Transcript: International Women’s Day and International Solidarity

Franca: OK, so Cynthia, thank you very much for agreeing to participate in our oral history project on Toronto Women – Toronto Feminist Activists 1970s to 1990s, which is called the Women Unite project. We’ve been organising these interviews around particular moments, as in moments of mobilisation or particular events, a particular transitional point or what have you.
And in this case, the moment is the International Women’s Day Committee, or IWDC, and its international solidarity politics. So we could talk about that broad issue through, you know, a number of examples or however you wish to address it. Before we start, I’d like to just do some brief introductions. If you could introduce yourself just briefly at the start. I’m going to be asking you more questions about you, but something general at the start would be great.
Cynthia: OK, Franca, thanks so much. And I’m really excited to be part of this project, but also nervous as well in the sense that there’s so much history here and you feel such responsibility around trying to represent it in ways that open up new pathways of thinking about it, rather than foreclosing them, right. So I’ll talk a little bit about – like I assume you’re interested mainly in how I came to IWDC, and a little bit about when I joined and how. Is that what you want to get at here, or something a little bit more broad?
Franca: I was going to ask you that as a follow-up question. Maybe you could just say how did you get to Toronto in the 1970s and again, speaking about some of the feminist activism.
Cynthia: Well, it’s a long kind of complex question, because I was in Toronto in the 1970s, right. I was living in the Jane Finch neighbourhood and going to Westview Centennial Secondary School. I was deeply unhappy as a high school student, but also, you know, really attuned to all the social and political movements that were around me.
So we’re also being cued up here to remind each other to say our names, so I’ll remind listeners that this is Cynthia Wright speaking to you from Toronto and just picking up the story here that yeah, in many ways, like a lot of, you know, teenagers in that period, I was attuned to all of the kind of political organising around me without being clear about how to join it, or how to conceive of it, right.
But one of the things that I did start doing was reading deeply in the literature of the feminist movement of the period, right. And I was also very attuned to the small feminist newspapers of the period that were being produced in a Canadian context and elsewhere that one could sometimes find by going downtown and making the rounds of all the alternative bookstores of the period and all of the other institutions of the kind of downtown scene, right.
So that’s how I found out about The Other Woman newspaper. I joined that collective, I was a part of that for a while. It collapsed eventually and that’s a story for another day. But then I found myself involved with the International Women’s Day Committee in Toronto.
Franca: OK, great, thank you, Cynthia Wright – make sure we have our names. And I’m Franca Iacovetta, the interviewer. And I was not on the IWDC group that Cynthia was so I… Certainly, during the 1980s, International Women’s Day was a very, very important part of my transformation as a feminist. And so I’ll thank you right at the start for the work that you did on that for all of those years. So let’s switch.
Or I should also say that I did take some time to read through a number of the newsletters, the IWDC newsletters which we’ve got on the Rise Up website. So it was very helpful to see how the issues were being introduced. And I did find some references to a very young Cynthia Wright commenting on some of the activism that you were involved with. So some of this will probably come up in the conversation.
But I thought, what we’re going to do, you know, with this interview is to really focus on IWDC and its engagement with international solidarity politics. So I thought, yes, we should – it would be nice to hear from you a little bit about becoming part of IWDC. You know, when did you join? Who were some of the other people there and how did you sort of situate yourself at the time? I appreciate that you were young and just becoming politically involved, it sounds like, but maybe you could provide us with some more context for that.
Cynthia: Yes, thank you, Franca. I’ll try to do that. So I joined IWDC – I’m no longer clear on what year it was exactly, but it would have been 1980 or 1981, in there. Unlike you, I have not actually – anyone listening to this interview should know this – that first of all, unlike you, Franca, I’ve not actually gone back and had a systematic look at my own records, right, from the period.
So that’s a heads-up that I may be forgetting things, I may be excluding things that should not be excluded, and much else. So this dialogue definitely has to be read in relation to those documents, but also what other members of the group have to say, right. Because I was only an individual member. I was very young even though I had become involved with The Other Woman collective as a teenager and I had a certain amount of feminist experience. I was still quite young when I came to IWDC, very young, very inexperienced still, right.
And it’s a collective enterprise, so I have not sort of talked to other members from that period to get their standpoints on some of the things that I will be saying. So it should definitely be read as simply one person’s entry point into this story and by no means a definitive one. I also don’t remember exactly how I came to the group, how did I learn about it, why did I show up at the meetings. I strongly suspect that it was after an event that the group would have done. So it might have been after a March 8th celebration or some other kind of public demonstration or event that drew me to the group.
But that I have forgotten, although if I looked at my records, I may be able to recall – or some of the diaries I kept off and on in that period. So it was definitely, though, a moment that transformed my whole life, unquestionably.
It was not my first exposure to feminism, but it was my first exposure to a really wide-ranging complex form of feminist politics that I really had been unfamiliar with prior to that moment. And to a kind of dynamic group of organisers, who in most cases were far more experienced that I was, far more theoretically informed than I was, and from whom I learned, you know, really a great deal.
Franca: Right, and so can you name some of those people? I mean the names that come up are Marg McPhail, Laura Sky, Mariana [Valverde], Carolyn Egan. Are these folks – are these the people you remember being part of that group and …?
Cynthia: Well, it’s a really important question, Franca, because one of the things about the group is that we did not have a tight formal membership structure and definition of who was in and who was out, right. So an enormous number of women transited in and out of the group, right. Some stayed for years and years. Carolyn Egan is an important example, right.
Others were already less involved by the time I appeared. So I’d heard about them but they didn’t necessarily influence me greatly because they were, you know, organisers of note. But I didn’t encounter them in the same way that maybe other members did, because they might have been in another city or in another group, or had transited out of IWDC, right.
