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.footnote1 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
In one sense, the fundamental questions of strategy—the state, allies, the relation between sexual and class politics, and programme—that confront the women’s movement in the eighties have been on the agenda since the sixties.footnote3 They have, however, been given a particular urgency by the current political conjuncture. The deepening economic crisis and the rightward drift in state policies over the past ten years have provoked increasing trade union militancy. At the same time, in the confused ideological aftermath of the sixties, the restrictive cultural atmosphere engendered by the recession has allowed reactionary anti-labour currents—whose antifeminist, homophobic, Christian fundamentalism is glossed as ‘pro-family’—to mobilize social discontent in an attempt to overturn the cultural gains of the last fifteen years, especially those made by women.footnote4 In the face of this combination of resurgent class conflict and cultural backlash, no component of the broad left (from trade unions and social democracy through radical popular movements to the organized far left) has been able to develop an adequate strategy and programme. This lack of consensus complicates the development of strategy for the women’s movement: we
To this task, feminism brings diverse insights from two waves of radicalization: sixties women’s liberation and contemporary working-class feminism. Against patriarchal ideology, women’s liberationists claimed that women were oppressed. All relations between women and men—including institutionalized heterosexuality and the monogamous couple—were, whether women were conscious of it or not, structured and distorted by male power and privilege. What was particularly new in this analysis of male-female relations was the fact that it placed sexuality, marriage and the family at the centre, asserted that the long-term transformation of gender relations required sexual autonomy for women, and held that the rootedness of women’s oppression in all social institutions required revolutionary transformation. From these insights several strategic principles were derived: the necessity of autonomy for the women’s movement, the refusal to postpone women’s struggles or to subordinate them to any state, party, class or male-dominated national movement interests, the defence of lesbian choice. These analytic and strategic acquisitions—much more than the classic demands for equal pay and equal work, reproductive freedom, and child care—are the legacy of sixties feminism for present practice.
In any contemporary evaluation, however, it must be recognized that the present women’s movement differs markedly from that of the sixties. In Canada, two developments are particularly significant. A recent successful campaign to include equal rights for women in the Canadian Constitution has strengthened liberal feminism and its orientation to the state. But since the mid-seventies, a radicalization of working women—most immediately visible in several important public and private sector strikes—has profoundly altered the organizational and ideological balance of forces within the movement as a whole. This radicalization is significant not just in itself or in the opportunity that it provides for broadening the struggle, but because the widening of the class basis of feminism deepens our understanding of the way class and gender oppression condenses a global system of domination and opens up new ways to explore questions of strategy and theory that have long perturbed the women’s movement and, indeed, blocked its development.
The rise of working-class feminism has not, however, been an unmixed blessing. The occupation of centre-stage by workplace struggles has helped to narrow the ideological focus by concentrating attention on economic issues at the expense of cultural and sexual liberation projects even inside the women’s movement itself and so reinforced a general tendency in the left to economism.footnote5 Working-class feminism is also weighed down by the reformism which prevails in the three political spheres—trade unions, social democracy, and important sectors of the women’s movement—which have so far conditioned its ideological development. But it is also important to remember that, despite the difficult conditions in which it emerged, working-class feminism grew out of militant struggle