The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan

 

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Women’s Movement, 1970–2004

The women’s movement in Saskatchewan in the 1970s resulted from the radicalization of women’s issues in the 1960s. Its relationship to the political realm has often been problematical. Major concerns included childcare, technological change, unionization, pay equity, abortion rights, protection against violence, and women’s health. A critical strategy was the development of organizational coalitions for the purpose of advocacy and pressure; they have dealt with violence, abortion rights, health, international solidarity, and racism. In some cases coalitions were based on national initiatives, particularly regarding abortion rights. Also, the Saskatchewan Action Committee on the Status of Women, an attempt to unite women under a representative umbrella organization, emerged in the mid-1970s.

Several issues were related to the workplace, where women’s participation was on the increase: by 2000, they accounted for 46% of the paid workforce in the province (compared with 37% in 1980). The income gap between men and women, though narrowing, is still present: in 1999 it was 66% of men’s income, compared to 45% in 1980. As well, women have traditionally been confined to ghettoized workplaces: service work, health, food and accommodation sectors, education, and sales—much of it part-time. Aboriginal women faced additional hurdles: lower-end jobs, inequality in employment and income, and racism.

In the 1970s new organizations developed, partly mirroring developments elsewhere in Canada, as radicalization occurred. They focused on working and poor women’s rights and needs, as opposed to more traditional women’s organizations, which were grounded in middle-class perspectives. Significant among these in terms of unionization and working women’s rights was Saskatchewan Working Women (SWW), which developed in the latter 1970s as a response of radicalized women to the need for an organization with a working-class position that focused on women’s issues in the workplace. The 1970s also saw the emergence of community-based organizations focusing on health issues, including abortion, reproductive rights, and protection from violence. They developed from university women’s centres and self-help groups, and included women’s centres and crisis centres in Regina and Saskatoon. Regina’s Transition House and Saskatoon’s Interval House, which focus upon providing shelter against violence, were among the first such initiatives in Canada. Women’s health was, and is, also an important issue: early organizations were Regina Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Healthsharing and, later (1995), the Prairie Women’s Health Centre of Excellence.

Rights of Aboriginal and immigrant women became an important concern, and Aboriginal women’s services, organizations, and support groups developed; women are now playing a more formal role in Aboriginal government. Immigrant women developed self-help organizations, such as Immigrant Women of Saskatchewan and the Congress of Black Women. A recurring concern, equal pay for equal work, came to the fore in 1991 when the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour sponsored a pay equity coalition to pressure the new NDP government. Advocacy has achieved a policy framework for pay equity which has had limited success: it applies to government sector women (1997) and health workers (1998), but not to poor women in ghettoized workplaces or to non-union private sector women. Government’s response to women’s pressure did lead to the development of structures devoted to women’s policy, research and service that date back to the 1960s. Shifts have occurred, from the Women’s Bureau, Division, Secretariat, and now the Status of Women’s Office. Although the 2002 move to totally eradicate this function failed in the face of protest, the attempt illustrated waning governmental support of a wide range of women-centred initiatives.

In the 1970s, expanded government financial and program support for social assistance initiatives had meant growth of women’s organizations. Many, however, became dependent upon government financing; governments chose to shift responsibility to these organizations for provision of services in order to meet rising demand with less expenditure on their part. This policy led to difficulties when governments (provincial and federal) reduced support. By the late 1980s, a time when the women’s movement was no longer front-page news, federal and provincial Conservative governments slashed funding. Such cuts severely handicapped organizations—Aboriginal, White, and immigrant—and resulted in a significant drop in advocacy and service. The 1991 provincial election lessened financial constraints, but the strategy of leaving service delivery to women’s organizations remained. Many organizations, unable to engage in social action, were forced to scramble for funding and to focus upon delivery of services.

The progressive anticipations of the women’s movement, born in the 1970s, have been eroded by neo-liberal policies; in addition, new demands and issues need attention. At present, significant organizations maintain critical services and research; sporadic joint actions emerge; new initiatives are developing around Aboriginal feminism; and the Prairie School for Union Women, begun in 1997, is evidence that working women’s initiatives are continuing.

Sheila M. Roberts

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