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Québec feminism

By Mathieu Noël, under the supervision of Dominique Marquis, Laboratoire d'histoire et de patrimoine de Montréal, Université du Québec à Montréal.

The first feminist groups in Canada were established in the 19th century, at the time of the industrial revolution, in what has become known as the first wave of Western feminism. In Québec, however, the feminist movement didn't truly get started until somewhat later, with the founding of the Montreal Local Council of Women (MLCW) in 1893 and the Fédération Nationale Saint-Jean-Baptiste (FNSJB) in 1907. Until the Second World War, Québec women's demands focussed on girls' education, the legal situation of married women, women's labour, social policies, health care and, of course, the right to vote. Afterwards, women's views and demands would evolve to reflect new social realities.

First wave of feminism and fight for right to vote

The fight for women's suffrage, or the right to vote, was the major issue for Québec feminists in the first half of the 20th century. Women who clamoured for this right put forward two main arguments: the first, upheld by Marie Lacoste-Gérin-Lajoie (1867-1945) and the FNSJB, asserted mothers' traditional social role and emphasized what the maternal instinct had to offer for a new vision of society. This input could only be beneficial to society as a whole, they said, and did not in any way constitute a threat to the established order. Stressing the difference between men and women, this argument gave rise to the concept of maternalism.

In contrast, the second argument in favour of women's suffrage was advanced by liberal feminists like Idola Saint-Jean (1880-1945) and Thérèse Casgrain (1896-1981). In their view, men and women were similar enough that they ought to be considered as equals before the law and enjoy the same rights. In 1929 Thérèse Casgrain founded the League for Women's Rights in an effort to organize the struggle more effectively. Once a year, the League joined forces with the Alliance Canadienne pour le Vote des Femmes du Québec (established in 1927), headed by Idola Saint-Jean, in a march on the Québec legislature to call on the government to grant women the right to vote. Feminists also expressed their demands in writing, notably in the FNSJB's periodical La bonne parole.

Québec women obtain right to vote

The various elites of Québec society were opposed to women's suffrage. Some intellectuals, including Henri Bourassa (1868-1952), and the Roman Catholic Church, as represented by cardinals Msgr. Bégin (1840-1925) and Msgr. Villeneuve (1883-1947), regarded it as a threat to the family and to the Roman Catholic faith. The provincial Liberals of Louis-Alexandre Taschereau (1867-1952) and subsequently the Union Nationale under Maurice Duplessis (1890-1959) feared that granting women the right to vote would work in their political opponents' favour. Québec women had to wait until April 25, 1940, under the Liberal government of Adélard Godbout (1892-1956), to be granted the right to vote and run in provincial elections. At the federal level, women had been enfranchised in 1917, the government wanting to ensure it had the support of the wives and mothers of Canadian military personnel during a time of war and conscription.

Postwar years: Women return to the home

While World War II temporarily dampened Québec's feminist movement, women's participation in the war effort (rationing, factory work, farm management, etc.), made them more aware of their importance in society. After the war, even though a majority of women agreed to quit the job market and return home, their experiences became part of society's collective memory and the point of departure for a new debate.

Second wave of feminism

At a time when an increasing number of women were trying to decide how they liked suburban life in the new consumer society, two landmark books were published that denounced the situation of women: The Second Sex (1949) by French author Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) and, especially, The Feminine Mystique (1963) by American writer Betty Friedan (1921-2006). They inspired a new generation of feminists in Québec and elsewhere in the West. This second wave of feminism had two chief objectives: equality between men and women, and women's liberation.

Within the women's movement, there were essentially three distinct currents: liberal feminism, Marxist feminism and radical feminism. The first, a continuation of the initial liberal wave, sought to reform the existing system to meet women's needs better and thereby achieve equality between men and women. Most Québec feminists belonged to this current; they focussed on fighting prejudices and bringing down barriers to women's advancement, whether in politics, education or the workplace. Marxist feminists, who were a marginal group in the 1960s and '70s, wanted to overthrow the capitalist system and the institution of private property, which they saw as being at the root of the oppression of women. Last, so-called radical feminists attacked what they said was the patriarchal system and campaigned for the development and recognition of women's culture. They also contributed to the sexual revolution by encouraging women to learn more about sexuality and to embrace sexual liberation.

Women's demands

After women were granted the right to vote in 1940 and the legal capacity of married women was recognized in 1964, meaning they were no longer considered to be minors in the eyes of the law, the focus of feminist demands shifted in the second half of the 20th century. The main issues became the right to abortion, the availability of public and workplace daycare, the right to paid maternity leave, pay equity and the establishment of social services for women. Nevertheless, a number of earlier battles had still not been won, including girls' educational attainment, access to education, access to traditionally male trades, and the fight against stereotypes and discrimination.

Means used

To obtain concrete results, feminists concentrated their efforts on mobilization and organization. Various women's groups formed, and most of them joined the Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ, Quebec Women's Federation), an independent organization founded by Thérèse Casgrain in 1966. While Marxist and radical feminists organized demonstrations and sometimes encouraged acts of civil disobedience, liberal feminists opted for media campaigns and lobbying. These less confrontational methods seemed to bear fruit, as the federal government of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson set up a Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, known as the Bird Commission (1968-1970), after chairwoman Florence Bird (1908-1998). The commission proposed equality and equity between men and women and, since its hearings were televised, it helped Canadian women become more aware of their situation and the justification for their demands. In Québec, the Conseil du statut de la femme (CSF) was established in 1973 to advise the government on women's issues and to inform Québec women about their rights.

From this point on, the fight for women's rights took on a more direct political dimension, with a number of feminists getting involved in politics: some of them at the provincial level, such as Marie-Claire Kirkland-Casgrain (born 1924), the first woman member of the National Assembly, elected in 1961, and the first woman to be a member of Cabinet; Lise Payette (born 1931), the first minister of the status of women, in 1979; and Françoise David (born 1948), spokeswoman for the Québec Solidaire political party; and others in federal politics, such as Vivian Barbot (born 1941), a Bloc Québécois member of Parliament in Ottawa.

At the same time, feminist groups contributed to the defence of women and the development of women's culture through university research and achievements in the world of arts and entertainment. Beginning in the 1960s, many women made their mark in the areas of music, film, television and theatre. Denise Boucher's play Les fées ont soif (The Fairies Are Thirsty, 1978), which became famous because of the controversy surrounding attempts at censorship and its condemnation by the Catholic Church in Montreal, is a good example of feminist artistic production from this period. A feminist press and feminist literature also developed, providing new outlets for the voices of women in publications such as the newspaper Québécoises Debouttes! (1972) and the magazine La vie en rose (1980) and via publishing houses such as the Éditions du remue-ménage (1975).

Current situation

The feminist movement is still active in Québec today, defending women's rights and fighting against stereotypes, especially those common in the media and the workplace. However, it must now face up to two new realities: on the one hand, the ideological pendulum has swung back to the point where some women consider feminism to be outmoded, now doing more harm than good, while on the other hand, a men's rights movement has emerged.


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