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Feminism: Consciousness and Activism Since the 1960s

Modern feminism in Saskatchewan falls into three periods. In the 1960s and 1970s, Saskatchewan feminists grappled with the question of whether an autonomous women’s movement was necessary. From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, feminist activists formed issue-based advocacy groups; the three issues that dominated in this period were reproductive rights, child care, and employment equity—in particular pay equity. In the period from the early 1990s to the present, feminism has little public presence; activism involves working to maintain women’s organizations such as rape crisis lines and university women’s centres, and trying to voice feminist issues within political parties and other groups.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Saskatchewan women’s groups often focused on consciousness raising, but early on many feminists saw the need for creating more lasting institutions for women. Women students, some with no previous political connections, created women’s liberation groups on the two university campuses, which by the early 1970s had women’s centres. The Royal Commission on the Status of Women led to the formation of the Saskatchewan Action Committee on the Status of Women (SAC) in 1972. By the mid-1970s, feminists were playing central roles in creating women-centred institutions such as shelters for abused women and rape crisis centers in urban centres.

Throughout the 1980s, issue-oriented advocacy groups were the primary face of Saskatchewan feminism. The Women’s Action Collective on Health Care, Saskatchewan Working Women, Immigrant Women of Regina, and many other groups had a strong public presence, while students and faculty at the province’s two universities began to develop Women’s Studies programs. No one form of feminism dominated this era. Some feminists saw an autonomous women’s movement as essential, while others argued that it was important to raise feminist issues within mainstream organizations. Feminism had a quasi-official face as well, since the federal government provided funding to many women’s groups, including substantial funding to SAC.

In the 1990s, Saskatchewan feminism entered a period of ambivalence, less about the importance of feminist goals than about whether it was still necessary to fight for them, and if so, how. Partial victories in child care, reproductive rights, and employment equity made activism seem less urgent; yet continued cutbacks in government funding for advocacy groups such as SAC and for institutions such as shelters demonstrated how easily gains could be lost. Many people believed that the women’s movement had won its battles, even while many activists had to focus their energies on keeping endangered women’s institutions afloat. The ambivalence of Saskatchewan feminism has partial roots in the relation of feminist activism to elected governments. Starting in the 1970s, the federal government funded women’s groups, and the provincial government played an essential role in supporting women-centred organizations such as shelters, sexual assault centres, and daycares. Both levels of government treated SAC as a semi-official Voice of Women. All of this led many feminists to develop a sense of entitlement to government support, and when governments began to cut back this support in the mid-1980s, they treated the loss of entitlement as an issue.

Saskatchewan feminism became a public force under an NDP government (1971–82) that eliminated some of the most egregious forms of discrimination against women in pensions, matrimonial rights, and other areas. Yet the NDP leadership was not supportive of women who stepped outside auxiliary roles, and was ambivalent about such important issues as access to abortion and support for daycare. The many feminists with some loyalty to the NDP seldom knew whether they should try to work with government or oppose it. The Conservative government that was elected in 1982 appointed the first female Cabinet ministers in the history of the province and established a Women’s Secretariat, but shelters and rape crisis centres became prime targets of Conservative budget cutting, and feminist ideas became ideological targets. There was little incentive to try to work with this government, and Saskatchewan feminism became more overtly oppositional than it had been.

The return of the NDP to power in 1992 did not clarify the context of feminist activism. Feminist ideas had become part of mainstream politics, and women were part of the Cabinet, which made oppositional feminism seem ungrateful. Yet it is clear that feminist victories are not secure: women still face major problems in access to child care, abortions, and other services. Even so, in 2002, the NDP government eliminated the Women’s Secretariat; at the same time, changes in federal programs have effectively eliminated funding for SAC. Saskatchewan feminist consciousness and activism persist, but the directions they must take are far from clear.

Alison Hayford

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