Women's Movement

Since the end of the 19th century, Canadian women have been organizing to redefine their place in society, demanding equality and justice. The women's movement has achieved a degree of formal equality for Canadian women through legal and political means. Parallel to this slow conquest of equal rights, the lifestyle of Canadian women, as for women in most other Western countries, has undergone profound changes. Goods and services traditionally produced in the home are now available for purchase by consumers; and these technological developments, together with the growth of the service sector, have facilitated the increasing participation of women in the labour market, so that by the 1980s the majority of Canadian married women had a paying job.

Serious inequalities in the relative position of men and women in society remain, however. The federal government in 1967 set up the Royal Commission on the Status of Women to examine the situation, and in its 1970 report the commission made 167 recommendations for greater equality of women.

Emergence of a New Women's Movement

The late 1960s in Canada, as throughout the Western world, saw the emergence of a new women's movement. This new feminism rejected all limits to the equality of women's rights and showed that equality in daily life cannot be obtained through simple legal, political or institutional modifications. Women were greatly influenced by books and articles by feminists such as Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem and Shulamith Firestone, and by publications such as Women Unite: An Anthology of the Women's Movement (1972) and Margaret Anderson's Mother Was Not a Person (1973). These writers held that society's major power relationship was one of domination and oppression of women by men. The existing body of social relationships, along with the very functioning of society, was analysed and criticized.

In the late 1960s, discovering that "sisterhood is powerful," women from Vancouver to Halifax began forming groups. The Vancouver Women's Caucus was organized in 1968 and published The Pedestal from 1969 to 1973. The Montréal Women's Liberation Movement was founded in 1969, the Front de libération des femmes du Québec published a feminist manifesto in 1970, and the Centre des femmes edited the first French-language radical feminist periodical, Québécoises deboutte! (1971-75). At first, some were consciousness-raising groups, but others quickly turned to concrete action, providing abortion services, health centres, feminist magazines, militant theatre, day-care, shelters for battered women and rape crisis centres, and organizing for equal pay. By the end of the 1960s, Canadian society had begun to adjust to the rebirth of a major social movement, the women's movement.

Social movements, which can be loosely defined as conscious collective efforts to change some aspects of the social order, are difficult to describe with precision. Major social movements contain within themselves many subgroupings which may differ in important ways. The women's movement, for example, includes liberal, radical and Marxist feminists, ecofeminists, lesbian separatists, and those who view lesbianism as one lifestyle among others; although these groupings debate vigorously on a number of issues, they do agree on the basic need to improve the situation of women. The women's movement has been working for social justice for women along many different fronts, including politics, culture, the mass media, law, education, health, the labour force, religion, the environment and the home. Combining the fight against sexism with a fight against racism has become increasingly important. The organizational structure includes groups of every size and from every region, including national and international ones.

Some concentrate on self-help; some on working for general social change. While in the beginning, in the early 1970s, the movement seemed to consist of smaller radical groups, the movement's base has gradually expanded to incorporate women of diverse opinions and from all parts of Canadian society, including welfare mothers, professional, business and executive women, native women and immigrant domestic workers. Large, well-established organizations have also adopted feminist practices and the women's movement itself has now generated a number of autonomous organizations.

Promoting the Movement's Goals

The women's movement uses diverse methods to promote its goal of social justice for women. Public events, including lectures, entertainment in various forms and leafleting, are arranged to "raise consciousness" and disseminate information. Protest actions such as demonstrations, marches, vigils and petitions are organized. Government, political parties and particular agencies, institutions and employers are lobbied for reform. Action often takes the form of first establishing a committee (caucus, interest group) on the status of women, then documenting existing inequities, formulating proposals for improvement, and finally lobbying for their implementation. In response, the federal and various provincial governments established advisory councils on the Status of Women. The federal advisory council, which played an important role in publicizing issues through its publications, was folded into the Status of Women Canada in 1996. There are a number of other bureaucratic institutions at all levels of government, including municipal governments, as well as educational and health institutions.

