International Women’s Day – March 8, 2007

About women’s equality:
“We have overcome…discrimination with regard to religion and race, though, not altogether, but we still do suffer in this country from sex discrimination.”
About pay equity:
“If women members of Parliament were paid two thirds of male MP’s wages I would start a union with other women members…”
About women’s right to employment:
“Are the government and employers going to say to these women, ‘Well girls, you have done a nice job; you look very cute in your overalls and we appreciate what you have done for us; but run along; go home; we can get along without you very nicely”
About family income:
“Poverty is subversive…”
About police harassment:
“If only I’d known about the RCMP Convention I would have attended and taken notes”
Statements on the hustings and in the House of Commons by Dorise Neilsen, Communist (1902-1980), Unity Member of Parliament for the Federal Constituency of North Battleford Saskatchewan, 1940 -1945.
Read, “A Great Restlessness – The Life and Politics of Dorise Nielsen” by Faith Johnston 2006, University of Manitoba Press.

Women – 1940
It is sixty-seven years since Canada’s first woman Communist member of Parliament was elected to Parliament on a Unity ticket and made her voice heard all across the country on behalf of workers and farmers, who in the 1940’s were still living in poverty and want from the “ten lost years” of the great depression. Nielsen was initially greeted in the House of Commons with bemused forbearance by male MP’s so long as she appeared to be only concerned about “women’s issues”. Nielsen quickly earned the ire and hatred of the Liberals and Conservatives when she made it clear that she was in Parliament to speak for the working class, the drought stricken farm families, men, women and children, and all those who struggled for equality, social and economic rights and for an end to the privileges of political and economic power. She became the target of police harassment and attempts to brand her as subversive as she spoke openly about her conviction that capitalism was not the answer for working people and that socialism was inevitable.
The year she was elected she was the lone woman member of Parliament. Only a small minority of women earned wages or could aspire to economic independence. Nielsen represented a drought stricken dirt poor section of Northern Saskatchewan where poverty was the norm and women lived in abject poverty. The mother of three, she joined with others in her community to fight against foreclosures, for cash relief, for farm assistance and the needs of the rural and urban unemployed. The unity movement she represented included communists, social democrats, social credit and all rural and urban poor seeking a way out of the grinding poverty and despair of the depression.
In her final year as an MP, World War Two was winding down and demobilization of the armed forces was imminent. Women who had flocked into the war industries and all branches of the economy in large numbers were under pressure from Liberal and Conservative governments to give up their paid employment and return to the unpaid drudgery of housework. Not only was the stance of the old line parties reactionary to the core, it was a monumental misreading of post-war economic development in which women were destined to become what they are today, an indispensable component of the labor force.
Women - 2007
In 2005 almost one half of the labour force in Canada was women. The increase in the employment rate of women with children under 16 years of age was 39% in 1976 and 73% in 2004. Today 79% of women under the age of 55 with no children are wage earners. Fifty-five percent of all social and health care workers are women. Women can be found driving huge trucks in the oil sands, on the assembly line in Oshawa, in all trades, technologies and the arts and sciences. That is the good news.
Stats Can data is not current or complete but what is available reveals that in spite of constituting one half of the work force average annual earnings in 2003 was $24,800 for women and $39,100 for men. Women in the workforce on average earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. Stats Can averages are unreliable as a measure of the real pay disparities in the work force where the majority of women are grossly underpaid. Most women wind up in low paying service industries or in part time jobs with low pay and no benefits.
Forward to the Past – Harper’s Bleak Plan for Women
The Harper Conservatives have essentially the same program today as the Conservatives espoused in 1940 when Dorise Nielsen battled them in the House of Commons. Intoning family values, the Harper Conservatives have dismantled women’s support programs, killed the universal child care program, turned their backs on equity demands, attempted to impose a religious straight jacket of right wing political correctness on the role of women in society which taken together reveals the real program of Harper; a cry for the past. Harper gives support to ideas that discourage women from seeking economic independence, equality and respect. Harper gains inspiration by looking backwards six decades to the social invisibility of the unpaid domestic drudgery suffered by women in the dirty thirties and into the 1950’s and elevating their despair into an ideal that never existed except in Harpers middle class imagination.

Women and Politics
Enlightened political thinkers and activists recognized that the presence of women in the work force is permanent and necessary. The economy would not function otherwise. The two income household is a matter of economic survival, not choice, as the extreme religious right postulates. Because women have economic power, they potentially wield greater political power today than they did six decades ago. All political parties develop “women’s platforms”. There are sixty four women members of Parliament. Many are out standing Parliamentarians who conduct a struggle for women’s rights and are among the most outspoken advocates of peace and justice. Regardless of which party they represent, most continue to confront male chauvinist behaviors in the House and are subjected to impudent invasions of privacy by the media attesting to something brazen and morbid in our society, the media portrayal of women as objects not as human beings.
Still, women continue to be under represented in Parliament and that is particularly true of the majority of women who are employed for wages and salaries. Because of their under representation working women are effectively excluded from the political decisions of government that directly affect their day to day lives.
Where women are able to assert the greatest influence on politics is through their membership in the ranks of organized labour. Union membership in 2006 was 4,441,000 constituting a union density of the 30.8% of the non-agricultural work force. The Canadian Labour Congress represents 3,156,500 workers. The service sector accounting for 70% of the Canadian economy, employs large numbers of women hence the rapid growth of women in the ranks of organized labour. Women work in highly unionized industries such as health care and public administration where they constitute the majority. Women lead large unions in health and education. It is remarkable to see International Women’s Day events organized in every corner of the country by the organized labour movement. That was not the case sixty years ago. We have advanced – admittedly there is still a long way to go.
On this International Women’s Day, as the country confronts another federal election the greatest immediate threat to all of the gains that women have achieved since the outbreak of the Second World War, all of the sacrifices such militants as Dorise Nielsen and thousands of others have made on behalf of women’s equality and economic emancipation emanates from the Harper Conservatives.
The Harper Conservatives can be defeated and the cause of women’s equality of rights advanced, but only as the result of the broadest electoral unity at the polls. The extreme right will do everything they can to divide working women and men, set Quebec against Canada, the west against the east, foment differences based on racial profiling, spreading chauvinism fear and war hysteria.
There is one task for labour and the left above all others on this International Women’s Day – To take the slogan that elected Dorise Nielsen and elevate it to the battle cry of the whole labour movement! Unite the left – defeat the right! UNITY! UNITY! UNITY!