The Modern Women's Movement

The women's movement strives to end discrimination and violence against women through legal, political, and social change. It is one of the most influential social movements in the modern western world and can be divided into two waves. The first began in Newfoundland in the 1890s and eventually brought about voting rights for women. The second has focused on ending gender inequalities in laws, politics, the workplace, and society in general. It gained strength after 1970, when the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (established by the Canadian government in 1967) released its report.

The modern women's movement has lobbied for, and brought about a variety of social reforms. Issues of concern have included: pay equity, pension benefits, affirmative action, day care, reproductive rights, domestic and sexual violence, sexism and sex-role stereotyping, matrimonial property rights, and women's representation in government. The movement encompasses many groups, which operate at the community and bureaucratic levels, including Status of Women councils, women's union groups, native women's groups, rural women's groups, and a Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women.

The Royal Commission on the Status of Women

In 1967, a national campaign launched by a coalition of 32 women's groups prompted the Canadian government to appoint a Royal Commission on the Status of Women. The commission was the first in Canadian history to be chaired by a woman, the CBC journalist Florence Bird. Its mandate was to "inquire into and report upon the status of women in Canada, and to recommend what steps might be taken by the Federal Government to ensure for women equal opportunities with men in all aspects of Canadian society" (Report vii).

The commission held public hearings across the country, and 468 individuals and organizations submitted briefs. Six came from Newfoundland and Labrador, which focused largely on discrimination against women in the workforce. For example, the provincial minimum wage for women was 50 cents per hour, while men earned 70 cents. Married women also faced barriers. The St. John's Club of the Canadian Federation of University Women complained that Memorial University's Terms and Conditions of Employment required that "upon the marriage of a female teacher, her employment shall terminate" (qtd. in Pope 168). Inadequate day care services were highlighted, as was a lack of educational opportunities for women, particularly in rural areas. It was also recommended that the province's Judicature Act be revised to allow women to serve on juries.

The commission found that women from across the country told similar stories, and concluded that they faced systemic discrimination and social injustice because of their sex. Its 1970 report made 167 recommendations aimed at giving Canadian women the same rights and benefits as men. It addressed such matters as family law, tax law, day care, equal pay for equal work, sex discrimination in hiring practices, and access of women to educational opportunities, pensions, maternity leave, and birth control.

The commission brought women's issues into the public consciousness, and provided an important platform for women's voices. It was a catalyst for the modern women's movement, which became a significant social force in the coming years. In every province, women's groups were formed to ensure that the commission's recommendations were implemented, and in general, to fight for gender equality.

The Modern Women's Movement in Newfoundland and Labrador

The commission's report motivated many women in Newfoundland to redefine their place in society. Three events helped to kick-start the local movement.

The first was a national gathering of approximately 800 Canadian women, including a group from Newfoundland, at the Strategy for Change conference in Toronto. Held on 7-9 April 1972, the conference was convened by the National Ad Hoc Action Committee on the Status of Women to speed up government response to the commission's recommendations. It motivated women to organize and lobby for positive change in their home provinces, and culminated in the founding of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC).

A provincial gathering took place in St. John's later that month, when Judge Doris Ogilvie, one of the royal commissioners, spoke to the St. John's Business and Professional Women's Club. The talk was attended by more than 200 women, and prompted some of those present to form the Newfoundland Status of Women's Council (NSWC). The Council held its first general meeting on 18 September 1972, and elected an executive. Its object was to pressure the provincial government to act on the commission's recommendations.

A third event occurred in June 1972, when the Social Action Committee of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) invited the Canadian feminist filmmaker and activist Bonnie Kreps to St. John's. Kreps was a publicist for the women's movement, and introduced the concept of consciousness-raising groups to Newfoundland. These groups were already popular across North America. They brought together women from different backgrounds and ages to discuss and analyze their lives and uncover problems shared by all women in society.


During the 1970s and 1980s, women's groups sprang up across the province. No single organization spoke for the women's movement, which was in essence a loose amalgamation of community groups. But the NSWC made important early headway and helped pave the way for future similar groups. Early in its existence, the NSWC set up 'ginger groups' to study specific areas of concern identified by the commission and work towards solutions. The group that examined education, for example, presented a brief on sex education to the Provincial Task Force on Curriculum, and another on sex-stereotyping in school texts to Memorial University's Committee on Teacher Education.

In February 1973, the NSWC received a $3,000 grant from the federal Department of the Secretary of State to open the province's first women's centre, located in downtown St. John's. It eventually found a permanent home on Military Road in 1977, after 20 NSWC members donated $100 each for a down payment. Women's centres provide many services, including community education, lending libraries, meeting space, employment counseling, referrals to social service agencies and health-care programs, and confidential non-judgmental support for women in crisis. In the coming years, the NSWC expanded its services to include a 24-hour rape-crisis hotline, a rape-crisis centre, counseling services for victims of domestic violence, and short- and long-term shelter for abused women and children.

Status of Women Councils were formed in other communities, and were based on, but autonomous from, the NSWC. They opened in Corner Brook (1973), Grand Falls (1975), Labrador West (1977), Happy Valley-Goose Bay (1979), Port-aux-Basques (1982), Gander (1983), and Bay St. George (1985). In 1984, the NSWC changed its name to the St. John's Status of Women Council in recognition of the regional nature of the councils. As of 2012, all eight councils are still operating, although there have been setbacks - in 1986, for example, the Grand Falls Council (known as the Central Newfoundland Status of Women Council) disbanded due to a shortage of volunteers; it was reestablished in 1999.

