that it represents only special interests, NAC continues to play a significant part in Canadian feminist politics. It is of interest here because of the links between it and labour movement organisations such as the peak union body Canadian Labour Council. 
A search through the websites of the peak union bodies, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and its Canadian equivalent, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) allow some interesting comparisons between their approaches to gender relations and women unionists, and the underlying problems they share. The ACTU home page has a similar design to newspapers with a 'What's News' column leading to punchy media releases, a second column lists other pages including 'media office', about the ACTU', and 'members services'. A third column carries links to the online magazine, Workers Online, which is a 'resource for the labour movement produced by the NSW Labor Council'.  Its industrial campaigns are pitched at 'Australians and their families' (again!). The CLC home page carries 'Projects, Campaigns and Boycotts' such as the 'world women's march', 'the national child care campaign', 'challenging racism' and 'lesbian and gay awareness'. Its list of other pages includes social justice, political action, boycotts, women and 'buy union'. However, the site has not been updated for several months and its links are limited.  The CLC appears to have kept issues of gender difference on its agenda, whereas on the ACTU site they have been submerged beneath the waves of concern about recruitment and declining membership.
Women's movements in Canada and Australia, like most in Western countries, in the 1970s campaigned on women's work issues. Differences among feminists were categorised as radical feminist, liberal feminist and socialist feminist. The last focussed on class oppression and capitalism, and therefore generally regarded trade unions as an important site of feminist struggle.  The meanings of socialist feminism were constantly contested and thus subject to a variety of interpretations. The subsequent emergence of Foucauldian and post-structuralist theory subjected socialist feminism to a considerable critique.  In spite of these vigorous debates, socialist (and Marxist) feminism faded at the end of the 1980s, with the collapse of the Eastern European states, and is now, according to some, 'deeply unfashionable'.  But this is not the case for everyone:
I've always been a socialist feminist. I've had some sympathy for, and tried to understand …