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New Left Review I/141, September-October 1983

Heather Jon Maroney

Feminism at Work

The most important political phenomenon of the last two decades and one that will continue to mark the politics of the next has been the development of a new feminist consciousness and a movement for women’s liberation. [1] The effects of this transformation appear everywhere in women’s writing: in fiction by Nicole Brossard, in Mary Daly’s philosophical poetics, and in Dorothy Dinnerstein’s provocative psychology. For a discussion see Catherine Stimpson, ‘Neither dominant nor submissive’, Dissent (1980). Much of the material for this piece was gathered from interviews with trade union feminists. Since some of them wish to remain anonymous, I have not attributed any statements. I would like to thank Gay Bell, Diedre Gallagher, Meg Luxton, Gail Scott, Wally Seccombe and Andrew Wernick who read and commented on an earlier draft; the women who offered their views on the women’s movement; and all those who offered much-needed support as I went through the identity crisis of facing its past and future. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the ‘Socialism in the 1980s’ conference, Vancouver, January 1981. In Canada and Quebec, as elsewhere in the advanced capitalist world, fifteen years of ideological and cultural struggle have resulted in the diffusion of the vital sense that women have rights and will not be bound by convention, prejudice or male privilege. Women’s efforts toward collective self-definition have revalorized attributes and activities culturally coded as feminine. This transformation has begun to produce a positive atmosphere for girls growing to womanhood and women of all ages coming to feminism—a reorientation so profound that I (despite an instinctive feminism learned at my mother’s knee as we changed our own flat tyres) could not have dreamed of it in the giggly, marriage-doomed fifties or even in the messianic cyclone of the sixties. This new-found self-confidence has been a source of inspiration for women in a wide range of social struggles and, increasingly, a radicalizing force for women as workers at the place of work. But, at the close of the seventies, although widely diffused, the new feminist consciousness remained uneven, politically embryonic, and in many cases reactive. More even than in most countries, in Canada and Quebec, feminist consciousness, like the organized women’s movement, is fragmented along regional, sectoral and class lines. [2] The federated pan-Canadian state is, first of all, riven by the effects of unresolved national questions with regard to Quebec, Acadian, Inuit, Dene and the many Indian nations. Secondly, the ten provincial governments, as well as those of the territories, control labour, education, family law, most human rights provisions, and some aspects of cultural policy, while other specific aspects of educational and research funding, human rights, divorce law and taxation are federal responsibilities. Finally the population is gathered into dispersed regional economic and political centres across the continent. These political and economic conditions obviously affect the women’s movement in all sorts of practical and political ways. For example, the two most consistent campaigns in Quebec and British Columbia for repeal of the same federal law on abortion were carried out in isolation from each another. National meetings—on, for example, day care—almost always require federal funding, which brings with it attempts at political control. Finally immigrants—particularly women—are often isolated by language and intimidation. Despite real advances these divisions have prevented feminists from developing a collective assessment of past actions or a coherent strategy on a bi-national scale.

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