Another important activity of the women's movement centres on publication, ranging from informal flyers to posters to highly academic volumes and including children's books, self-help manuals and newspaper columns. These contributions are published through mainstream outlets as well as through a network of feminist presses.

The women's movement has been effective in organizing action on particular issues using a multitude of means and involving a coalition of groups and individuals. Issues generating mass efforts include, for example, the right to choice in obtaining a legal abortion, the entrenchment of sex equality in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, pornography, the new reproductive and genetic technologies and threats to the environment, civil liberties and peace (see Peace Movement).

Groups and Organizations

In sum, women have broken their isolation and have set up groups and organizations across the country, or have joined existent organizations. Since the late 1970s co-operation among the various groups has intensified. Some of the national groups include the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, the Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women, the National Association of Women and the Law, the Canadian Day Care Advocacy Group, Federation nationale des femmes canadiennes-francaises, the National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women of Canada, National Watch on Images of Women in the Media Inc, the Women's Legal Education and Action fund, Disabled Women's Network Canada, the National Congress of Black Women of Canada, the Native Women's Organization of Canada, the National Council of Women, the Voice of Women, the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres and many more.

Such groups consist mainly of women from the anglophone provinces, for French Canadian women tend to align themselves on linguistic rather than truly "national" lines. Thus, Québec has a whole series of counterpart organizations to the "national" ones mentioned above, eg, Fédération des femmes du Québec and L'Association feminine d'éducation et d'action sociale, les centres d'aide et de lutte contre les agressions à caractère sexuel, le Centre d'intervention pour l'accès des Femmes au travail et l"R" des centres de Femmes. These groups and organizations define to some extent the structure of the feminist movement in Canada. While a majority of Canadian women as well as men are in sympathy with the goal of social justice for women, much of the actual work falls to "front-line" feminist organizations, some of which appear to be more or less permanent and others that exist more as ad hoc groups which surface only to confront specific tasks.

Changing the Social Structure

Creating a just society for women means the elimination of sexism in all areas, particularly in the legal system, in the organization of social production, in the perception and treatment of women's bodies, and in the arts, sciences, religion, education and the mass media.

Most progress has been achieved in the legal area. Among the earliest targets for action were the various family laws. In 1973 the Murdoch case, in which an Alberta farm wife was denied a half interest in the farm that she and her husband had built up together over a 25-year period because her work was seen simply as the fulfilment of her wifely duties, raised awareness about the injustices of family laws. Since that time, all provinces have reformed their family laws in the direction of greater equality between spouses, many more than once.

Since the '80s, a number of provincial governments have instituted agencies that collect and transmit support payments to lone parents. Several important test cases came before the courts. One of these cases (the Thibaudeau case) involved the taxation of support payments. In response to the public reaction in this case, the federal government announced in 1996 that child support payments received would no longer be taxable. Another legal decision in the Lavell case (1973) involved an Indian woman who had lost her Indian status and privileges upon marriage to a non-Indian. The discriminatory aspects of the Indian Act were removed as of 1985. Since that time, women who lost Indian status because they married a non-Indian can reclaim their lost status, as can their first-generation children. However, problems remain.

One of the primary concerns of the women's movement has been the securing of appropriate rewards for work performed by women. In this context, "work" includes both paid and unpaid work, and involves the realization that the 2 are inextricably linked. It was the women's movement that first emphasized that work done within the home is, indeed, work, and should be regarded as such. The Wages for Housework movement has been instrumental in focusing attention on this issue. Out of this concern have sprung campaigns as well as one federal commission and one parliamentary committee for good day care, maternity and paternity benefits in employment, and some recognition in both the pension system and in cases of divorce of work performed by the housewife.

In the paid labour force, concern focused initially on equal pay for equal work. In the '80s, the demand for equal pay for work of equal value has prompted comparisons of dissimilar jobs in order to establish fair pay scales for jobs requiring similar skills, efforts and responsibilities. The Royal Commission on Equality in Employment (Abella Commission), which tabled its report in 1984, made a number of recommendations for sweeping changes. Employment equity and pay equity have become a concern for unions, employees and governments. Some programs try to overcome historical discrimination by facilitating the promotion of women into levels and types of occupation from which they have so far been excluded. There was also a concern to recognize the contribution of wives who work in partnership with their husbands in nonincorporated businesses, so that wages paid to the wife can be rated as such for tax and legal purposes.

