Franca Iacovetta: Thank you very much, Judith, for agreeing to participate in our oral history project on Toronto’s Feminist Activists, 1970s, 1990s. We’ve been organising these interviews with the Women Unite project of Rise Up around Moments, as in, you know, moments of mobilisation.
In this case, what we decided to do was to make the moment the founding of Toronto Wages for Housework, and talk about some of the principles, broader networks, but also the early organising and the early activism. So we thank you very much for participating, and we’re also very keen to, you know, collect the reflections, the insights of the feminist activists themselves, right, insights into their own activism. So we’re really pleased that you agreed to this interview.
But let’s first start with some introduction, so ask if you would introduce yourself in in just a general way.
Judith Ramirez: Well, I came to Canada when I was beginning my activism in the early 70s. I had studied in the United States, which is where I’m from, and I have a bicultural background. My parents had worked in Italy, in the south, during part of my growing up years. So I had exposure to two entirely different cultures, learned English and Italian simultaneously. I consider them my first languages, both of them.
And when I came to Canada, it was initially only to do a year of graduate work. But you know how life is, and I stayed on and eventually turned my attention to professional work in the immigrant community, which came as a result of my exposure to women in various communities that to me seemed very isolated and underserved, and very marginalised. And that became the fuel for my activism.
Franca: Thank you. So, if I can build on that a bit, you were obviously such a central figure in Wages for Housework Toronto, and clearly became such a central figure in immigrant women’s activism in Toronto.
So I’d like to ask you a bit more about whether you were already a feminist before coming to Toronto, or whether Toronto was part of that fertile ground, or a workers’ activist, social justice activist. Just wondering if you might say a little bit more about your own political trajectory.
Judith: I was absolutely not an activist before I came here. I came from a very conservative family, very religious and very culturally and politically conservative. The activism came later when I, you know, was launching my young adulthood, when I was in my early 20s, and the exposure here was not only to people that I was meeting and interacting with in Canada, but also my husband, Bruno Ramirez, and I had connections to activists in Italy.
And we became very interested in what was going on in those movements, and that’s how it all began. It was not something that I was sort of born to, let’s put it that way.
Franca: And did you come originally to do some graduate work in Toronto?
Franca: What was the field or the discipline?
Judith: I was studying philosophy.
So I appreciate the comments you’re making about Toronto and meeting immigrant women encountering political groups, the reference you made to connections with Italian movements as well, being important. So I wanted to take that and focus in on Toronto and the actual founding of Toronto Wages for Housework.
So can you tell us how it came about? I’ve done some reading on it. I’ve seen references to a rally that happened on May Day in 1975. I’ve seen references to there being a core group of 15 members, but most of them were never named. So could you tell us something about the founding?
Judith: The prehistory is that there were a lot of activists who were interested in what was going on in Italy in the extra parliamentary movement. And Bruno and I would often have meetings and we would translate texts, leaflets, analyses of various sorts, and we would help discuss these things and analyse them and talk about the applications, you know, more widely outside of Italy. And these activists gave themselves a name, and they called this the New Tendency.
And it included a lot of women who had been active in the student movement, in the anti-war movement, and in various kinds of activities that would be generally considered left, left wing. And it was from that core group that the Wages for Housework committee members emerged. When we started to apply the same analysis about the limitations of how workers were seen, how they were defined, what the scope of the struggle was, what the modalities of the struggle were, we started applying that to women.
And then we were introduced to the work of the feminists in Italy, who were developing Wages for Housework, and through that we decided we’re going to just focus on this and say goodbye to the brothers, which we did.
Franca: OK, well I’ll follow up on that and ask you a bit more about what were the kind of organising principles for Wages for Housework. And, you know, I mean my understanding is that it was socialist, anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchy, but also, you know, you have this label of Wages for Housework which people thought maybe was more limiting than you intended.
Judith: Yes, well, I think that the main contribution and what we were interested in was an analysis that would help us locate women and the distinct lack of power that we saw in our own lives, in our mothers’ lives, and to understand it better. And what Wages for Housework in that analysis gave us was a way to see that the powerlessness of women was tied in a very fundamental way to the role that we played in the home, to unpaid housework, to the service of others, husbands, old people, babies.
And that this was an important and absolutely essential part of how capitalism organised society, but it was not recognised. And Wages for Housework saw that as part of a cycle of production, reproduction in the home, was seen and referred to as the social factory that complemented the factory where the mostly male workers went to work in order to produce goods, etc.
So it was that core principle that I think attracted many of us and gave us a way to fill in something that felt like a blank in the feminist analysis that was current at the time, much of which was focused on, you know, women leaving the home, going into the paid labour force, winning rights there, all of which we supported of course.
But it did not answer what we considered to be the fundamental question of the distinct and dramatic lack of social and economic power that women had, which we attributed to the work in the home and to the lack of recognition, and essentially the exploitation of female labour.