So some stayed for greater or longer periods of time. Some left for political or personal reasons, or to pursue other things, right. So I would have to – you know, I’d be hesitant about, kind of naming a full membership list, ’cause some of these women that you mentioned are important but they weren’t necessarily there when I was there. Or I did not know them well, right.
Franca: Right, no, I appreciate that. Because you talked, in a sense, you talked a little bit about kind of almost being, in a way, mentored. I don’t know if I should use that word – but some of the – you know, you talk about having been much younger than many of the women there. And I just wonder whether you felt like you were being partly mentored. I wonder too whether – clearly, you were already a feminist, but was the socialist part of socialist feminist that’s so important to IWDC, was that there as well? Did you have a sense of …?
Cynthia: You mean when I came to the group? Yeah. I mean that’s important because socialist currents were important to the world of Toronto movements, right. And so, I already had at that point an interest in and an affinity for the range of socialist, anarchist, Marxist and so on movements on offer. What I lacked was a really systematic theoretical grounding in them, but I was already interested in outreaching to some of those groups in town to learn more about them.
So I was bringing that interest to the table. But perhaps what differentiated me from at least some of but not all of the members of the group was I had not had the formation of having gone through a revolutionary left party or formation of some sort. Some of the women in the group had, right. They had come through Trotskyist currents.
Later on, there were more women who transited through the group who’d been influenced by the Maoist currents, other kinds of traditions of the revolutionary left globally, right. They’d had some kind of formation in that in an organised way that I never had. I did not ever, even though, you know, when I was – as early as when I was in high school, I encountered people who were in left parties, right, in the Communist Party and other parties.
I learned from them, dialogued with them, but I did not choose to join any of the groups on offer at the time. But I was influenced by people who had and who learned from, critiqued, or in other ways reworked the traditions that they came out of. Or who were trying to deepen the understanding and the nature of the dialogue between feminism and socialism and that tradition of how gender and women’s oppression is understood in revolutionary currents.
So I was coming to the table with some knowledge, but without the experience of having been formed in what you could call revolutionary socialist politics.
Franca: OK, thank-you that’s really helpful. So when we were preparing, you know, doing some back and forth over doing this interview, you know, I had mentioned that the Women Unite Committee had decided it would be a good idea to have a moment on IWDC and international solidarity politics. And we kind of had a general list, right, around South Africa, the ANC [African National Congress] anti-apartheid struggle. Is there a Palestine question, Nicaragua, the Sandinistas, Polish workers, you know, Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and so forth.
But one of the things you said that was really important was that some of these – before we get to the kind of discussion, it would be useful to clarify some terms. One of them was actually the term solidarity. But before I even ask you that, some clarification between the relationship between IWDC and the March 8th Coalition we thought would be useful since there’s sometimes confusion over that. Could you briefly clarify the distinction?
Cynthia: I definitely can do that, Franca, and just before I do that though, it occurs to me I didn’t completely answer a piece of the question you were asking me, or maybe this is another piece of the clarification of IWDC and its politics and then its relationship to the March 8th Coalition and other coalitions in town, which is that IWDC is often called a socialist feminist organisation, right, and it did definitely come to identify itself as such.
But I want to just put on the record also another piece of important history here, which is that it didn’t always do that. It was clearly an anti-capitalist organisation as well as a feminist one, but it didn’t necessarily explicitly identify as socialist, and that came at a certain transition moment in the group as well. It became part of the basis of unity.
So that itself is interesting how that happened, and also the fact that people understood socialism in quite different ways. Because that at the time could include a very broad tent of women who for instance were inside the New Democratic Party, which identified at that point as socialist or democratic socialist, right through to all sorts of currents of revolutionary socialism.
So I just wanted to put that on the table, that in many ways it was quite a loose definition, anti-capitalism, that did become a form of socialist feminism. I hope that’s clear, but I wanted to say that before I talk about the relationship between IWDC and March 8th, where this issue became important again.
So yeah, because of the similarity in name, people often confused what was the International Women’s Day Committee with March 8th Coalition. So a word of clarity on that. So IWDC was or became a socialist feminist organisation that met all year round and was an autonomous group. By which I mean it was an autonomous group of feminist activists not linked to any particular party formation or any other formation, for that matter.
And one of the things that the group did as part of its annual cycle of work was put out – put out a call in the fall of the year to build the coalition, to organise the events for International Women’s Day or March 8th. And so then that coalition would come together and meet between January and March and prepare for the day, right, help define its politics, organise the demonstration, think through the events of the fair that accompanied it, or any other public events around it, the dance and so on.
And the two formations had distinctly different, you know, kind of organisational forms. But also the March 8th Coalition was a very broad tent of organisers, activists and so on, with all sorts of different kinds of politics people were bringing to the table, right.
So the March 8th Coalition did not, for example, identify as a socialist feminist coalition, for example, right, although I would argue it did have a strong orientation to thinking through the issues from a standpoint of women who were most oppressed and exploited, right, working-class women, racialized women, indigenous women, and more. But the March 8th Coalition was not by any means explicitly, you know, socialist feminist; it was very broad tent with a lot of important debates that went on and attracted all kinds of people from – all kinds of women from all over.
So that’s an important distinction to make, and because of the confusion in names, International Women’s Day Committee eventually changed its name to Toronto Socialist Feminist Action, to make that distinction clear. But sometimes, I still find there’s confusion there. Now, one final point on this, you know, IWDC in terms of its mode of organising, you know, coalitions were central to the group’s work, so not just the March 8th Coalition, but the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics and other very powerful coalitions were part of its work.
So a lot of how people envisioned change happening was through the coalition structure, right, and keep in mind the 1980s was an important period for the development of feminist thinking on coalitions –
Franca: You were talking about the coalitions.
Cynthia: Yeah, trying to make the point that the coalition structure was an important modality through which the group saw change happening. And also, I think this has to be contextualised within the important theoretical documents that were being produced in the era, you know. Obviously, major titanic statements like the Combahee River Collective statement, you know, coming out of black feminism in the US context was vital for people in terms of thinking about how to think about coalitions, right.