Regional councils gave women a united voice on local issues. In 1978, for example, the Corner Brook council helped women squid jiggers organize and demand unemployment insurance. Although the jiggers paid into the insurance program, only two of the 250 women who applied for coverage that year were approved - and their first names were Georgie and Frankie. As a result of the protests, the government recognized all claims.

In March 1978, the province's native women formally assembled in Nain for the first time at the Northern Labrador Women's Conference. They discussed problems facing native women in society and identified ways to improve their social conditions. The Nain Women's Group formed in June of that year and became a significant social presence in the community by providing such services as a daycare centre, a shelter for battered women, and a thrift shop.

Other native women's groups were established later, at Sheshatshiu, Hopedale, North West River, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Port Hope Simpson, and Davis Inlet. In 1983, the Labrador Native Women's Association was formed as an umbrella group for Innu, Inuit, and Southern Inuit of NunatuKavut women in northern and central Labrador; non-native women could join as associate members. It is still active, as of 2012.

Women became more active in the labour movement during the 1970s and 1980s. As their female membership increased, unions began to fight for such reforms as affirmative action, pay equity, day care, and equal pension plans for women workers. In 1976, the province's largest union, the Newfoundland Association of Public Employees (NAPE), formed a Women's Committee, which began holding annual women's conferences in 1977. By 1988, women accounted for half of NAPE's membership. The same year, the province agreed that women public servants should receive the same pay as men for the same work. Similar developments took place in other unions.

In 1981, a Women's Resource Centre opened on the Memorial University campus to provide information on a variety of topics, including health care, birth control, sexual assault, pregnancy, depression, drug use, and career planning. Two years later, students could minor in a new interdisciplinary Women's Studies program, an academic field which emerged in North America in the 1970s as a direct result of the women's movement. The program sought to expand students' understanding of women and gender in all aspects of society, including politics, the mass media, the arts, religion, science, sports, labour, and everyday interactions. Undergraduate major and graduate programmes followed.

The effects of the women's movement were also seen at the bureaucratic level. In 1980, the Newfoundland government created the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women (PACSW). This is an arms-length body created to advise the government on status of women issues, and generally to raise awareness of such issues. It works with eight regional Status of Women Councils and other groups to advise government on how policy and legislation affect women. In 1985, the government created an internal agency known as the Women's Policy Office to coordinate its efforts to advance the status of women in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Political Action

Lobbying efforts by women's groups have brought about significant policy change in the province. In 1972, for example, the province passed the Jury Duty Reform Act which allowed women to serve on juries. Though an important step forward, women could still opt out of jury duty if they wished. Women's groups thought that women should have the same obligations as men, so they could play an equal role in the justice system. This reform came years later, in the 1991 Jury Act.

In 1979, the legislature passed the Anti-Discrimination Human Rights Act, which changed the wording of several pieces of provincial legislation to protect the rights of women and other groups. Terms such as 'wife', 'widow', and 'mother' were replaced with gender-neutral words such as 'spouse' and 'parent'. The changes affected such legislation as the Civil Service Act, the Constabulary (Pensions) Act, the Interpretation Act, and the Workers' Compensation Act. A major victory came in July 1980, with the passage of the Matrimonial Property Act. The legislation recognized an equal division of property upon separation or divorce. It also guaranteed that widowed women and men would inherit the matrimonial home.

The women's movement also encouraged women to run for political office. In 1987, volunteers with community women's organizations and the Provincial Advisory Committee on the Status of Women started a campaign called the 52% Solution. It sent volunteers and prominent women politicians and activists across the island on a bus tour to encourage women to run for office. It reminded women that although they made up 52 per cent of the population, they only accounted for a small minority of government seats. In that year, only one of the House of Assembly's 52 seats was held by a woman (Progressive Conservative Lynn Verge). At the federal level, no Newfoundland and Labrador women were elected until 1993.

There were other initiatives. In 1997, the Women's Mentoring Program was established through the PACSW. It helped female candidates organize campaigns for election to government office and to health, education, and regional economic development boards. A Women's Network, active in the 1980s and 1990s, helped identify potential women candidates and encourage them to run for office.

Since the 1980s, women's representation has increased at all levels of government, but slowly. It has never come close to mirroring the number of women in the population. As of 2012, there have never been more than 10 female MHAs or two MPs serving at any one time. Increasing women's representation in government remains a major goal of many women's groups in the province.

Another major challenge is how to remain effective in a time of growing financial stringency. Mounting government debt and economic recessions in the 1990s and early 2000s prompted governments to decrease the amount of money spent on women's groups and programs.

Although the modern women's movement has made significant progress, its goals remain largely the same as in the 1970s and 1980s: end violence against women, achieve gender parity in politics, provide more opportunities for women in managerial and decision-making roles, and work towards financial equality in the workforce. The Women's Policy Office and Provincial Advisory Council still operate at the bureaucratic level, while the eight Status of Women Councils are joined by various native women's groups, labour union committees, and other organizations at the community level.

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