Franca: Thank you. There’s also the element of, well, I guess it’s Dalla Costa and others talking about that the site, that the family could also be a site of subversion in terms of women withdrawing their household labour. Talk more about what you saw as the radical implications of what you’ve been talking about.
Judith: Yes, I think that one of the misunderstandings of some who looked at Wages for Housework as almost reactionary, because they thought it would tie women to the traditional role of, you know, taking care of the domestic sphere. They seemed to misunderstand the fundamental point that once you have a wage you also have the mechanism and the lever of power to fight against whatever those conditions are that you’re in, that your work is taking a place.
And that would include women who of course were chiefly the ones doing this work in the home. And I’m sad to say, we still are, you know, 40 years later. That hasn’t changed. And so we looked and we spoke about the wage, not as way to entrench and ghettoise women in the home, but the exact opposite, you know, to start the liberation from the identification with that work and the stranglehold that that work had on us as women.
Franca: OK, thanks, and we’ll come back to that when we start talking about some of the campaigns that you put into place in Toronto. But can I go back a little bit to ask again about some of the other – who some of your comrades were, who some of the other people in Toronto Wages for Housework were?
Judith: Yes, we had a really interesting and very diverse group. We had people like Frances Gregory, who later on became a family lawyer. And she was very, very active in defining how Wages for Housework applied to women like her, who most people would consider liberated. She was, you know, from an affluent family; she had a good education; she was single. She was working, and nevertheless, you know, she saw herself as being held back.
And through Wages for Housework, she had a way to analyse what was holding her back and what the struggles and the challenges were for her. There were also women who were in various professions that are associated with women, like one was studying to be a nurse, another one was a chef, another one was a waitress.
One was a sole support mother on welfare, and all of them connected their situation to either the total lack of a wage for work in the home or a very measly wage outside of the home, because the nature of the work was so close to what was done for nothing in the home. And, you know, these women would write about their experiences, they would give speeches.
We had a bulletin where many of them would write about their own experiences and the struggles that they were organising, either with other mothers if they were at home or with fellow workers if they were in the workplace.
And we also had a very active group of lesbian women who organised their own sort of caucus within the community, and they conducted very interesting analyses about how they saw themselves also affected by the powerlessness of women in – how the enemy wasn’t really, you know, it wasn’t really men, it was the power that men had because of their access to the wealth, and the fact that women were deprived of that. And they saw those kinds of connections as being important to them.
And they were extremely creative, and they eventually took on a project which was very, very successful and lasted close to a decade, which was the Lesbian Mothers Defence Fund. And they helped lesbian mothers navigate the courts, which were – and still are – in many ways homophobic, and they provided financial support, emotional support, all kinds of referrals, you know, to experts in the law. And, you know, they made I think a very considerable contribution.
Franca: Thank you. The testimonials of people speaking from their own experience is obviously such an important element to all of this.
I’m also wondering did you, as a kind of group, as a committee, did you share politics, or was the politics, like, more – people had different politics, but you agreed very much around the Wages for Housework argument. I’m just wondering. I don’t want to impose, but like is there a socialist feminist vision that’s being shared here, or do people come at it in different ways?
Judith: I think initially, people were coming from different points, and we came to share very strongly the perspective of Wages for Housework, which included a critique of the way capitalism organised female labour, male labour.
And so to that extent, I think we shared, certainly a perspective, but it was not the case that, you know, I think everybody who was involved would say they were Marxist or socialist. It was not that way.
Franca: Yeah, OK, thank you.
Judith: And also, there was a real difference in the appetite among people for delving into the finer points of the conceptual side and the analyses that were coming from the theoreticians of the movement, such as Mariarosa Dalla Costa in Italy, Silvia Federici in New York.
We had very close ties, you know, to people like that and to the work that was being done. But not all the women that were active here, you know, were delving into that part of it.
Franca: OK, that’s what –
Judith: They were just using it. They were putting it to use in their own lives.
Franca: Right, right, and some of what you said also leads me to ask a question I was really, really interested in asking as well, which is about the international connections. So, you know, I’m wondering about the Dalla Costa, Federici, there’s also Selma James in London, and you in Toronto, and there’s references to Montreal and other places. But I would really love to know more about – you just said you had very close ties – and I would love to know more about this.
And I wondered how connected was the international movement that you were part of. I’ll ask you about the Canadian side of things too, but the international movement and these theoreticians were crucial in terms of articulating principles. I’m also wondering about sharing strategies, whatever personal, political support that you gave each other, if you could tell us more about that international side.
Judith: Yes, we had ties that included sharing work that we were doing and having exchanges, sometimes in person. I often went to London, England, and the women would come from Italy. Silvia would come from New York, and we would spend several days just going over a lot of material that had been generated, and also to try to understand some of the issues that were coming up both in terms of the work and in terms of the organisational implications.