And Combahee of course – and a lot of great scholarship is now being done looking at the Combahee River Collective and its politics and how it envisioned change. But it too was a socialist and a feminist organisation — of black feminists, many of them lesbian and queer women, who thought of themselves as an autonomous black feminist organisation. But also saw that, you know, crucially that, as an organisation that worked in coalitions according to the particular context in politics of that conjuncture and the kind of priorities that were being set by black feminists in terms of what they wanted and needed to work on and with whom, right.
So there’s a lot of – and it’s a moment of, you know, theorisation of the Rainbow Coalition in the US around Jesse Jackson, a whole variety of different kinds of coalitions with different kinds of politics, right. So that’s a crucial modality in this era, right, and coalitions have quite a number of strengths.
They also have their weaknesses, but the important point is that IWDC was organising for the [International Women’s] Day through a coalition structure, which itself also produced internal debates, right, in the sense that for some women, they had gone through examples or forms of party work in their past that they did not think were productive.
In other words, that particular model of forming a party which then developed its own position on stuff and then takes that position out into the world and argues it elsewhere and so on, right. In a very particular model of how you do the work, that was a model of leadership that a lot of women had a critique of, and wanted to think about coalitions in a more dynamic way. Which is that, yes, one may enter them as part of a particular group with a particular standpoint politically, but the point of a coalition was to enter into dialogue and debate with others and to transform and be transformed by that process.
And so learn politically and theoretically from others, right, even in debates that could be incredibly hard sometimes. So that’s one set of ways of thinking about the relationship between IWDC and the broader coalition of which it formed a part, right. I don’t know if that helps.
Franca: Yes, no, that’s very helpful. That comes up a lot in the newsletters, as you know, mass action and coalition building are two principles. And also, that you, I mean you held a lot of workshops, as did many feminist organisations and political organisations. But coalition politics workshops, you know, come up in the newsletters as well, so you certainly are remembering that in a really useful way.
So what about then the idea of international solidarity politics? We don’t want to just go through a list of this one, this one, that one, but what generally …? Can you talk about – and please use examples in relation to – I mean one of the examples that I raise, like Nicaragua, Chile, El Salvador and South Africa, the ANC and so forth. But first generally, can you talk a little bit about the IWDC and its investment in, or real commitment to, international solidarity, or solidarity politics more broadly?
Cynthia: Yeah. Thank you for that great question, Franca, which is in many ways, you know, such an important one. And also fills me with a great deal of nervousness that there is so much important work to think about here, right. And it’s so much a risk of either homogenising this terrain or leaving out important examples. So maybe I should say, right at the beginning here, because there is such a range of important examples, each of which have their own distinct features and character.
I’m really worried that any example I pull out will be seen as, like, the definitive example or I’ve forgotten some other crucial example, right. So I really want people to just see whatever, anything I say, is a very basic interpretative key to some of the issues going on, but by no means comprehensive. Because really, there’s such a lot of important ground here and much of it has not made its way into the scholarly record. Much of it has not even been written down, even in some of the important oral history projects or other activist-led work, right.
So I’m really conscious of not wanting to misrepresent the terrain here. So I’m not sure where’s the best way to start here, Franca. Should I just start with talking about why is it important, and what’s the kind of nature of how people thought about international solidarity? Is that the …?
Franca: Yeah, sure. I mean I would start by, you know – you’ve already talked about a number of the women on the committee, you know, came out of left parties and the trade union movement, so solidarity politics was kind of, you know, was there in a big way for them. I don’t know if that –
Cynthia: That’s exactly an important place to start, right, is to think about well, what was already on the table in terms of the diverse formations of feminists who were in the group, right. Well, for those who came out of various revolutionary – yeah, diverse revolutionary parties or whatever – I mean they had at least a couple of ways of conceptualising this question already on offer, right.
One of them was obviously ways of thinking about solidarity that emerged out of working-class and trade union contexts, right. Which crucially includes all sorts of debates about thinking about how do you build solidarity, even in a context in which working classes and trade unions that have historically been divided by race and gender, among other profound divisions, right, in terms of the organisation of the working class and bodies like trade union movements.
So that set of practices around solidarity as it emerged out of that is something that obviously was already something that was a big part of a lot of the formation and of, you know, many of the feminists who circuited through the group. But also, especially for the generations of women in the group who were older than I was, certainly, they had obviously been shaped by, for example, the solidarity movement around Vietnam, right. Which was about not just articulating an anti-war position, but also thinking about what it meant to argue for liberation, right, more broadly, when it came to the example of Vietnam.
So earlier than that, there was obviously the example of Algeria. So for those who were older, they had already had the experience of wrestling with all of the range of debates that came up in those contexts, right. Plus, they inherited some of the legacies of theorising global capitalism, racial capitalism, imperialism; a whole host of kind of theoretical and political traditions that were part of the legacies that people were both building on, but also trying to reinvent in certain ways, right.
So that just scratches the surface, but I guess the main point here is to say that for many, these kinds of questions were not new; they were a part of what it meant to be a kind of socialist and feminist activist in the world. That didn’t mean that there wasn’t a need for a deepening and widening of that understanding, both theoretically and politically, and in terms of what it meant in one’s everyday politics.
But what I’m saying is that there was already a certain set of frameworks on offer for thinking about the question of solidarity, for thinking about what does it mean to be part of struggles waged at different sets of geographical scales in the context of a really unequal world, if that makes sense.
Franca: OK, good, thank you. Well, let me ask then, relatedly, there are a lot of examples and we can’t even begin to sort of cover them with any sufficient detail, and that’s not the focus of this interview. And I appreciate you’re playing a role of interlocutor in trying to, you know, kind of lay out some of the general big issues. But I thought, if we could talk a little bit about how you define international solidarity as opposed to local solidarity.
