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 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.footnote2 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.

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 are compelled to elaborate our strategy with little sense of the direction our potential allies might take.

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 in the context of an already radicalized leadership of women who nurtured both its class and feminist consciousness. If its feistiness is maintained and if it is able to join forces with socialist and other feminist tendencies committed to overall social transformation, its radicalizing dynamic can profoundly alter class (as well as feminist) politics: broadening workplace struggles, overcoming antagonistic divisions between women and men in the working class, and introducing an anti-economist, anti-bureaucratic politics of liberation into existing working-class organizations.

Against this background, my aim here will be to trace the rise of workingclass feminism, to show its contradictory significance in the women’s movement, and to begin to explore its implications for socialist-feminist theory and practice.

By the end of the seventies, working-class feminism in Canada had become a distinct current in the women’s movement. In contrast to the university-based feminism of the sixties, it was rooted in the workplace and oriented, first of all, to the practical achievement of more concrete and, hence, more limited goals. It had its own outlook on what feminism should be: ‘Of course jobs are a feminist issue: and equal pay and training. Getting women into non-traditional jobs is important right now, because of what will happen with tech change. Of course, in my union when they think they’re getting down to the nitty-gritty real feminist issues, the men always ask “How’s the day care in your town?”—the whole motherhood thing. They don’t want to talk about sexual harassment or anything to do with sex. After all, it’s not just cross-class, it’s workers harassing workers. But unions give you power, and they educate you. It’s the only way to unite the working class, through unions and working together.’footnote6