Because Wages for Housework was popping up all over the place. There were groups in various parts of the US and various parts of Canada, as you know. And we were not an organisation in the sense that we had a structure with memberships. It was more like a huge circle of people with common interests who wanted to be connected and to have a tie that would assist in the work that was being done locally.
Franca: And long-time relationships, you were able to nurture this relationship over a number of years.
Judith: For how long? Yes, probably six or seven years at least, yeah. And like many things, you know, it sort of plays out and comes to a kind of natural, if not an end, a kind of changing of shape. Certainly, that was the case in Toronto.
Franca: Right. And it sounds too like from what you were saying, it suggests we could call Wages for Housework a transnational organisation in the sense that it sounds like what strategies you might have tried in one place that seemed to work might be applied in another place, or you would report back so you have a – it really is an international movement. You weren’t just branches of a headquarters somewhere else, like in Padua or somewhere.
Judith: No, no, not at all. But the multinational character was extremely important, because one of the things that drew me to Wages for Housework was how much emphasis was placed on multiethnic, multiracial ways of viewing women.
And the fact that there was a real appreciation for the fact that even though we were all in the same place as unwaged workers in the home, it had vastly different implications for different subsets of women. And the work of the movement was to really understand that and study it and see how to address it.
And in my view, a lot of what wasn’t happening in the mainstream feminist movement was precisely that; it was too homogeneous, it was too tied, you know, to the women who launched those initiatives and did a very good job in many ways. Their activism yielded important results. But the diversity was not there, and the attention to race and class was not there in the same way that it was in Wages for Housework.
Franca: And you would argue that because you’re dealing with low-income women who are struggling to survive, immigrant women, foreign domestic workers?
Judith: Wages for Housework, I think one of the important contributions that it made was to keep shining a light on marginalised women.
And to the extent that we were able to attract women who were able then to speak up for themselves and describe, you know, the exploitation, the oppression, that they were experiencing through the lens of the perspective of Wages for Housework, it was a very big contribution to enlarging the whole public discourse on what the state of women is and what the problem is and what the solutions have to be.
And we had a very consistent focus on women who were considered marginal. For example, in Canada, in the US and in Great Britain, there at a certain point was a real mobilisation to support sex workers. The movement in general wouldn’t touch those women, you know; there was a strain of moralism and a puritanism that made them kind of recoil. But we thought, you know, let’s listen to them.
And in Toronto we had a moment where there was a big outcry against the women on Young Street who were plying their trade. There were all kinds of arrests, and it was a big public effort to clean up the streets, and they appointed a special prosecutor and all of that. And some of those women who came forward and who we spoke to, we viewed as workers, women who had made a choice and who deserved to be supported.
And Wages for Housework brought in the San Francisco prostitute who was extremely well known in the US, Margo St James, who ran COYOTE, Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics. And she and I went on a little tour at various universities and other places, speaking about the connection among women.
Franca: How did that go, the tour?
Judith: It went well. Well, I mean the students were very interested, and Margo was a real show woman, so she knew how to speak, and she was brilliant with the media. You know, she didn’t have all kinds of abstract ideas; she had very practical things to say about what drew her into the life and why women like her deserved to be respected as workers.
And Wages for Housework supported that, and that was one instance of reaching out to women considered marginalised that we did as a multinational movement. It was, you know, in at least three major countries. I can’t remember if they did that in Italy as well, but certainly in England and in the US and in Canada we did that.
Franca: Right, OK. Well, and you can tell us about some of the other sites and mobilisation that Wages for Housework was very involved in. It’s too bad that we have only two issues of the Wages for Housework campaign bulletin on the Rise Up website, so I hope that we will eventually acquire more and get them onto the website. But I did go through them and I did pull out some of the examples of activism, so another area clearly is mothers on welfare and the issue of Family Allowance.
Can you talk a bit about how you connected with those women, or how those women connected with you? And you said some of the members, the people who came together, were women having those struggles. But can you say more about that activism, the early campaigns? One that got featured in one of the bulletins was the Baby Bonus fight.
Judith: Yes, that was actually the very first thing that Wages for Housework Toronto did, because it coincided with the Federal Government deciding that it wasn’t going to give the increase, the yearly increase, that women were of course counting on. And in the case of many women at home with their children, it was the only money that they ever got, you know, in their own name.
And they were up in arms. So we decided this is a good focal point, this is a universal problem, it does not stigmatise low-income women, and as a result we did a petition drive. We wrote briefs to the government and we had public events and were able to use the media.
One of the things that we tried to do very early on was figure out how to use the media to enter into public discourse. Because again, the women who were involved and whose voices needed to be heard were the marginalised women whose voices were not heard anywhere else. So we made it a priority of cultivating the media.