That seems to be a distinction that, you know, you’re interested in challenging, and so the two examples that I have here is a kind of comparison between the Riverdale Action Committee Against Racism, which I learned by reading the newsletter, Cynthia. I didn’t know this before, that you were part of the Riverdale Action Committee Against Racism. And then something comparing it to say South Africa, the ANC anti-apartheid struggle. You know, the second seems so obviously international, the other seems obviously local, but are they?
Cynthia: Yeah, it’s a great question, Franca, because one of the things that it challenges us to do is think about our political geographical imaginaries, right. And what are some of the limitations of failing to do a critique of how these different scales are conceptualised, including the scale of the nation.
Because once you start doing that work – and I’m not going to be able to do justice to it in this interview at all, ’cause there’s so much great work on precisely this question, right. About thinking about geographies of solidarity in ways that I’m really not going to be able to speak to in this interview. But I think – and also some great feminist work on this as well that came out of particularly third-world feminist critiques of how all of these scales are politically imagined, right. But to kind of break it down in maybe the most basic way, any of these struggles were lived at all kinds of different scales.
So, for example, the question of South Africa was titanic in the 1980s, right, because of the international Anti-Apartheid Movement, which was so, so important in all its diverse political currents. And it had important representatives in the space of Toronto.
So these struggles were, you know, on the one hand, international, but also local, because, you know, South Africa articulated very importantly with struggles that were already unfolding in the Toronto space around questions of racism, including racism in the women’s movement. Questions of thinking about apartheid not only as it pertained to the South African case, but the broader organisation of race and space globally, including as it structured the space of Canada with its history in terms of, for example, the dispossession of indigenous people and the spatial organisation of that dispossession, to take just one example, right.
So it became, you know, it always was – it’s difficult to separate and untangle all of these different scales of struggle, because they’re profoundly interlocking and because something that started in one space, you know – like the example of South Africa – quickly became engaged at all kinds of different scales, right. And affected things as basic as what canned goods or wines one chose to buy, right, in a supermarket, at a wine store, right through to all sorts of different scales, right.
So that’s why, when people talk about international solidarity and kind of parcel it out in that way, it’s a useful shorthand for describing these movements, liberation movements, but it can obscure sometimes their impact at all sorts of different scales. And it can also entangle us in ways of drawing up space and nation and the global in ways that end up obscuring processes rather than revealing them.
And I think that was the point of a lot of the transnational feminist critique that emerged by the 90s and beyond, was getting some of those questions on the table, right. So yeah, likewise, a struggle as local as the Riverdale Action Committee Against Racism, which, you know, was a group that developed in the East End of Toronto, trying to deal with the organisation of white supremacist groups in the East End.
I mean it was very difficult trying to then untangle that very local neighbourhood struggle from broader local, national and transnational circuits of white supremacy. So you’re always kind of dealing with these scales at all kinds of different levels in terms of how they shape the theory and politics of the work that you’re engaged in. So those are the only two quick examples that I gloss very quickly, but I hope it helps to make the point.
Franca: Yes, it does. Thank you. And maybe if I can – I’ll keep asking questions of this sort and maybe you’ll home in a bit more now on IWDC itself, or the women’s movement in Toronto. And, you know, one of the important points that you’ve been raising is that, you know, a Toronto specific or a nation specific history of the Toronto women’s movement, and including IWDC, you know, would miss out on crucial international movements that were so important to also informing and changing and evolving, shifting the politics of the women’s movement in Toronto and in Canada.
So I thought, could you talk about that a little bit, and maybe I’ll just give you an example – and you can reject my example and choose another one – but what about something like Palestine. And how did – why does the Palestinian question become so important in terms of understanding feminist politics in IWDC and in Toronto and even in Canada?
Cynthia: That’s a great question, Franca, and that could be the subject of, as you know, a sequence of interviews in and of itself, right. So do you want me to kind of speak a little bit to …? Because you’ve actually asked me a couple of questions there, both of which I think are extremely important.
One of them is how the question of Palestine played out in the Toronto women’s movement and specifically within IWDC, and that’s an extremely important story that I do want to speak to. And the other one is your point about the way some of these histories get written, right, because sometimes we get these histories of – quote/unquote – the “Canadian women’s movement” that do not challenge the national frame, the way of organising the story.
And I think failing to do that is fatal, because it also brings up a failure to kind of challenge all sorts of questions around race, nation and colonialism that we need to get to, you know.
And so, I think thinking about it in these terms is important. And also when people talk about the Canadian women’s movement and the global, they tend to think about it – and again, this work has been very important, so I don’t want to criticize it – but there is an important body of work that’s now trying to look at how the quote/unquote “Canadian women’s movement” intersected with institutions or conferences and so on, on the global stage, right. Connected with International Women’s Year or the UN Decade of Women, or some of the UN Women’s Conferences, all of that’s super-important work.
And I’m not blowing it off, but what I am saying is that it’s also important to look at the fact that, you know, forms of these politics are playing out in organising quite specific local spaces, including Toronto. So they’re not kind of external to the space of Canada in that sense, if that’s clear. But to speak a little bit about the question of Palestine, it’s a very good example because it engendered some of the most ferocious and difficult debates, both inside IWDC, but also in the broader politics of organising for March 8th.
Because I should say that some issues were uncontentious within IWDC but might have been contentious outside of it. Some were contentious in both, and so on.
So I remember this quite well, because I was still new to the group and still quite young. But the IWDC debates on the question of Palestine were one of my early and most instructive pathways into the question of Palestine that I now am engaged with in a much deeper way. Not my only one, but it was an important one. Because the group had a very, you know, difficult set of debates on this question and on how to understand Zionism, right, and understand the critique of Zionism.
