Feminism and the Making of Canadian Working-Class History: Exploring the Past, Present and Future

By Sangster, Joan | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Feminism and the Making of Canadian Working-Class History: Exploring the Past, Present and Future


Sangster, Joan, Labour/Le Travail


AS WE ENTER the 21st century, working people have reason to be pessimistic about their fate in the new millennium. Despite technological advances, a communications revolution, and a globalized economy, labour remains alienating for many workers, hazardous, and lacks the remuneration necessary for a decent standard of living. In "post-Fordist" North America, even the better paid, if routinized work in industry has been replaced by lower-paid service work in multiple jobs, with far less job security. Moreover, age-old patterns of capital accumulation and women's exploitation seem to be irrepressible. At the turn of the century, many immigrant women toiled in their homes, doing sweated labour, providing piece work for the competitive garment industry. In 1999, an expose of sweated labour in Toronto uncovered a similar contracting out system, exploiting Asian women who were paid below the minimum wage, unable, due to family responsibilities, to work outside the home, fearful of being deported if they protested their conditions of work.

Pessimism about the "state of work" at this juncture might be tempered by our recognition, as historians, of the ever-present possibilities of change over time, in both predictable and unpredictable ways, and of the prospect of resistance to the current order. Yet, the prevailing political moment does not look auspicious in this regard. Union membership has not increased dramatically in the last decade, and the shift to a "Mcjobs" economy, along with the globalized downgrading of labour, militates against unionization. Many governments within Canada have been eroding union and workers' rights, and organized workers, who one would expect to be the strongest opponents, have not been able to mobilize to reverse these trends.(1)

Moreover, despite indications that women, after years of feminist organizing, have made some important gains in areas such as reproductive rights, other signs of progress represent a double-edged sword. The slightly narrowing wage gap between particular male and female workers, some contend, has emerged in part because men's wages are decreasing overall. Moreover, as the example of the Asian garment workers indicates, patterns of sexual and racial subordination remain firmly fixed within the social organization of work. The repercussions for women extend far beyond the workplace, affecting their psyches and physical health, their ability to construct lives of sexual and familial safety and pleasure, their hopes, or lack of them, for their childrens' future.

Behind this rather bleak backdrop lurks the suspicion that this is a turn for the worse, and that other possibilities may have existed. In a more optimistic political climate, thirty years ago, feminist activists, including academics, harboured hopes for a reinvigorated working-class movement, transformed by feminism and committed to a broadly based politic of liberation for oppressed peoples. An intellectual and political space was created, which, though never dominant in the academy and the community, fostered new critiques of history and society and thus also hope for a different future. Out of this climate emerged the first attempts to create a Canadian feminist working-class history.

Certainly, past research and praxis were never unproblematic; there were weaknesses we saw at the time, and those we recognized in retrospect. Class and gender analyses sometimes chafed uneasily against each other; race and colonialism were inadequately addressed. Working-class and women's history, two allies with potentially different interests at heart, experienced very real tensions, just as women activists in the labour movement and on the Left found masculinist barriers circumscribing their political work.

Our pasts, both written and lived, however, must be assessed for their insights and advances, as well as their limits and failures. As we face a new century, it is a propitious time to re-examine past attempts to create a thoroughly gendered analysis of Canadian working-class history since the "renaissance" in women's and labour history in the 1970s. …

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