I spent a lot of time sitting down with sympathetic members of the media, many of them women but some of them men, who were really very curious and alert and smart and came to understand the issues and who promoted the work that we were doing, which helped then to reverse things like the cuts in the Baby Bonus. The government eventually changed its mind and decided to reinstate it, so it was something that the women who had fought for it felt wonderful about.
Franca: Yeah, that’s an early victory, which must have felt really good. It’s kind of your first big campaign, so it must have felt really good, yeah. And I gather what also felt really good was the rally that you organised in October of 1977 to protest unpaid work, and that’s the one where you’ve got Rita MacNeil and –
Judith: Yeah, that was – because the CLC [Canadian Labour Congress] had done a rally and we thought, you know what, let’s do one for unwaged workers because they never get any attention. So we did that, and again there were speeches and music. Rita, who was wonderful [Rita MacNeil, ‘Cape Breton’s First Lady of Song’].
Franca: She was then living in Toronto, Rita MacNeil?
Judith: No, no, she came. She came and she took part, and it was a very joyful event and, you know, people were happy to sort of be in public, to raise their voices and to say, you know, we’re here too; society often doesn’t see us but today they’re going to see us, they’re going to hear us.
And it was a very successful event. And I would like to add too that that was generally speaking the mood of that early period when Wages for Housework was first being launched. Women were really excited.
There was a sense of discovery, of curiosity, of creativity, and it was a joyful time, even though it was also a lot of work and there were all kinds of things attached to it, like where are we going to get the money to put the next movement on and all that sort of thing. But the mood was one of discovery and connection, and it was really quite neat.
Franca: What about the connections, too, between, then, Toronto and some of the other Wages for Housework organisations that were set up across Canada? So I gather there was one or two in the Prairies, and then one in B.C..
Judith: Yes. We had some connections that consisted primarily again of sharing information, and if they wanted to know what we had done about a certain thing, if we had any advice, we would go back and forth that way. But it wasn’t – and of course, we would gather sometimes and have meetings, so everybody would be in the same place and we would share in that way too. But other than that, the work was separate.
We were not journeying back and forth to each others’ cities. It was more local. But we were extremely aware of what the different groups were doing and trying to be supportive. And Toronto played an especially important role in trying to answer questions and give guidance and help with issues that arose that were generating problems or confusion. So, you know, we tried to be helpful.
Franca: Right. And I think one of the things, as we’re doing this interview on Zoom, right, in a new world of technology, the sheer work, the sheer labour that went into trying to maintain these contacts when you don’t have the benefit of digital technology, a lot of phone calls, I gather, but also sometimes trying to get together personally.
So, the other organisations then, they were themselves kind of autonomously formed and then they’d make connections, right. And then you would share strategy, share support and so on. Yeah.
Judith: That’s right. They were like individual collectives, and then they would elect to be in touch. But as I said before, it was not a membership kind of thing, you know, dues and membership forms and all of that. It wasn’t like that at all.
And then some problems eventually arose that were similar to the ones that you have in a hierarchical group, because styles of leadership started to rear their ugly heads. But that was, you know, that had a lot more to do with the personalities involved than the actual organisational structure.
Franca: And what about strategies, I mean was there debate or disagreement over strategy?
Judith: I think the only significant one was the lesbian women had their own internal debates about lesbian separatism. And that eventually, you know, came to the Wages for Housework committee for discussion, but the only other thing – they were more tactical.
For example, there were parts of the Wages for Housework movement internationally that were extremely hostile against the left, and they would always be on the attack. And, you know, the reasons for it were obvious and were clear, but tactically being able to keep doors open we found here to be important.
So we wanted to make sure that if the labour movement was having a conference that we get invited and that we weren’t going to just go and yell at them. We were going to explain why they needed to support us. So there were those kinds of differences, but yeah.
Franca: OK, thank you. So clearly, as you’ve already said and some of the examples have already underscored, a lot of the activism, a lot of the work you’re doing reflects also the priorities of immigrant women, so the immigrant women’s activism was such an important piece of this.
And I wanted to ask you, and obviously INTERCEDE and the other things you were doing as part of that, which I’ll get to – but in the midst of this you’ve also organised the Immigrant Women’s Centre of Toronto. And could you tell me a bit about why and when and how that happened?
Judith: That happened almost simultaneously in the early 70s, maybe 74, 75. And I had launched my career professionally after school by working at the Ontario Department of Justice with women who were in trouble with the law.
And after two years of observing what to me seemed like problems that came primarily because of the women’s isolation, the lack of services, the lack of language capability, I thought, you know, let somebody else do this work that I’m doing, I’m going to leave and start setting up some organisations that address these needs. And that’s how I came to set up the Immigrant Women’s Centre, along with some other women.
Franca: So that takes resources. How did you do it?