And lots of women participated in that debate, including women who weren’t necessarily engaged with the group like on a longer-term basis. By which I mean they didn’t come to every meeting and were – this is what I mean about the loose structure of the organisation. It sometimes meant that women were coming and being part of a particular set of debates or questions that were unrolling, but then might move on and do something else.
But that was a debate that attracted quite a number of strong activists who were really interested in threshing, you know, trying to come to grips with this debate and articulate what was at stake. And I don’t know how much detail you want me to go into this, because some of the women who’ve been involved in this have subsequently themselves written about their own trajectory around this question. Amy Gottlieb, for example, is someone who has spoken to this, so I feel it’s OK to name her here specifically ’cause she’s written on it.
But it was a really crucial debate for me in coming to grips with a deeper understanding of histories of colonialism, of the global colour line, of understandings of the nature of confronting histories of anti-Jewish racism. And the different kinds of political alternatives that have been put on the table historically for addressing anti-Semitism and whether Israel as a state is the solution to anti-Jewish racism or itself is part of a broader colonial racist regime, or all sorts of complex debates, right.
And about what are the different pathways to Palestinian liberation; what does that entail, given that this is also a moment where there’s a whole range of political alternatives being debated inside Palestinian movements themselves, right. So it was for me a really generative moment.
Some of the women who’d already been – who were part of this debate – had already been engaging with it for some time and had already come to clear anti-Zionist conclusions. Others were still struggling with this and kind of saw Israel as a kind of variation of a Jewish national liberation project, right, guaranteeing the safety of Jews. So it was a deeply difficult debate at times, but one that I think for many was transformative and linked to broader discussions that were happening in the city that leading Palestinian feminists like Nahla Abdo and others were a part of leading, right.
So for me, it forms part of another piece of the history that has not really been fully written down, which is what’s the history of the engagement of women’s movements in a Canadian context with the question of Palestine, past and present. To me, there’s pieces of this history here and there, but the grand majority of it has not necessarily been written down, right. So I wanted to speak to it a little bit here because it was, for me – this is the last thing I’ll say about it before I talk a little bit about tensions around March 8th itself, around the question of international solidarity.
But for me, it was an important debate, because it’s one of the debates that leads into what became a broad and deep debate about racism in the women’s movement more broadly, right. Not just in terms of how to think about the question of Palestine, but also to think about how to think about race and nation, about colonialism and some of those histories in terms of how they shape the terrain of women’s movements.
For me, those are entangled together, right; they’re not kind of separate moments in the story. I don’t know if that makes sense, Franca. I feel like I’m rambling at times here, but I hope that helps a little bit.
Franca: That’s extremely helpful, extremely helpful.
Cynthia: OK. Can I just say a little bit about what happened when questions like Palestine got to the March 8th Coalition, the kind of public politics of March 8th? Do we have enough time to talk about that for a moment?
Franca: Yes, sure, no problem. That would be great.
Cynthia: Because again, this is something you’ll see much debate and exchange on, some of it very divisive and difficult. But in the early 1980s, around about the 1983 mark, you’ll see some of this debate exploding in journals such as Broadside, right. Because some women were obviously unhappy about the way in which they – what they saw as the problem with the way in which March 8th as a day, right – that is the activities of the day and the speeches and the fairs and so on. There were some women who developed very clear positions on this that they published in letters to Broadside and elsewhere.
They tended to see some of these issues as quote/unquote examples of like – I’m using heavy scare quotes here – “male left” – examples of kind of male left issues that were shaping the priorities of the women’s movement to the exclusion of what they saw as what should be more critical focuses of the women’s movement, right. Whether that was childcare, reproductive rights, women’s impoverishment, you know, women’s economic autonomy, etc, etc.
So the international issues that often tended to get the most criticism, interestingly enough, were Palestine, not surprisingly, but also Ireland. Because sometimes the movement, you know, you got accusations like well, you know, there’s no particular gender or social content to these movements in terms of how they are articulating their projects in ways that would articulate with goals or priorities, agenda, of women’s and feminist movements, right.
So needless to say, some of these, kind of quite contentious claims engaged a whole set of issues. Certainly, a lot of us were extremely irked at the kind of notion of the male left dictating the agenda of the women’s movement. Since this was a set of planning and thinking and theoretical work and political work that had been articulated by socialist feminist women, and also by other women who didn’t necessarily identify as feminists, but who were deeply committed to these questions, right.
So they kind of deeply resented the designation of this set of politics as some kind of project of the male left that women as a group had some interest in not challenging, right. So it also kind of revealed, you know – again to me this is part of why it opens up into a broader conversation about questions of racism, nationalism and more. Because it kind of reveals a whole set of unexamined assumptions that are kind of grounded in the way the international colour line organises what seemed to be a women’s movement issue or a feminist movement issue.
So some of this kind of contentious back and forth went on in Broadside. IWDC responded to some of this criticism, right, and again, it’s part of, like a bunch of different issues. But it’s striking that Palestine was among the issues seen as most contentious, right, among the various liberation movements operating in the Toronto space, of which there were quite a number, right. It particularly was contentious in that way. But again, sorry –
Franca: No, I was just going to follow up on that, because I did come across some of what you’re talking about at one point. I think it was Mariana Valverde who did a column in a newsletter saying, you know, we’re shocked that Broadside is saying that we’re not open to all women, and that we’re more socialist than feminist and that the socialist piece is capitalised, and the feminist is not, you know, capitalised.
And then there’s the kind of argument that you were making about the importance of making a connection between feminism and national liberation movements and other broader issues that some people were defining as part of the male left. And so what you’re saying is really important. And I’d like to have a sense of, within IWDC, if you – you know, say what you feel comfortable saying – but to what extent are people pushing each other, challenging each other?
I mean was IWDC, were all the folks kind of the same mind in response to some of the criticisms that Broadside was making. Or did people have, kind of different positions on a spectrum around feminism and left and revolutionary issues?
