Feminist Organizing in Federal Elections

Detail of Sylvia Luck Patterson’s drawing for Branching Out‘s 1979 Election Primer.

The newsletters, communiqués, and other documents in the Rise Up archive include materials reflecting how feminists organized around federal elections between the 1970s and the early 1990s. During this time, there were seven federal elections and each time the writ was dropped, feminists worked hard to make sure that political parties and their candidates addressed their concerns. 

Below you’ll find some selected examples of feminist activism in each of those elections, highlighting issues that were viewed as critical to advancing equality and social justice at the time. These examples are intended–with the perspective of hindsight–to give a sense of how the issues taken up by feminist organizations during Canadian federal elections have at once changed over time, and yet largely remained the same.

October 30, 1972

The few years prior to this election had seen significant mobilization around feminist issues including contributions to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, organizing around changes to the abortion law, and the establishment of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, to name a few. Activism around the election tended to focus, however, on addressing the very substantial representation gap in federal politics, “seeking out women candidates who will stress women’s priority issues at all levels of government” and aiming to transform the parties from within.
 Still, women were also organizing to address certain issues. An article in the May-June 1972 issue of The Other Woman (p.13) identified the “removal of discrimination in education in employment practices,” access to information about family planning, abortion law reform, and child care as key issues. And an event in Halifax on “Women’s Issues in Election Year,” highlighted matrimonial property, equal pay, “rug-ranking” (tying assistants’ promotions and pay to their bosses’ performance), child care and appointments to boards and commissions as issues of concern. 

Detail from the event poster for "Women's Issues in Election Year" (Halifax, 1972).
Detail from the event poster for “Women’s Issues in Election Year” (Halifax, 1972).

July 8, 1974

In 1974, Branching Out contacted the federal parties to get their positions on issues that “women in particular might be concerned about,” including “abortion law reform, provision of and funding for day care centres,” and discrimination against women in both government and industry as well as unemployment and inflation, among others. The resulting article includes a specific response sent from the NDP, as well as excerpts from the Progressive Conservative Party’s pamphlet entitled “Prepared for the Challenge – Women in Canada,” and the Liberal Party’s pamphlet entitled “The Woman in Canada.”

May 22, 1979

In an article for Upstream, Esther Shannon reviewed what the three federal parties were “offering to women” focusing particularly on “affirmative action,” “economic measures—women in the workforce,” “pension commitments,” and “criminal code amendments” to address spousal rape, as well as equality in the Indian Act, abortion law reform, and funding to social services. The same issue of Upstream (page 8) includes an election “scorecard” that tracks each party’s stance on key issues. 

The cover image for Branching Out's 1979 Election Primer. The image is attributed to Sheila Luck.
The cover image for Branching Out‘s 1979 Election Primer. The image is attributed to Sheila Luck.

February 18, 1980

A failed budget vote in December 1979 meant that the government fell, and Canadians were quickly sent back to the polls. Even with the constraints of an unplanned election, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) together with the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Womenco-produced an election kit for voters — with questions that people could ask their candidates. The list of issues that the document presented is long, including (among others): pensions, amendments to the Indian Act, equalization payments, spousal rape, social services, the enforcement of spousal support payments, weapons testing in Canada, sexism in education, employment and pay equity, changes to unemployment insurance that were disproportionately affecting women, parental benefits, child care, and federal appointments to the boards, commissions, the Senate and the judiciary.

September 4, 1984

Issues affecting women were a central part of the 1984 election campaign. NAC organized the first Leader’s Debate on Women’s Issues, which saw the leaders of the day grapple with a number of key issues, including socio-economic inequality, child care, violence against women, and the arms race. The widely-viewed debate was the first to have an all-female panel questioning the leaders, a fact particularly notable given the controversy about gender in leaders’ debates in 2019.

That same year, other organizations created a variety of resources that would help voters find out parties’ and candidates’ positions on key issues. The Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women distributed the first of its “Shocking Pink Papers” which included sections on politics, violence against women, “birth planning,” pensions, technological change, day care, parental benefits, part-time work, “job ghettoes,” and the wage gap. The 1984 issue of the Alberta Status of Women Committee Newsletter also included a questionnaire for local candidates with sections on abortion, affirmative action, battered women, support payments, and lesbian and gay rights (page 8).

November 21, 1988

Facing barriers to the organization of a second leaders’ debate on women’s issues, some of NAC ‘s questions were incorporated into a general leaders’ debate, with issues including abortion, child care, free trade, and violence against women. These concerns overlapped, at least in part with the second “Shocking Pink Paper” which focused on violence against women, pornography, housing, “double discrimination,” childcare, parental leave, the wage gap, pensions, tax reform, free trade, reproductive health (i.e. abortion and contraception), and the election of more women to Parliament.

In a notable post-election issue, articles in The Womanist addressed a series of issues left of parties’ and candidates’ campaigns, including Indigenous rights, the experiences of farm women, LGBTQ rights, housing, and the use of nuclear submarines, to name a few.

A button from NAC's 1988 "Women Vote" campaign. The campaign (which also ran prior to the 1984 election), highlighted the potential for women, acting as voting bloc, to both elect more women to Parliament and to make policy change (including, for example, free trade).
button from NAC’s 1988 “Women Vote” campaign. The campaign (which also ran prior to the 1984 election), highlighted the potential for women, acting as voting bloc, to both elect more women to Parliament and to make policy change (including, for example, free trade).  

October 25, 1993

The 1993 Shocking Pink Paper addressed childcare, violence against women, employment language training, employment equity, pay equity, unpaid work, child support, pensions, tax reform, discrimination in unemployment insurance eligibility, housing, health, and the representation of women in politics. 

The Fall 1993 edition of The Womanist, addressed a much broader range of issues, providing in-depth analysis (as well as the party positions) on 17 key issues: debt, healthcare, international security and Canadian foreign policy, environmental policy, free trade, violence against women, Indigenous self-government, social programs, child care, cultural policy, human rights (i.e., on the basis of Indigeneity, race, dis/ability, ethno-cultural origin, sexual orientation), fisheries, agriculture, abortion, new reproductive technologies and, immigration and refugees.

What emerges from this (very partial, selected) history is the range of issues that have been critical to different feminist organizations in three decades of elections.

Changing priorities over this time period also point to how much progress has been made as calls to equalize the distribution of matrimonial property and to criminalize sexual violence within marriages were eventually answered. In other areas–inequality in the workforce, for example–some advances have occurred, but equality and justice are far from realized. And on others, while much has happened, little has changed. 

In 2019, we are still waiting for substantial progress on many longstanding issues–the rights of Indigenous women and girls, violence against women, access to abortion, childcare, and inequality in the workforce, are only a few…the list goes on and on.

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