First Published:The Forge Vol 7, No 11, March 19, 1982
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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International Women’s Day 1982 is now over, and across the country coalitions and organizations are summing up this year’s activities. Here In Toronto, as elsewhere, it is clear that one remarkable aspect of the day was the vast number of organizations that threw their energies into making March 8 a success.
There is, however, one group that stands out among others, but for the wrong reasons, that is the “Communist” Party of Canada. After trying to ignore the existence of a broad-based IWD coalition in Toronto until last year, it has now been two years in a row that the CP has managed to provoke suspicion and mistrust among coalition activists. This year one particular sore spot was the way a CP-sponsored coalition with the identical name tried to mobilize for its own event on the following day and managed to create confusion in several groups as to which was the “real” event. This came on the heels of a heated debate in which the broad-based IWD Coalition supported the struggle of Solidarity in Poland despite CP opposition.
It is thus not surprising that many activists and supporters of the women’s movement are wondering where the CP stands in relation to the growing women’s movement in the country.
The March 4 edition of the Canadian Tribune provides a clear answer. An article by Kerry McQuaig, from the women’s commission of the CP, “Is sisterhood enough to win women’s rights?” is nothing more than an outright attack on the women’s movement. It reveals the basic chauvinist position that underlies the practice of the CP.
If one were to believe the article, it is a sad situation indeed for the women in our country. “The promises made by the modern feminist movement... the fulfillment of its goals and political, economic and sexual reforms seem as far away today from being realized as when they were first formulated. In fact, the situation has worsened.”
Why is this, Ms. McQuaig asks. “Why is it that the modern feminist movement has found itself impotent in face of the attacks on women’s hard-won gains. Is it in fact equipped to lead women at this time?”
The problem, she goes on to explain, is that this entirely “middle class” movement is only interested in pinpointing men as the enemy and “struggling for advancement into managerial and professional employment” . without even glancing at society as a whole. “The trade union movement as a means for improving women’s position in society has been largely ignored.”
The movement, according to The Tribune, has in fact betrayed working-class women.
And so in effect the solution is simple. Since the modern women’s movement militates against the involvement of the most oppressed and exploited section of society – its working class – the time is due for the working class movement to build and lead this new type of women’s movement.”
The arrogance of Ms. McQuaig is at times hard to stomach. In one fell swoop she has dismissed all the progress the women’s movement has made and putout the call for the creation of something entirely new.
The facts stand in direct contradiction to McQuaig’s assertions. In the past few years the most striking phenomenon of the women’s movement has been the increasingly important role of working-class women and working-class issues. Across the country, what struggles have sparked the imagination of the women’s movement more than the Fleck, Radio Shack and Irwin Toys strikes, the Kenworth women and men fighting for equal pay for work of equal value, the postal workers striking for maternity leave, the Inco wives?
Working women’s organizations have sprung up both inside the trade unions in the form of women’s committees and outside, with groups like Saskatchewan Working Women, Hamilton Working Women and others.
March 8 has begun to be celebrated by more and more unions. The turnout this year – 100,000 across Canada – reflects its growing mass support.
McQuaig’s claim that the women’s movement is made up of middle-class women concerned only with professional advancement can only be explained because she herself has limited the women’s movement to a few groups like the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women.
But who makes up the women’s movement? Someone like Laura Sabia, of the Feminist Party of Canada, who publicly denounced the concept of paid maternity leave on CBC radio, or the thousands of postal worths who walked the picket lines to win it, the East Indian women farm workers who fought for their union in B.C., or the thousands of women in the streets against violence and rape?
It is true that many women’s groups, particularly single-issue groups, are largely made up of young intellectuals and students. But since when are they the enemy? The most important thing is that working women have become massively involved in the women’s movement and made breakthroughs for all women. A link between the workers’ movement and the women’s movement is being established.
Therefore true Marxists have to develop this trend to the maximum, strengthen the ties between the workers’ movement and the women’s movement so that it can develop an orientation and a strategy which corresponds to the fundamental interests of working-class women. Among other things, this means unmasking the “false friends” of women, the bourgeois feminists.
A second major problem in McQuaig’s arguments is the criteria that are being used to judge the success of the women’s movement. If we are to evaluate the gains uniquely on the concrete improvement in living standards, then indeed with the severe economic crisis gains have been limited. Even so, there have been important breakthroughs in economic demands and political rights.
Let us remind the CP of the important victories women have won on issues such as recognition of the principle of paid maternity leave, equal pay and affirmative action.
More important, if we understand that the source of women’s oppression lies in private property itself, and that through our daily struggles we must build up the working class’s strength to change the system then a very different evaluation emerges.
The accomplishments of the women’s movement are considerable. Over the past years we have seen how women’s issues have been very much on the agenda of working-class struggles and vice versa. This has in fact begun to build and solidify the unity of working men and women on a good basis. This unity is of strategic importance if we are to transform the system.
We have also seen in the past few years increased debate among progressive and working-class circles on the origin of women’s oppression, the fundamental solutions, the need for a women’s movement, etc.
And through this process we have also seen more and more women drawn into the fight for a socialist Canada.
Are these not important breakthroughs?
There are still women who do not understand the importance of uniting with working men, who underestimate the importance of trade unions in the fight for women’s rights, or who deny the need to fight for socialism.
Of course, there are still many debates which remain unresolved in the women’s movement. They include questions like, how do we build unity between men and women, what is the respective role of the trade unions and the autonomous women’s organizations, what kind of party do we need?
It is also true that the influence of bourgeois feminism is strong, and a criticism of this trend is necessary if the women’s movement is to continue to progress.
The point of view that women’s liberation is equivalent to “equal” participation of women in government and business has not been sufficiently exposed. There is even sometimes a hesitation among progressive women activists to do that, for fear that it will detract from the main target.
But what attitude do we take towards these debates and the women’s movement as a whole. Do we dismiss it out of hand because some hold erroneous positions?
The truth is that for the CP the ’ bottom line on the women’s movement is a poor attempt to disguise its basic chauvinist abandonment of the struggle for women’s rights.
This line goes beyond the pages of the Tribune into the daily practice of Communist Party members. In union conventions CP spokespeople have constantly refused to challenge the chauvinism and tokenism of top union leadership when controversial issues have been on the table. Two weeks ago a joint leaflet on March 8 by the education committee and the women’s committee of UAW Local 303 at GM Scarborough was blocked by the executive because it was “too expensive” and of little interest to the workers. The local CP member refused to take a stand.
There can only be one conclusion to draw. With all its fiery “defence” of working class women, the CP has not the slightest commitment to the fight for women’s liberation.