Cynthia: Yeah, that’s a really great question, Franca, because you’re right. Just to speak very, very broadly, not necessarily in relation to this specific debate as it blew up right in the early 80s, but just to speak broadly.
You are correct that, you know, IWDC though it defined itself as socialist feminist, actually brought together women, you know, who in some cases — it was a broad tent, I guess is what I need to say. In the sense that people’s understanding of the, quote, “socialist tradition” and how it articulated with feminism, and how it articulated with all of the liberation movements which were important from the 60s, 70s and 80s, right, people had, in some cases, quite different opinions on that.
That didn’t mean that they couldn’t engage with others or debate. And as I said, perhaps the most explosive debate around this was around Palestine, not surprisingly in retrospect. So I would say that, yeah, sometimes there were those internal differences. And also perhaps another example I can quickly give you of an internal difference before maybe I speak to some of the other key dynamics going on here. But another example is this.
On International Women’s Day itself, that is March 8th. Historically, there had always been a fair, that is different groups would have tables at the fair with their literature and their pamphlets and other materials they might have, like buttons and newspapers and so on. So I remember one time in the group, a debate or concern emerged because some of the smaller solidarity groups sometimes had tabling, right, offering literature about the particular group or the solidarity literature. And some women in the group had a problem with men representing at the fair, right.
And others were like, look, sometimes you’re talking about an exile organisation that has a relatively small number of people, and within that, you know, there’s women and men. And what you want on March 8th is for the women precisely not to be tied to a table, but to be out engaging with the day and being able to go to the events and the workshops and engaging with others.
And so, you know, criticizing some group for not having women at the table was seen by some women in the organisation as completely unproductive, aside from the fact that meant telling another group what to do, which, you know, right away engages questions. So there was something, those kind of issues that were about broader questions of representation and about issues around the role of men in feminist movements. And all kinds of different issues were engaged by that very small issue of who should be at the table representing an organisation.
So that’s the kind of stuff that sometimes came up in the group. But I would say that in relation to this particular huge explosive debate that happened in the early 80s; about this critique about March 8th being an agenda dictated by the male left and engaging liberation movements that had “no” – quote/unquote – women’s or social agenda, which is in my view really problematic argument, you know, I don’t remember that being contentious in the same way at all within the group.
It certainly made me really infuriated to see that kind of critique in Broadside, personally. That’s mainly what I remember about it. I remember talking to other socialist feminists outside of the group about it. And what I do remember was important about this moment, though, that’s also important to add, is that even though everybody resented – or I, in retrospect, that’s how I remember it – but you’d have to interview some of those women and say, well, what was your recollection. But I’m just sharing mine.
But I do remember that what was an ongoing debate was — as much as people kind of resented this kind of male left designation, maybe some of us more than others — there was in fact of course an important debate happening inside many of the liberation movements, many of the solidarity movements, about women and gender relations, right, and later sexuality, as those movements took up those questions.
So some of the solidarity and exile movements already had internal women’s organisations and had platforms around the question of women’s oppression or whatever, right. That was an evolving thing. But particularly in the example of Nicaragua, there was lots of debate after the Sandinistas took power about feminism within the context of the Nicaraguan revolution. That was an ongoing debate that a number of feminists inside of Nicaragua and externally have documented, right.
So it’s true that on the one hand a lot of us resented this male left designation and we were somehow tools of the male left. At the same time, there was also a healthy debate about how do you conceptualise the question of women and gender within revolutionary movements, within liberation movements, etc.
And that varied quite a bit according to which example you were talking about, right. But that set of questions crucially was, of course, led by women inside those movements, who were leading on how that question should be conceptualised. And that’s I think where some of the most important theory and practice was emerging that, you know, finds itself later in some of the theoretical work coming out of those movements. And it could not be subsumed under some category of like “male left priorities.”
Franca: Right, and it makes me think – you could tell me if this is the case or not – but if we can sort of generally say that within IWDC that in kind of Latin American national liberation movements, these were not contentious issues for you folks. I do wonder, though, would there have been other meetings, workshops, that stand out? Like I’m wondering, for example, with Margaret Randall’s Sandino’s Daughters [subtitle: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle, 1981]. Did people just gobble that up, or was it not fully available or I just wonder. I think it’s something that kind of encapsulates some of what you’ve been saying, right, women are so important to militant liberation struggles, but also there was a gender debate there as well.
Cynthia: Yeah, it’s a really – it’s a great question, Franca. ‘Cause one of the things that question opens up for me is that on the one hand there were women exiles, refugees and others living in Toronto and being part of the broad space of debate and organising that was Toronto in that moment, right. All sorts of people meeting each other and debating and dialoguing and getting into all kinds of work together or not – ’cause sometimes they weren’t working together.
But then there was also people who transited through town, who gave talks, as Margaret Randall did, and dialogued with women here, right. Or women who were here only for a short time, for example, to help with the organisation of a conference or an important event that highlighted, for example, the political priorities of that movement at the time.
So, for example, the ANC organised at a certain point in the 1980s – I forget the date – but it was an important conference, highlighting women in the South African anti-apartheid struggle, right. So they might be here only for a short time.
But to return to Margaret Randall for a moment, ’cause she’s an interesting example in the sense that Margaret Randall’s book, not her later work on Nicaragua, but her earlier work on Cuban women. That kind of book of oral interviews or oral histories with Cuban women – Cuban Women Now [subtitle: Interviews with Cuban Women, 1974], which was published in the mid-1970s in Toronto by Women’s Press – was – and I’m saying this on the authority of someone who was involved in the production of it – was the first book published by the Press on so-called international women’s perspectives. So that’s already interesting to me.