Judith: We started out very modestly with summer program works that would allow us to do some surveys, to talk to some community groups and talk to political leaders, and start establishing the need. And when I was doing that, it was also part of a general thrust among other immigrant women. Marcie Ponte, for example, was involved in the beginnings of the Working Women Community Centre, which she’s now been heading for 40 years.
And there were a bunch of other groups like that that were led by immigrant women. And we were all starting more or less at the same time for exactly the same reason, because there were these total gaps in all these different communities where women’s needs were concerned. And some groups were like for employment issues, others were for minimal language training, others were for daycare.
The Immigrant Women’s Centre was for reproductive healthcare and had had, you know, for me, a lot to do with Wages for Housework and the way I saw the disadvantages that women were up against because they had no control over the amount of children they had or when they had them. And I was dealing primarily with the Italian community, which as you know, is Catholic, and there were issues about even birth control, never mind abortion.
So I thought this is an area that really needs some work, and again, you know, because of my orientation with Wages for Housework, I did not do what most of the other women did, which was to set up a group that was aimed at one particular ethno-cultural group. The Immigrant Women’s Centre was always multiethnic and multiracial.
We started out with three or four different communities, and the point was that we would have a lot more strength if it wasn’t just one group. And if we could say there are three or four groups and they have exactly the same kind of needs, and there are no programs, you know, there’s absolutely no money being spent in reaching these women where they are. And that’s how it was set up.
And we focused not only on recruiting as far as staff people women who were from those communities, who spoke the same language, and who were not, you know, experts. They were grassroots women who reached out to other grassroots women, and who could help make the case for what the gaps were that needed to be filled. And the other focus, which again for me came very much from my understanding of the Wages for Housework analysis was the need to get money.
We fought like hell to get past all the barriers that were keeping immigrant women from having access to things like, you know, a conversation with a counsellor about family planning, or if she was pregnant and wanted an abortion because she already had three children that she couldn’t feed. You know, all of these things fuelled the focus on pushing beyond what the system was giving at that time.
And often, we would be told go to your own ethno-cultural group; if you’re Italian go to the Congress [National Congress of Italian Canadians]. And we would say, you know, the Congress is great, but they only have so much money and they’re not going to do all that much for what we want to do, and we want to do it independently. We want to be able to define what the needs are.
And, you know, we had to just keep pushing and going to the Board of Health, going to the government programs, and eventually you just kick the door down and the money starts to flow. They just figure out how to create a new program, even though they’ve been telling you for months there’s no such money, there’s no such program, which we already knew.
Franca: Well, you know, one of the things I research are social workers from the 50s and 60s, you know, they’re starting to talk about some of that stuff, you know, recruiting from within the immigrant communities. But every time they recruit, they recruit the middle-class women in those immigrant communities, so the exceptional women within those communities.
But this kind of huge, you know, this arrival of these different immigrant women’s organisations in the 1970s, it really does – there’s this big grassroots push that happens in that period. So you’re partly saying that there was a possibility at that time to be able to push government into getting the funding, maybe because it’s happening in various places. The pressure is coming from a variety of places. I mean why do you think you were successful?
Judith: Yes, because it was like a movement within a movement, and it wasn’t even particularly coordinated. Eventually, it became a little more coordinated with groups like Women Working with Immigrant Women.
But it started out really I think as a spontaneous reaction on the part of a lot of immigrant women, or women like me, who had some familiarity with immigrant life – even though I’m not myself an Italian immigrant woman – who saw the needs and thought, you know, this is ridiculous, something has to be done. And then you start pushing and you start reaching out to allies and you start using the media, and then things eventually happen.
But I think it only happened because there were grassroots women mobilising at exactly the same time and pushing for the same things, you know, services and responses to the needs of immigrant women that had been totally, totally ignored by everybody. And like one of the things that I would often hear was why don’t you go talk to the local hospital and set up a program through them.
And I would say why would I spend all of my valuable time trying to convince them that this needs to be done, you know, when what makes way more sense is having a group that can go directly to the women, that can speak their language, that understands the lives that they’re leading, and it’s cheaper. It makes way more sense than trying to get some kind of grand institutional restructuring. And eventually, you know, they agreed, but it took a while.
Franca: Right, so what sustained you during struggles like that? I could imagine you had that conversation a million times over.
Judith: I used to always be amused when people would say to me, you have such an interesting job, I saw you on the news last night and you put things out so well and so clearly. And then I thought if they only knew that for that 10 minutes on the news, you know, I’m in my office all by myself trying to write grants, trying to write press releases that people will listen to. It’s like so tedious and unglamorous.
You know, you have a goal and a sense of purpose, and of course as you succeed, that helps too. When we were able to start the programs, even on a very modest basis, you know, the women start coming in and they’re opening up about the issues in their lives, you’re able to offer something that you know is concrete and helpful and then that helps you to keep going.
