In 2001, sociologist Meg Luxton reminded us that Canadian feminism has always been a “Class Act”. In doing so, she highlighted a core aspect of intersectional theory that is only too readily forgotten in North America, albeit perhaps less so in monarchial Canada than in republican USA. In fact, class (or rank) is a central feature of most societies, a key determinant of opportunity and well-being, and a factor that sometimes overshadows race, sexuality, and gender.
The working class has always contributed activists committed to equality rights for both women and men. Most have been associated with organized labour and radical politics. In Canada, examples include Katie McVicar (1856-1886), a Hamilton member of the Knights of Labour, which aspired to unionize “all workers regardless of gender, race, or level of skill” (Kealey), and Jeanne Corbin (1906-1943) who edited the Communist newspaper, L’Ouvrier Canadien, in Montreal and supported the 1933 lumber workers’ strike in Abitibi (Lévesque).
In the early 1930s, the Toronto-born teenager Grace Fulcher dropped out of high school to repair carpets when her mother’s long bout with death-dealing cancer crippled family finances. She also met a slightly older suitor, Joe Hartman, who, along with his Scottish-born mother, Mary, helped introduce her to Marxist explanations for distress and exploitation before their marriage in 1939. She discarded the casual anti-semitism and conservatism of her Ontario-bred
father (Crease, 17-22). In a reflection as well of the centrality of communism to protest during the Great Depression of the 1930s, she joined the Canadian Communist Party: she “wanted to see things changed” and “other organizations weren’t radical enough” (Besztrda). Despite the birth of two sons and her own bout with a mastectomy in the 1940s, Grace kept up part-time work and volunteering for radical unions. She was no mere pink lady.
In 1949, the family joined thousands of Canadians in the rush to postwar suburbia, in their case in North York, just north of Toronto proper. There, like many mothers, she focused on child-raising and contributing to her new community (Strong-Boag). In 1954, the Hartmans would return to Toronto but the suburbs gave Grace critical experiences in her era’s promise of middle-class comforts. These would later inform her leadership of diverse groups of workers. With her husband’s construction income uncertain, Grace also became part of Canada’s growing band of so-called ‘working mothers’ as a full-time clerk-typist for North York’s civic government. Although the men in her household were accustomed, unlike most, to taking their share of domestic work, she understood the guilt that society liked to pile on working mums.
Grace carried her politics into full-time employment and immediately joined the executive of her local of the National Union of Public Employees, a white collar group struggling to be taken seriously by traditional blue collar unionists. Her commitment to women’s rights deepened as the workplace and, sometimes, unions gave her ample opportunity to observe favouritism to and harassment by men. In 1960 when she became president of the Metro Toronto District Council of Public Employees, the Toronto Star hailed her as a wonder of the day: “She Looks after Job, Hubby, Two Sons and 2 Labor Unions” (Crean, 59). By 1966, she was firmly in the public eye, helping to lead mass demonstrations of public sector workers against the anti-union legislation of Ontario’s Conservative government. In 1975 she was elected president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which in overtaking the Steelworkers (an overwhelmingly male union) that year became the nation’s largest labour group. Thus a Canadian became the first woman to lead a major union in North America.
As Hartman moved up in union ranks, the Second Wave women’s movement was emerging as focus for her loyalties and talent. In 1963 “she gave the first of her ‘State of Women in the Union’ speeches” (Crean, 75) that championed part-time workers, daycare, and maternity leave. By 1965 she was chairing the first Women’s Committee of the Ontario Federation of Labour. A year later, she was the union leader on the steering committee of the Committee for the Equality of Women in Canada led by Laura Sabia (1916-1996) as it successfully lobbied for the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada (1967-1970) (Andrew). Hartman was key to ensuring that the labour movement was on-side and that the Commission paid major attention to economic and union issues.
Grace nevertheless remained sceptical when other feminists took up causes such as the moniker ‘Ms’, which she saw as essentially meaningless in addressing life’s real problems. When she went to prison in support of Ontario’s striking hospital workers (most of whom were women) in 1981, she made it clear that economic rights were the critical battleground. While Grace Hartman was sometimes criticized for pragmatism and bridge-building, the assessment of her biographer seems fair: “She took the voice and presence of working-class women into places where they had never been heard or felt before, into cabinet rooms and council chambers, onto the national news and into public debates … [as] part of the ferment and the activism around nationalism and feminism in Canada”(Crean, 222). In the process, she confirmed that the women’s movement properly belonged to women of all classes.
Photo credit: Susan Crean
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Besztrda, Alex, “Grace Hartman: Paving a Trail for women in Unions,” http://www.cupe1975.ca/bursary/alex.html, CUPE Works for Me! 1975, accessed 29 Jan. 2014.
Crean, Susan, Grace Hartman: A Woman for Her Time (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1995).
Kealey, Gregory S. “McVicar, Kate (Katie),” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, XI (1881-1890), http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcvicar_kate_11E.html, accessed 29 Jan. 2014.
Léveque, Andrée, Red Travellers: Jeanne Corbin & Her Comrades (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006).
Luxton, Meg, “Feminism as a Class Act: Working-Class Feminism and he Women’s Movement in Canada,” Labour/Le Travail, 48 (Fall 2001): 63-88.
Strong-Boag, Veronica, “Home Dreams: Women and the Suburban Experiment in Canada, 1945-60,” Canadian Historical Review 72:4 (1991): 471-504.