So, and that kind of history I’m interested in tracing a little; about how does that come to be. But then to return to your question, ’cause you’re importantly pointing out that among the many figures who were transiting through town on a fairly frequent basis. Who were kind of interlocutors, you know, with activists here, specifically Margaret Randall who of course lived in Cuba for many years and has written very interesting memoirs about it. And then lived in Nicaragua for a number of years and did important oral histories of the Sandinista women, right.
So not just her, but other kinds of figures connected to the Nicaraguan struggle, were transiting through town, right, and were giving us windows into some of the debates on the ground. But what I think is really important about the Nicaraguan example, because it was so very important in that era, is that there were quite a number of delegations, brigades, visits, and so on, of feminists and other activists going to Nicaragua, right.
And so, there was that circulation of people, of ideas, groups like Canadian Action for Nicaragua and Tools for Peace are incorporated in here. I remember important public meetings organised by feminists around Nicaragua. These were kind of all providing space for dialogue and debate, about what was happening in the Nicaraguan context and how it kind of changed over time. And the issues there around gender, around women, around sexuality, around debates about where were the Sandinistas going to go, for example, on the question of abortion and reproductive rights.
These for a kind of brief moments were all sort of on the agenda. There was an important number of films circulating through town, right, about Nicaragua, about Central America more broadly. As there were of course also, crucially in the case of South Africa, these were all very important tools in terms of opening up space for different kinds of political debates. So I’m not sure if I’m answering your question too, too broadly here, Franca, or I’m not kind of speaking to it and I’m rambling too much.
But I hope this gives you a sense that, you know, one of the things that’s happening here is that you have dialogue and debate going on, not just in the city among activists resident in the city connected to transnational struggles, but also quite a number of people coming on official speaking tours, right. Or those who were more doing informal workshops who had been living or working in Nicaragua, for example, that gave the rest of us a little bit of a window into the nature of some of the debates that were running through the movements there. But which also shaped here how people theoretically and politically conceptualised the questions.
Franca: Right, no, that’s really, really helpful. And also, I would ask – if IWDC members who were themselves involved in some of that circulation going too?
Cynthia: Yeah, there were definitely a small number who were, right, who were crucially involved in it that, you know, you may get the occasion to talk to at some point. In my case, I was not, right. Like this is why I put a caution at the beginning of my interview. In my case, many of these movements I’m learning from, but very much on the sidelines.
Like I myself was not a huge active organiser in them, so I might have played a small role in some of them. But all of us were learning. I guess this is what’s important to emphasize is that all of us were learning from all of the movements all together in relation.
So, for example, while some of us may have been intensely caught up with one particular wing of, or one particular solidarity movement, or one particular liberation movement. Had a deep commitment to it, and build relationships over time and engage with the debates, and the reading and so on. People were also following all of the other movements, because they all mutually shaped each other, right, in terms of how they conceptualise the issue.
Even though they were also very, at the same time, distinct in terms of their organisational structure, their size, their global presence, etc. So they all have to be understood in their particularity, but also in a relational way, right. So yeah, so even if one wasn’t playing say a major role in like as a feminist activist in Canadian Action for Nicaragua, one was nevertheless learning from the movements by attending events or films or listening to the debates that whipped through all of these movements, yeah.
Franca: Right, and I know – sorry – another example that just comes up in the newsletters which I’ll just share with you was IWDC and Women Working with Immigrant Women and the OFL [Ontario Federation of Labour] Women’s Committee sponsored in 1981 a visit by Domitila [Chungara] from the [Bolivian miners’] struggle and had a whole evening around that. So actually, you’ve already in a sense addressed the question. But what’s the importance of exile activists who were informing and doing the circuit, you know, as you’ve already described? You’ve already said that –
Cynthia: Yeah, they’d be on a tour, for example, or yeah, with people here active in organising that tour and thinking through the politics of it. Yeah, that’s a very important event. I, like I was very new at that point, I can’t even remember now whether I actually attended that event or am only remembering it through the second-hand remembrances of others, you know what I mean? ‘Cause it goes that far back.
But it was important, right. And it was also important for kind of working through some of the debates that are going on in the period, which is, you know: is there a feminism by and for women inside the liberation movements? Or inside the workers’ movements of the global south, or whatever? Is feminism kind of an exclusively North American preoccupation of the well-to-do, or not? And are there profound differences between north and south in terms of the feminisms that are envisioned?
Some women said, well, I’m not a feminist, right, etc. So this is kind of a moment where there’s a really strong articulation of the debates around those sets of questions, and the huge growth in development of third-world feminisms. Now, you know, people working today tend not to use the conception “third world” and see it as a problematic one, but it is an important …
Here, I’m thinking of the kind of work of Chandra Mohanty [e.g., “Cartographies of Feminism: Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism” 1991] and others who used that term in the period, right. To talk about the growth and development of feminisms that were attuned to and attentive to the global structures of racism, nationalism, capitalism, colonialism; how they’re put together and how they shape questions of gender and how they shape our movements, right.
But a lot of that is still kind of in development at this point, as people are trying to think through what does it mean to grapple with that. And also what does it mean crucially to start then using that analytic to grapple with the immigration and refugee systems and structures of say the Canadian state? And how the labour market is organised and all of those questions, right, to use that lens to do that analytic work there, about understanding how global divisions of labour work within global capitalism and how that structures race and gender and so on.
But yeah, if you look back at those old newsletters, you’ll see and I think you’ll probably find accounts of important talks and events by figures who were transiting through town. But going and hearing these talks was very important for shaping the debates as they emerge on the ground here, even if that person maybe only came once. Whereas others came repeatedly, like for example, you know, there are some figures who might visit over a decade, right, others who came only once. But they all had their impact.
Franca: Yeah, I mean including on people like me in the sense that I wasn’t in these organised groups, but I was going to a lot of these events. And I was very excited about hearing from Margaret Randall and so forth. So it really was a part of a political transformation for a lot of people who , you know, like all fellow travellers or what have you, working out their own politics. Yeah.