Franca: Right. Well, the link between Wages for Housework and INTERCEDE is also a really important one, and I wanted to ask you some questions about that too. So that while you’re called Wages for Housework and you’ve done all these connections around Wages for Housework, but clearly too, as you said earlier with sex workers and so forth, that Wages for Housework was also very much organised around support, fighting for women in low-paid work.
And it’s low paid largely because it’s seen as an extension of women’s housework, right. And the foreign domestic workers like fit into that. So have had this – I wondered about how you came together. How did Wages for Housework and, right, what was a multiethnic, multiracial coalition of domestic workers, how that came together.
Judith: I just want to say one more thing about the Immigrant Women’s Centre.
Franca: Oh, yes, please.
Judith: Which is that the women who I worked with who were involved in counselling other communities would be prime protagonists in some of the work that Wages for Housework helped advance, even though they themselves had different political orientations and, you know, weren’t necessarily interested in Wages for Housework. And we didn’t care whether they were or not; we were trying to highlight issues.
And one good example I think with the Immigrant Women’s Centre was the coalition that was fighting for abortion rights, because there were cuts. This was in the late 70s, I think 1977, and I think in one of the iterations of your questions you’ve mention that. And, you know, what happened there was that the coalition defined abortion as the right to choose, and it caused a real stir at the Immigrant Women’s Centre.
We were participating in the meetings of the coalition and the Caribbean woman, Erica Mercer, who worked with me and who was the outreach person in her community, objected there and said, you know, you cannot define the right to choose only as abortion. We have too many women in our communities who can’t afford to have children because they can’t feed them, and we also have examples all over the world of forced sterilisation programs, including right here with Indigenous women.
So you have to define it a little more broadly, even though of course we agreed with stopping the cuts to access abortion. In spite of these discussions at the coalition committee level, they didn’t budge, so they stayed with their own slogans and they went ahead with it.
But I think – and we of course did not endorse the statement that they issued, because we thought it was way too narrow, and it didn’t really reflect the lives of the women that we were serving. And again, it was a case of being able to articulate the perspective of women who were marginalised and whose lives were not really understood and were not being included in what the mainstream feminist movement was doing.
Franca: So now I was going to ask you that question that you have answered, and I’d like to follow up a little bit. So was there a kind of consensus formed quickly and easily over the declining the invitation to join the May 28th Coalition for Abortion Rights, or were there debates among the group as you decided how to respond to this invitation?
Judith: No, the feelings were very strong that the coalition had really, very casually, shut down the concerns that the immigrant and the women of colour were presenting. And we had a certain strength at that point, because earlier there had been a conference on family planning, a big one. It was sponsored by the City of Toronto and I was the speaker there.
And I had touched on all kinds of things, like the population control measures all over the world, and what women of colour had been undergoing as far as the attacks on their ability to procreate and the lack of reproductive freedom.
So there was a strong orientation that reproductive freedom couldn’t possibly only be about abortion, so it was not a big step to say this is just not representative of enough women, it’s too limited to the women who are organising it, who are primarily, you know, white middle-class.
And as I said before, we supported that demand totally, and in the press release that we issued and the statement that we issued, we made it very clear that we supported that. But we also talked about the other aspects of reproductive freedom that we thought needed to be highlighted. I mean, yeah.
Franca: Yeah, and just a related question too. Sometimes I think people assume, well especially of the very Catholic immigrants, right, the southern Europeans for example, that sometimes there might be an assumption that it’s a kind of religious opposition to abortion. You haven’t mentioned religion once in all of this, so I’m going to raise it.
But what you’re talking about is women’s real-life experiences, their fears, their actual realities, right, and so on. What would you say to the argument about well, to some extent, some of those immigrant women were a little bit maybe written off because the assumption was that well they’re under the choke of the Catholic Church?
Judith: I have no idea. They didn’t say anything like that, and my own experience when I was preparing the grounds to launch the Immigrant Women’s Centre, I made the rounds, you know – I was on CHIN Radio all the time – I made the rounds for community organisations, and of course to the churches.
And I remember one meeting with a priest, Franca, he said to me, listen, you know, these are our parishioners and we’re Catholic, so we’re against everything you’re doing, but we understand that these women need this and we will make sure they get to you.
Yeah, so, you know, there was a certain sophistication, even among people who were very devout and who were there to enforce the morality of the church, a recognition that these were needs that simply cried out, you know, to be met. How the mainstream feminists perceived this, I have no idea.
I don’t remember that ever coming up, you know, the concern that we were religious conservatives, and it wasn’t true. I don’t think it was true for any of the women that I know. I mean otherwise we wouldn’t have been referring women for abortions, like not exactly, not exactly consistent, you know.
Franca: Right, right. Well, while we’re on this train of thought, can we ask about another source of tension or disagreement? And that’s over the Wages for Housework’s application to NAC [National Action Committee on the Status of Women] in 1979 when they rejected applications for membership.