The most controversial field of feminist action is the attempt to affirm women's right to control over their bodies, eg, with respect to fertility, sexual relationships, sexual violence, and medical power over women's health. The most fiery demonstrations have been about the control of abortion, a struggle which began in the late 1960s. Dr Henry Morgentaler, who supported the establishment of free-standing abortion clinics, was at the centre of the debate. After several court trials, he was finally acquitted in Québec, where abortions in family-planning clinics became possible. The abortion question flared up again in the 1980s. In 1983 Dr Morgentaler opened abortion clinics in Toronto and Winnipeg. Morgentaler was prosecuted and acquitted by jury. The Crown appealed and ordered a new trial. At that point, Morgentaler appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

In early 1988 in a landmark decision the Supreme Court voted to strike down Canada's abortion law. A new federal law was narrowly defeated (by one voice) in the Senate in 1991. The government opted not to bring in new legislation thereafter. Since that time, Canada has been without a law that is specifically geared towards abortion. In practice, this means that there continue to be regional variations in how accessible abortions are, depending on cost and on the existence of clinics and/or the willingness of doctors to perform abortions in regular hospitals.

The abortion debate has had its corollory in a re-evaluation of medical practices and initiatives in the field of contraception. It includes such questions as is it necessary for women alone to carry its burdens? Why are they the only ones to suffer the side effects of contraceptives? Why has research into male contraception been so slow? Why do doctors so commonly perform hysterectomies on menopausal women? Such questions have led feminists to produce written and visual health "kits," to open self-help health clinics, and to champion alternative medicine and the removal of pregnancy and childbirth from medical structures. One concrete outcome has been the legalization and institutionalization of midwifery in several provinces.

With the rapid changes that are occurring in the field of reproductive technologies, and the social arrangements concerning them, the whole issue of women's control over their reproductive processes has taken on a new dimension and urgency. On the one hand, certain techniques such as in-vitro fertilization and embryo transfer open the possibility for women to have children who before were not able to do so. On the other hand, these same techniques and other social arrangements raise problems of a type and magnitude that did not exist before. Who should have access to these technologies? Should sexual orientation, marital status and ability to pay be relevant? Women's groups argued vigorously that such factors should not impede access. But should these technologies be used at all?

Medical doctors are now a third party in the process of reproduction and literally hold the power to determine the genetic make-up of new human beings when some of these technologies are used. Laws and policies about many of the issues arising either do not yet exist or have been insufficiently elaborated. Who owns the sperm of a dead donor? Should egg donations be permitted? If so, should they be anonymous or should it be possible to specify recipients? Should human cells be patentable? Should somatic cell gene manipulation be permitted? How can the profit motive in human reproduction be controlled?

In 1987, the Canadian Coalition for a Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies started to systematically lobby the government to set up a Royal Commission on this issue. This effort was successful with the establishment, in 1989, of the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies. However, the commission suffered from strong internal dissension. Their report, released in 1994, had in early 1996 only led to a call by the Minister of Health for a voluntary moratorium on certain practices - a call that has not been heeded. As of 1999, none of the recommendations had been implemented.

Male control over women's bodies has also traditionally expressed itself through violence. New halfway houses for battered women have opened in several cities, and analyses and reports on this hitherto forbidden topic are published in newspapers and magazines. Rape, the chief representation of aggression against women, has escaped from the silence which formerly surrounded it. Rape crisis centres have existed in major cities since 1973; a lobby has been organized to press for changes in the law; each fall urban women parade to demonstrate their right to use the streets safely at night; and every year thousands of Canadian women take courses in self-defence.