Cynthia: That’s right.
Franca: Well, let me, OK, this is going to be the last question, because I think you’ve been working really hard for us and I really appreciate it. And I know if I was to ask you about something around IWDC and immigrant women’s activism, that is another huge subject that we can’t –
Cynthia: It’s just so important.
Franca: And we can’t possibly do justice to it. I will say that I’m very pleased that this theme has come up in some of the other interviews that we’ve done, so that is great. But I thought I would ask you a question that comes back to you, but it’s also about the broader important issues we’ve been talking about.
And that is, you know, your own work that you’re very busy at these days, when the two of us are not working on our Emma Goldman and Toronto project. Your work on Canada and Cuba. And in what sense does that work reflect kind of your political trajectory and some of the issues and themes and events even that we’ve been talking about?
Cynthia: Well, you know what, it’s totally linked, Franca. In the sense that, as we’ve already referenced, questions around Nicaragua but also Central America more broadly were huge in the 1980s, around El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and more. They were huge.
And what’s very disturbing to me is that that entire episode of Central America in the 1980s, it’s as if, you know, it kind of dropped into this memory hole in official memory, right. And yet it’s crucial for understanding a whole host of things, including migration crises as they’re lived out in the United States, Central America and Canada today and beyond, right.
So that’s just one very important example, and there’s others. So one of the things that happened to me when I was a very young woman. I’m trying to understand the politics of Central America, right. I’m seeing films and speakers, dialoging with activists and organisers centrally involved in this. So one of the things that happens is you kind of get engaged with the kind of oral history or the oral lore and legacy of movements, right.
You hear about stuff that’s talked about. It may be over a coffee before the meeting, or a drink after, whatever. People start talking about this and that, right. So one of the things that – so two things that kind of happened to me. One of them is that, you know, some of the women around these movements were talking in interesting ways comparing the involvement, for example, of Sandinista women in armed struggle in Nicaragua with earlier histories, for example, in Cuba.
What was the involvement of women in the anti-Batista struggle, for example, about which I knew little at that time. Because, for starters, I wasn’t old enough to be part of the generation for whom Cuba was an important – what’s the word – kind of key part of their politics, key part of their formation. I wasn’t old enough for that, right. So I’m hearing a little bit in these oral conversations among women, many of whom are Latin American exiles, about the experience of women in diverse kinds of struggles – Nicaragua, Cuba and more – El Salvador, etc.
So I’m placing it in a kind of trajectory. I think what happened to me is that one of the people from whom I was learning about Nicaragua was a man originally from the Canadian context, who became a Nicaraguan citizen and took up a very long residency in Nicaragua, decades long, right. So one of the things I was learning from him was the earlier work on Cuba, about which I was again largely completely and totally ignorant.
I was starting to learn a little bit about the work around Cuba inside the United States. I had absolutely no idea of the Canadian context, right. So that developed my own curiosity about how earlier movements worked through these questions around how to think about global capitalism. How to think about questions of solidarity, about revolutionary struggle, about gender, race in revolution, a whole host of things that opened up for me.
But I was also struck by the fact that large numbers of the older activists around me who were involved in some of these questions had been shaped by Cuba, as well as other important struggles, for example in Vietnam and others. But Cuba really captured my imagination for a host of reasons.
So it shaped my work there, but also the interrogations that all of these movements also developed of the immigration and refugee system here. And of the kind of systematic critique of the operation of race as it shaped labour in the Canadian context, right, international division of labour, as I said, or other ways of conceptualising it. That, too, also shaped a lot of my own interests, right, and again the interrogation of categories like “migrant” and others that are state categories and do particular kinds of work.
So I was interested in the fact that, you know, many people who were involved in all these movements were also involved in – some of them were more involved in organisations like Women Working with Immigrant Women and other important organisations of the day, which provided a space for interrogating those sets of questions as well, right, to think about these in a really intersectional and global way.
So that’s an important I think part of the story as well, that I know some of your other interviewees have been able to treat in more depth and with more knowledge than certainly I can offer. But it’s an important part of the story here as well, so I don’t know if that makes sense here, or whether I’m starting to ramble at this juncture in the interview.
Franca: No, no, it makes great sense, and I really appreciate it. I said an hour, but it’s more like an hour-and-a-half, so I really appreciate your willingness to take on, first off, a difficult assignment. I mean to try to explain something as complicated as what we’ve been talking about. And I think you did a really terrific job, and really I think will be very helpful to people listening to the oral history and going through the documents on our website.
I’ll also say that, since as feminists who do oral history, we care about dynamics. This is the only interview I’ve done as part of the Women Unite project that is with a friend, with a long-standing friend, but actually, I learned a lot, right. I learned a lot and I really appreciate the way you characterised things, because I think it’s going to be really helpful for a lot of people. So –
Cynthia: I hope it helps them to dig deeper, because I feel like I’m scratching the surface, just to reference a famous anti-racist, feminist anthology, you know, coming out of the Toronto context, actually produced by Ena Dua and Angela Robertson [Scratching the Surface: Canadian Anti-racist, Feminist Thought, 1999]. I feel like I’m kind of scratching the surface of a whole host of important sets of issues, and also again I worry about flattening all the important and diverse struggles circulating through Toronto that are linked to the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia, Africa, Middle East and North Africa.
Ireland we scarcely touched on, but which was also crucial. There’s more, right. So I’d just encourage people to, yeah, do a deep dive in the documents of the Rise Up archive and also other archives and oral histories that they’re able to get to that help imaginatively get to these questions in ways that open up new pathways of understanding for us.
Franca: Right, great. And also, we hope that this will encourage others to do more oral histories on groups like IWDC, so we’ll see.
Cynthia: Absolutely.
Franca: What you’ve done here has been extremely helpful and fascinating, so thanks a lot.