Sunday, July 24, 2005

Review: Enlisting Women for the Cause

(Linda Kealey. Enlisting Women for the Cause: Women, Labour, and the Left in Canada, 1890-1920. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.)

As the headache of moving 3000 miles and settling into a new city begins to recede, I am now able to return more of my energy and attention to my social movement history project. For the forseeable future that is going to mean lots and lots of reading interspersed with occasional periods of writing. And that means I'm likely to go back to posting reviews of books about Canadian "history from below."

The book that is the subject of the current post is not actually one that I have much to say about. It covers a time period roughly from the decline of the Knights of Labour as an important force in Canada to the rise of the Communist Party. Through official records, organizational archives, the press, and other sources it examines the relationship of women to the labour and socialist movements in Canada. It is very thorough, very detailed, and in some ways epitomizes the academic monograph as a way of preserving the past -- we need to have books like this, but they aren't exactly the most exciting read in the world, even for lefty book nerds like me.

The general points advanced by the book are not particularly surprising, for the most part. They demonstrate how women have always been involved in Canada's labour and socialist movements, a handful as visible spokespeople and leaders but mostly in subordinate and supportive capacities because of the frequent ambivalence and occasional hostility of much of the male leadership and membership towards full and equal participation. Over the period in question more women entered the paid labour force, particularly due to World War One -- in the 1890s it was still possible for the labour movement to argue for paid labour by women to be banned because women were paid less and undercut the (largely unrealized) ideal of the "family wage" paid to male workers. By the end of the study period, while there was still opposition to the incursion of women workers into traditionally male-dominated areas due to WWI, this opposition was coupled with advocacy for equal pay for equal work, minimum wage legislation for women, and (by some unions) efforts to organize women. Nonetheless, women workers staged spontaneous strikes, organized themselves into unions, and formed autonomous labour and socialist bodies either within or distinct from existing parties. Even among socialist women, often the question of gender oppression was explicitly subordinated to the struggle to end class oppression, but there were always at least a vocal minority of such women who spoke out to insist on diverse ways of seeing the world that were (in essence if not in name) both socialist and feminist.

The book looks at the important labour struggles in which women played a part in those years, as wage earners, as organizers, and as support activsts. It profiles the few women who were able to overcome the barriers they faced and become organizers, speakers, writers, and leaders within the movements. I was particularly struck by a couple of Canadian women who wrote for socialist newspapers in the first decade of the twentieth century and who had what would still be considered quite radical views on sexuality, family, and nonmonogamy; most women and men in left-wing movements in this era had analyses of such things that would appear to be quite conservative today. The book examines how the state, employers, and the male-dominated hierarchies of the parties and unions regarded women in the paid workforce and in politics. It describes the depressingly rare instances of active solidarity with working-class women's struggles demonstrated by middle-class women or working-class men, and the all too common lack of same. It occasionally touches upon the role of race and racism in structuring work and workers' movements in those years, though I have the sense a more complete history is waiting to be written.

Anyway, this is important history, even if it is presented in a very dry way.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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