Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Communist Party and the Woman Question, 1922-1929

By Joan Sangster
Spring, 1985

Annie Buller with Estevan Miners
"IS FEMINISM DEAD?" was the question posed by mass magazines like Maclean's after the success of suffrage and the decline of the Canadian feminist movement in the 1920s. Observers often responded in the affirmative; even feminists like Nellie McClung bemoaned the dearth of interest in the "old" feminist issues of pre-war days. Yet a concern for women's rights had not vanished from Canadian political life, for in the 1920s and 1930s newly-formed communist and socialist parties debated and promoted the cause of women's equality.

Indeed, as Linda Kealey has recently shown, even before World War I small groups of socialists, organized separately from the middle-class suffrage movement, had championed women's emancipation. Picking up the thin strands of tradition from these pre-war labour and socialist parties, the Communist Party of Canada (CPC), and later the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) — two parties differing in their approach to socialism and often quarrelling with each other — took up the banner of women's equality in Canadian society.

The initial objectives proclaimed by the nascent Communist Party in its manifesto of 1921s and its founding programme of 1922 made no specific mention of woman's inequality in Canadian society or her role in the revolutionary movement. Within two years, however, the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) had set up a Women's Department to initiate work among women, incorporated a women's column into the CPC newspaper, and spearheaded the formation of a national organization for working-class women, the Women's Labor Leagues (WLL). The party's growing interest in the organization of women signified important progress from the practice of the pre-war socialist movement. While the CPC's ethnic complexion and its emphasis on a class analysis of women's oppression signified continuity with the pre-war socialist movement, Communists also sought to transcend their past, embracing a new social and sexual order which included the emancipation of women.

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