I jotted down, you know, some of what the NAC president, person said about, that the groups agree on short-term goals like childcare, job training, better social services, but not on long-term goals like equal opportunities, equal pay and to end sex role stereotyping, and that Wages for Housework reinforces that –
Judith: I think the last one, the last one is the key. The last one is the key, they saw Wages for Housework as ghettoising women in the home. And I think that really was the – I don’t know – by that time it was a kind of prejudice, you know, that Wages for Housework was stereotyped that way.
And NAC was very unfriendly towards us when we asked to be part of the conference in Ottawa. And we met with the Executive here and it didn’t make any difference. And, you know, I guess they didn’t want to reverse the decision that the president had made. But you know how that story ends?
Judith: We all went to Ottawa anyway, and Wages for Housework was there chiefly to support the welfare women. They had their own mother-led union, and they were lobbying to get parity with foster parents who got paid a whole hell of a lot more than women on welfare. And they were brilliant at making the case for why the disparity.
And so we all went to Ottawa and we were supporting them, and they decided to invite me to come into the NAC meeting, even though we weren’t registered, and we had some discussions. But what happened that was critical was that at the first plenary the mayor, Marion Dewar, stood up. She had heard about all of this and she said every feminist who is in Ottawa is welcome to this conference. She’s the mayor; they’re not going to say no to her, so we all went in. And that’s the way it ended.
Franca: And you made your presence known.
Judith: Yes. Well, she was great. I was always a fan of hers, but I was certainly a fan after that.
Franca: Right. Want go back to INTERCEDE for just a little bit? I mean it’s such an interesting – INTERCEDE is so interesting for so many different reasons, but especially as this broad-based multiracial coalition, right, and its feminist allies and domestic workers who are among the most marginalised women of colour workers, other women too in there. But the coalition, it’s really striking, right, it’s really important. So how does it happen?
Judith: INTERCEDE came about late in the 70s when the Wages for Housework movement internationally was also on a wane, and here we were gravitating towards a focal point that was very concrete, that could really help a group of women that we had begun to have some contact with through Wages for Housework. We had always raised the issue of domestic workers.
You know, we were studying the program that they came under when they arrived in Canada, because they were all temporary workers, could only stay two years and then they had to leave. And we did what we had done before, which was we held a meeting which was attended actually by quite a lot of women. And we called it “A View from the Kitchen: Immigrant Women Speak Out on the Value of Housework.” [title of event]
And a lot of organisations attended, and from that meeting came the initiative of INTERCEDE as a community coalition that was going to band together for the specific reason of addressing the inequities in the government program that brought the foreign domestic workers to Canada, which it had been doing for decades. This was supposed to be like a temporary solution, but the labour market demand had been established decades before, and it’s still going.
You know, we still have this temporary program, although it was recently upgraded by the current government, so they are making advances. But we found that as an important focal point and that became the focus of a lot of the Wages for Housework energy. And we did all the initial work of bringing the groups together. Then we started writing the briefs and again educating the media, having public events, raising money.
We got support from various church organisations, and then it became something that was supported very strongly in the groups, in the community immigrant groups where there were a lot of domestic workers. And at the beginning, it was chiefly the Caribbean community, and women from northern Europe, mostly England and Scotland.
And these women were amazing, like the northern European women came from very strong union cultures; these were fighters, and those ladies were amazing. And they were brilliant, they had heavy rhetoric about their work, and the Caribbean women are the same, you know, these are fighters and they, many of them had left children back home.
And they had, you know, the dream of being able to reunite with their families, and very quickly the slogan for INTERCEDE became “If we’re good enough to work, we’re good enough to stay.” And what they wanted was permanent residency in Canada; that was clear from all the communities that were generating workers from their part of the world.
And so that’s how INTERCEDE focused its work, and eventually the government of the day appointed a task force which was headed by a brilliant feminist lawyer, Mary Eberts, and she came up with the recommendations which we considered a partial victory but an important victory, which was that after the two years the domestic workers, if they met certain upgrading requirements, etc, they could apply for landed status within Canada without having to leave, which is what every other worker had to do at that time.
So it was a cause for much celebration among domestic workers, and of course it meant that thousands of them have been able to make new lives in Canada as a result. Eventually, the demographics shifted, and the centre of gravity became the Filipino community, and they later on … They were always important, even in the initial phase, even though their numbers were not great at that time.
But they eventually became almost the only country really feeding foreign domestic workers into Canada in huge numbers, and so that took over INTERCEDE. It was, in some ways, a hostile takeover and I’m glad that I was on my way out, because it was not pleasant and there was a lot of infighting racially, you know, about who was going to control it, who had the right to control.
And I was glad that we had met a lot of our initial objectives, and I didn’t really want to be part of that kind of internal warfare. So I left.
