Immigrant Women and Feminist Activism

The resurgence of feminist activism in Canada during the period from the 1970s to the 1990s coincided with large-scale immigration. Between 1946 and 1971, more than 3.5 million immigrants entered Canada. A continuing “White Canada” admission policy ensured that, before 1975, most immigrants were still white, whether of British, American, or European origins. Following the introduction of a nominally race-blind admission system—the “points system” of 1967—the source countries and the racial make-up of immigrants changed dramatically. The proportion of immigrants from Europe dropped sharply, while those from Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa increased significantly. Alongside the liberalized admission laws and Liberal multicultural policy-making, however, were the guest-worker schemes that still today recruit racialized women (and men) to perform work (such as domestic labour) shunned by Canadians under conditions akin to indentured labour.

Women who immigrated to Canada as the sponsored “family dependent” of husbands were often denied welfare, housing, and old-age security, and they had limited access to ESL and job-training programs. Such inequities could reinforce men’s patriarchal authority and women’s dependency within the family. Wage-earning wives and mothers, many of them non-English-speaking women from southern Europe and elsewhere, toiled in low-paying jobs in the manufacturing and service sectors. But many of them also derived a sense of pride from the fact that their wages helped to ensure the survival of their family.

At the same time, the wages earned by Caribbean, Filipina, and other women who arrived as foreign domestic workers provided critical support to their families back home. But they were recruited through highly exploitative temporary labour schemes that restricted their movement and choices. Concerned for these workers—who toiled in the isolated households of middle-class women pursuing careers or other interests—immigrant feminist activists worked with them to expose the exploitation and improve their situation. Efforts to unionize failed. Still, a 1981 campaign resulted in establishing a pathway to landed immigrant status, and eventually, citizenship for thousands of foreign domestic workers. Nevertheless, the struggle for migrants’ rights continues, the pandemic having both revealed and intensified the huge inequities and injustices involved.

In response to the inequities created by Canadian immigration and social policies, and the limitations of the mainstream social agencies, immigrant women, many of them racialized women, mobilized to demand policy reforms and social services. They also built grassroots organizations. Some of these activists were feminists who either arrived already politicized or who became feminists in Canada. Others were social justice activists whose politics had been forged in homeland struggles against colonialism and authoritarian regimes. Still others were  immigrant women, or their daughters, who became involved in shop-floor struggles, workplace organizing, and in their union and the wider labour movement.

The new social agencies that took root, particularly in major cities, offered the familiar immigrant and settlement services, such as English classes, interpretation/translation services, skills-training, counselling, and legal aid support. But they were founded and run by immigrant women whose advocacy and activist work were shaped by an egalitarian ethos and by the needs and interests of immigrant women like themselves.

Immigrant women’s activism was shaped as well by the concerns of the wider women’s movement. But their analyses of the issues—such as gender inequity, violence against women, and women’s reproductive rights—often differed from that of white liberal feminists and socialist feminists, producing tensions and conflict. For example, the former argued that the latter’s insistence that paid work offered women the promise of greater economic independence ignored other factors in the workplace, such as systemic racism and immigrant status.

The differences between white or “mainstream” Canadian feminists and immigrant women activists reflected different understandings of the family and motherhood. A few examples. Liberal and socialist feminists emphasized the importance of women obtaining economic independence through paid work and attributed men’s violence against women to patriarchal values and institutions. Noting that the family also provided a refuge from host society hostility and racism, immigrant women criticized white feminists for ignoring the systemic racism and other barriers that plagued them. As well, many immigrant women became life-long workers, but their job choice was influenced by familial duties. Thus, for example, Italian, Portuguese, and other women took on home-based garment work or night-time office-cleaning so they could watch their children. Also, factory workers and others who went “out to work” withdrew periodically from the workforce to care for children or deal with a family crisis.

Another source of tensions concerned paid work and wages for housework. Drawing on materialist or liberal theories, white Canadian feminists viewed paid work as a means of liberating women from domestic drudgery, and they demanded pay equity. By contrast, racialized immigrant women called for employment equity legislation that would also include people with disabilities, Indigenous peoples, and racialized men as well as women. Some immigrant women and their feminist allies lobbied for wages for housework on the grounds that the critical reproductive labour they performed should be recognized.

Immigrant women, including Catholics, were not necessarily opposed to abortion, and some agencies helped them to access safe abortions. However, as Indigenous, immigrant, and poor women who had endured state-imposed sterilization policies and genocidal campaigns, they wanted “choice” to also include the right to have the children they wanted. In 1977, the Immigrant Women’s Centre in Toronto declined an invitation to join the Coalition for Abortion Rights on these grounds.

Immigrant women shared with Canadian feminists a concern about violence against women, but their racial and marginalized status meant they often addressed the matter differently. For example, Black and other racialized women also spoke out against police violence against Black men. South Asian women fleeing abusive husbands came up against culturally insensitive women’s shelter staff who blamed their religion and culture for the violence they suffered. To meet the needs of immigrant and other marginalized women, immigrant and racialized activists mobilized to establish shelters such as Toronto’s Shirley Samaroo House, which opened in the early 1980s.

Sources include Margaret Little, Lynne Marks, Marin Beck, Emma Paszat, Liza Tom, “Family Matters: Immigrant Women Activists and Mainstream Feminists in Ontario and BC, 1960s-1980s, Atlantis 41:1 (2021): 105-123.