Feminism as a Class Act: Working - Class Feminism and the Women's Movement in Canada

By Luxton, Meg | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Feminism as a Class Act: Working - Class Feminism and the Women's Movement in Canada


Luxton, Meg, Labour/Le Travail


Introduction

IN 1996 THE CANADIAN Labour Congress (CLC) and the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) organized a national women's march against poverty. (1) With the slogan "For Bread and Roses, For Jobs and Justice," caravans left both the west and east coasts on 14 May, following the CLC convention in Vancouver. The marchers travelled for a month, visiting over 90 communities and participating in events involving about 50,000 women. They met in Ottawa on 15 June for the largest women's demonstration in Canadian history and NAC's annual general meeting. (2)

This alliance of the main national union organization and the largest national organization of the autonomous women's movement was based on demands focused specifically on the situations of working-class and poor women. The demands explicitly linked struggles for both women's equality and anti-racism with working-class struggles for more equitable distributions of wealth and access to resources. As NAC President Sunera Thobani declared, "women's dreams of equality can never be realized in a society polarized between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots,' where the poorer regions of the country are marginalized, racism grows, and the most vulnerable members of our community are abandoned." (3)

In this paper, I argue that the political links between the labour movement and the women's movement, represented by this march, with its explicit focus on working-class and poor women's issues, came about because of the existence of a union-based, working-class feminism that has been a key player in the women's movement, the labour movement, and the left since the late 1960s and early 1970s. It has become popular in recent years to assert that the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s was largely middle class and that its politics reflected the concerns and interests of such women. (4) I think this argument is incorrect in the Canadian context and I suggest that such beliefs are part of a larger pattern in which both working-class women and their organizing efforts, and left-wing or socialist feminism, get written out of, or "hidden from history." (5)

In her study of women auto workers, Pam Sugiman has demonstrated the existence of "working-class feminism":

Contrary to the popular belief that the North American women's movement was an exclusively middle-class development, the experiences of female auto workers suggest that a distinct "feminist trade unionism" emerged in the 1960s. (6)

The feminism Sugiman identifies was not unique to auto workers. In this paper, I argue, against the formulation that the women's movement was middle class and focused on reforming the state, that working-class and socialist feminist activists developed a strong feminist presence in the labour movement and a significant working-class orientation in the women's movement. (7) I document some of the dynamics in the development of the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s, that created an environment in which a union-based, working-class feminism found a space and became an important political player. That presence has shaped the subsequent development of the women's movement in Canada. The 1996 march was one expression of that politics.

The Context for Feminist Organizing in Canada

The 1996 alliance between the CLC as a federation of member unions and NAC as a coalition of groups from the autonomous women's movement, and the organization of the March as a series of events in different communities, illustrated some of the aspects of feminist organizing particular to Canada. Any efforts to build national or pan-Canadian, extra-parliamentary political organizations confront two difficulties specific to the national situation that shape their politics and organizational structures. First, Canada's relatively small population, spread out over a large geographic area, and its federated state structure mean that organizing typically occurs at a local or regional level, reflecting regional differences based on local and diverse economies, provincial or territorial and municipal legislation, and linguistic, racialized, ethnic, or national cultures, and patterns of settlement. …

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