Franca: And where did you go?
Judith: I took an appointment through the Immigration and Refugee Board, and I did refugee determination for the next 10 years. And, you know, once an activist, always an activist. As soon as I got on that board, the first thing that I and a number of other judges realised was that the whole way of defining a refugee was about men and about their experience, and we decided to put a group together to deal specifically with the issue of women refugee claimants.
And we did a tremendous amount of research, we sat on cases and we interpreted both the international instruments and the domestic legal instruments in such a way to broaden and to fit the kind of experiences of persecution that were typical of women and tied, you know, to their gender, to their femaleness.
And eventually, that work resulted in the chairperson issuing guidelines on gender-related persecution, which became the gold standard internationally, and I think still are.
I told you when you first contacted me that there’s a film now being made about that work, yeah. Quite an interesting and very gratifying next phase of my own personal activism. And it was very different, because it was activism within a huge institution. It was not a grassroots –
Franca: I was just going to ask if it’s a different context to which to do that.
Judith: Totally, totally. And when I first got the appointment, I thought oh my God, now I don’t have to beg anybody, I’m the one making the decisions here.
Franca: But also the process of building trust with these women who need to tell their story, need to tell it in a compelling way, need to convince, right, and with those who are traumatised, right, it must have been a very, very serious job to do in building trust and giving support.
Judith: And creating protocols so that the board itself had ways of dealing with these women refugee claimants that were totally new. We would run workshops with all the judges, all the lawyers who were acting on behalf of the board in the hearing room, and we would train them, for example, on how do you question a woman on sensitive issues such as sexual assault or detention, you know, because her husband was seen to be a political opponent of the regime and to get back at him, she’s now in prison.
And things that were hard for the women to talk about but they needed to say them, because we needed the evidence in order to be able to make the determination in their favour. So we would have all these training programs and create case studies. We would bring in expert speakers who could help the judges understand the need for it, and then we would role-play to get people comfortable with what it felt like.
But also, the leadership of the board – which was extremely supportive otherwise none of this could have possibly have happened – they – at least in the office in Toronto which was run by Dorothy Davey, the wife of [Liberal senator] Keith Davey, “The Rainmaker” – she appointed certain judges who were well versed in gender issues to sit on claims that involved women and gender-related persecution, to develop the jurisprudence so that we would then have a lot more to work with in future cases. And that was a tremendous help as all that work got underway.
Franca: Yeah, and I mean the breakthrough on and acknowledgement of gender persecution is just so important, it’s so important. So it’s important that activists like you were doing it, so, yea, absolutely. Well, you’ve been going at this for more than an hour, so I’m going to ask you just to … Thank you for doing that. I do have a couple of reflection questions, if you can bear to do it a little longer.
Judith: Sure, go ahead.
Franca: OK, great, thanks. Well, one of them is, one of the things about building an archive is that the person collecting materials from the past, but you want to have conversation of the present, right.
So the present/past, you know, conversation, dialogue, is so important, and so obviously we hope that young activists, young researchers, will make use of Rise Up materials and will draw on some of the lessons from this activism of the 1970s- 1990s. So what would you say, you know, reflecting back on what were the lessons learned, and what would you want young activists today to take from some of the work that you did?
Judith: I would say that you have to always keep your eye on the women who are the most disenfranchised, the most marginalised, when you’re defining any issue. And if you haven’t done that, you’re not finished yet. Whatever it is that you’re tackling, you have to expand, and it’s much easier now because so many of those women are speaking now and, you know, there’s literature, there’s all kinds of activism.
So it’s not as hard as it used to be when I started doing all of this. And I think it just means having a broad-based approach to whatever issue you’re tackling. And when I think about the effort that we made – in some ways maybe we became too angry against the antagonism that we were were getting from the left, from the women’s movement – but the effort that we made to shine a light on unpaid housework and how it was dragging everybody down, women in the home, women outside the home, men, I mean look at it now.
When I think back on the past 30 years and the restructuring of the economy, the neoliberal policies, globalisation, it’s terrifying how the unpaid work of women in the home has just been extended.
And you have now all these millions of people, you know, in the third world doing all the work that used to be good union paying jobs that men had in the first world, you have the whole service sector awash in people who can’t earn a living unless they do two or three things at once, including the women who are serving the long-term care homes, who are getting sick because they don’t have one job with one salary, one set of benefits.
It’s terrifying what’s been done. And yeah, I think, you know, what we tried to do, shining that light, we maybe didn’t succeed in the way that we had hoped, and no mass movement followed, but it was valid and it was I think, in some ways, profound. And what has followed has shown, I think, how important it was, yeah.
Franca: OK, well, thank you. Thank you very much. That was terrific, really appreciate your sharing, appreciate your frankness, appreciate your reflections. That was really great, thank you.