In 1990, a young man shot and killed 14 young women at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, stating "You are all feminists!" This tragedy rallied women as well as men in Canada around efforts to reduce all forms of violence against women and children, including incest, date rape and sexual harassment. The federal government set up a Panel on Violence against Women, which delivered their report in 1993. The most publicized action on the part of the federal government was a law on gun control.

The new feminism has also affected the arts, creative activities, education and the mass media. Discussions about women are analysed, evaluated and dissected, with the result that women are using new languages, images and methods of analysis.

Women's writing in the last few decades has seen an unprecedented and revitalizing explosion. Women now talk about what it is to be a woman. They talk about things that were previously private, hidden or mythologized, such as rape, incest and family violence. Some writings focus on the denunciation of oppression; others "celebrate the differences" and talk about maternity, mothers' daily work, children, marriage, the family, the relationship of women to nature and love between women. Female writers such as Nicole Brossard, Louky Bersianik, Madeleine Gagnon, Denise Boucher, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Jane Rule and many others mark a turning-point in Québec and Canadian literature. During the '80s and '90s, writers and poets like Gloria Escomel have integrated feminism into the plurality of women's experiences. Theatrical production includes such acclaimed feminist plays as La Nef de sorcières (1976), written by a feminist collective, Boucher's Les Fées ont soif (1978) and Betty Lambert's Jenny's Story (1982). Feminist theatre troupes have existed since the 1970s and feminist plays are now in the repertory of various small or institutional theatres.

In the mass media, feminist journalists and the work of feminist groups have had some effect in generating higher awareness of women as readers and newsmakers. Columnists in several major newspapers and periodicals now write from an explicitly feminist perspective. Nevertheless, the relationship between the women's movement and the mass media remains strained, as the media sometimes misrepresent the movement. As a result, a feminist press has developed, with its own media production and distribution system.

Politically committed humorists, rockers and women performers challenge audiences. Female producers at the National Film Board, through Studio D, have produced or co-produced documentaries, including the major series "En tant que femmes", "Not a Love Story", "The Burning Times", "On the Eighth Day" and "Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives". In 1996, Studio D was closed.

Video has always been open to women: in 1975, to honour International Women's Year, feminist video production and distribution centres opened in 8 Canadian cities. Some still exist and each year they produce material or fictional work which is distributed through community and educational circles.

A great effort has been put into eliminating sexism in education. Women's studies are now an accepted part of many curricula. In 1983 the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council created a committee for facilitating the equal treatment of the sexes in social science and humanities research. It produced a pamphlet by Eichler and Lapointe, On the Treatment of the Sexes in Research, which argues that good research must be nonsexist. In general, integrating women into our thought processes is now widely seen as important and legitimate, although the process of doing so has just begun.

Since the '90s, the greatest challenges to the women's movement - as to other socially committed groups - are the policy changes that are taking place in the context of deficit and debt reduction. This is occurring at the provincial as well as at the federal level. Provinces vary in the degree to which social programs are slashed and infrastructure is dismantled, but the general trend is towards tightening public spending in social programs. These programs are often geared to serve the poor and disadvantaged, which include a disproportionate number of women. Women are thus particularly negatively affected by the manner in which Canadian governments are attempting to balance their books.

The globalization of the economy and the resultant impoverishment for women and other disadvantaged groups may generate new coalitions between equity-seeking groups from the grass roots to the national and international levels. For instance, in 1995 the Bread and Roses March involved women marching for 10 days to Québec City to dramatize poverty.


In the time since its re-emergence, feminism has had a major impact on our society. Ultimately, creating social justice for women involves a profound restructuring of society and of the way people think about and experience the world. By stressing that "the personal is political," the women's movement has made the social inequality of women a public and not merely a private problem. This accomplishment is its single most important contribution.

With changing circumstances, new issues emerge that need to be addressed. In Canada in 1996, globalization, lack of good jobs, slashing of social programs, de-institutionalization and devolution of powers from the federal government to provincial or local governments, the diminution of national or provincial standards and environmental deterioration are issues which are now of concern to the women's movement as well as to those issues which had been identified previously. For other issues such as day care, the scope has been defined but implementation has still to be achieved.