Oral History, Immigrant Women’s Organizing and the Women’s Movement

Oral history allows people to narrate their own experiences of the past in ways that are invaluable in capturing the more ordinary, everyday aspects of history, bringing the experiences of marginalized communities—who have long faced archival silence and objectification—to the fore. Growing up as the daughter of a Portuguese immigrant, my first encounters with oral history were as a little girl sitting on my father’s lap at family gatherings while my sisters and cousins played elsewhere. I marvelled at my family’s stories as they spanned generations, borders, and languages.

Newly released videos from the Women Unite project use oral history to draw attention to the experiences of immigrant women, including Portuguese Workers and the Birth of Cleaners’ Action in 1975 and the Founding of Toronto Wages for Housework in 1975, with more to come.

A photo of the INTERCEDE contingent and banner at 1990 International Women's Day March in Toronto.
Toronto IWD (1990)
Photo credit: Amy Gottlieb

During the 1970s, grassroots organizations by and for immigrant women were founded in Toronto to address a wide range of issues. Among these groups were the Immigrant Women’s Health Centre (also referred to as the Immigrant Women’s Centre), Women Working with Immigrant Women, YWCA West Indian Women’s Program, Immigrant Women’s Job Place­ment Centre, Committee Against the Deportation of Immigrant WomenINTERCEDE, and Rexdale Women’s Centre.

These video interviews showcase some of the ways that immigrant women organized within, and sometimes in tension with, feminist activism in Toronto from the 1970s to the 1990s.

The topic of immigrant women’s involvement in feminist activism has often been sidelined. This in turn has produced problematic stereotypes of immigrant women as apolitical wives, mothers, and daughters. Yet, immigrant women’s organizations shaped and informed activism on a range of issues central to feminist organizing in the period, and contested the assumptions of the “mainstream”, largely white, women’s movement.  

Some of the best examples of immigrant women’s influence are visible in reproductive politics. For example, in a 1977 statement, the Immigrant Women’s Centre outlined their decision not to participate in the May 28th Coalition—an alliance of women’s groups that organized the March for Women’s Right to Choose and Repeal of the Abortion Law.

The Centre was concerned that the Coalition’s slogan—”Abortion-the right to choose”—falsely conflated reproductive choice with abortion, particularly when: “for us, the ‘right to choose’ can never be only the right to abortion but must also be the right to have all the children we might want.”

This 1977 statement from the Immigrant Women’s Health Centre and the Black Education Project enlists support for their decision not to join the May 28th Coalition and their concern with the statement “the right to choose.”

The Centre sought a broader understanding of the politics of choice to include things like better education and access to birth control, living wages, fully paid maternity leave, and better funding for childcare, in addition to more accessible abortion services for immigrant women. 

Oral history can provide critical context and nuance to historical documents and materials, while also addressing what existing collections of documents and materials may have missed. In the case of immigrant women’s groups in Canada, oral histories provide opportunities for understanding the complexities of immigrant women’s histories in ways not sufficiently addressed by documents alone. These complex and contested histories  include women’s encounters with mainstream agencies and multicultural policies. Many immigrant women identified closely with specific diasporic identities or other individual subjectivities. At the same time, we can also see how women at the time mobilized around the category of immigrant women to do important grassroots work. In doing so, they pushed back against the often-exclusive nature of dominant feminist organizations. 

For those whose histories are not captured in conventional archives or whose documents and materials have not been seen as “important” enough to preserve, oral history has been a critical way to learn the details of the past, and to bring life to those documents and materials that do exist. Oral history is vital to understanding how the past—both our memories of it, however fragmented they might be, as well as its material legacies—constantly influence our present.

Franca Iacovetta interviews Judith Ramirez about the early history of Toronto Wages for Housework.

I think now about growing older and coming to realize that due to cultural, political, and economic factors, I would not find my paternal family in archives like I would my mom’s mostly Canadian family. But that is okay because we keep telling each other our stories, and this, in many ways, is enough. Still, as we work to understand the histories of the women’s movement in ways that underscore realities that reach beyond the “mainstream”, we need to make room for both the materials and the stories that shaped their creation.

Marcie Ponte and Sidney Pratt discuss Portuguese immigrant women’s labour activism in Toronto.

Written by Julia Aguiar, who worked as an Archival Assistant at Rise Up this past summer. She is a second-year Master’s student in the Department of History at Queen’s University. Her thesis examines the political organization of immigrant women alongside feminist as well as lesbian and gay liberation activism in Toronto from the 1970s to the 1990s.

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