Reclaiming Newfoundland and Labrador Feminism

“Feminism is not something we wear, it is what we do — and we do it everyday.”

The following is a speech delivered by Jenny Wright on March 6 in St. John’s at the annual International Women’s Day Bread and Roses Brunch.

Good Afternoon sisters and brothers, and all of you who celebrate and experience a world not constrained by that gender binary. Welcome to the International Women’s Day Brunch.

To say it is an honour to be standing before you – is an understatement. To be speaking to you about my deep love of the Newfoundland women’s movement is truly an incredible honour. 

I need to tell you that I am nervous. As a CFA, I am acutely aware of the many great women who have written and spoken about women’s history in this province, from the Women’s History Walking Tour, to the Let’s Teach About Women Project, to authors like Trudy Morgan Cole and Margaret Duley – far too many to name here, but I encourage you to seek them out.

I am also exceedingly aware that some of the women who shaped our history are right here in this room. Some in this room, opened and ran women’s centres, women’s institutes, opened shelters for women, stormed the secretary of state’s office and challenged the constitution and won. They educated us, raised our awareness of the issues facing us and they went deep into outport communities to teach, to organize and to listen. Many at a great personal cost and many without the recognition they deserve.

It is a rich and vibrant history which saw countless successes. Many of the great women who forced change in this province never thought of themselves as feminists, nor activists. They simply knew something wasn’t right and they stood up. Sometimes they stood alone, sometimes they organized in small groups, in formal women’s organizations, within their unions and as academics. But, they all stood up and they all did something.

It is, I believe, in the doing — doing something about the plight of women, their families and their communities — that characterises the women’s movement here. I believe in this province it has long been about doing feminism instead of wearing feminism; this emphasis on the act and not the label meant:

  • Rolling up your sleeves, not because you wanted to, but because you had to, because something wasn’t right.
  • It often meant being in for the long haul.
  • It meant fighting while experiencing huge barriers: structural sexism, poverty and the social and geographical isolation of this beautiful and often maddening island.
  • It often meant the exhausting work of organizing for change while being a mother, working in the fishery, in the shops, in the home and on the streets.

I think of a fisher woman named Rosanne Doyle of Witless Bay, who successfully challenged the unemployment insurance program because it denied benefits to the wives of fishers. When she won that fight, women who worked with their husbands on their boats became eligible to collect the unemployment insurance they deserved. Prior to her standing up, women were simply seen as “helping their husbands.”

Fannie McNeil (left) was a leading member of Newfoundland's suffragist movement. Shown here are Fannie McNeil, her husband Hector, and daughters Betty and Margaret. Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections at Memorial University.
Fannie McNeil (left) was a leading member of Newfoundland’s suffragist movement. Shown here are Fannie McNeil, her husband Hector, and daughters Betty and Margaret. Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections at Memorial University.

I think of the suffragettes like Armine Gosling and Fannie McNeil, who continued to fight for women’s right to vote long after all other western countries and all other provinces in Canada had won it. They even stopped their decades of advocating, with very few wins, to work for the war effort in WW1 — exactly 100 years ago. 

100 years ago the women of this province worked, flew planes, drove ambulances, raised money, bore the grief of loss of husbands and sons, and organized like no other province — and many never received or wanted any adulation or credit. After the long hardship of war, they picked up again and continued on with their fight and won the vote in 1925.

I think of Julia Salter Earle, a feminist and trade unionist who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of the working classes, who during the depression led a march of 500 unemployed men through these very streets of St. John’s to the Colonial Building.

And I think of my own organization: The St. John’s Status of Women Council.

The organization, I am so very privileged to lead, has solid roots in the women’s movement in N.L. The ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s were a powerful time for activism that lead to substantive legislative and social change: 

  • Alongside other women’s groups the council lobbied and changed the Jury Duty Reform Act, allowing women to sit on juries for the first time.
  • Matrimonial Property Act: legislation that recognized the equal division of property upon separation or divorce. It also ensured that widowed women and men could now inherit the matrimonial home.
  • The council actively promoted participation of women in politics, and taught women how to organize and run campaigns.
  • They talked about sexism and worked to end it: in education, in the workplace, in the media and, often for the first time, they dared to speak about women’s health and reproductive rights.
  • They started the first transition house in St. John’s for women fleeing domestic violence.
  • They started the first Rape Crisis Centre.
  • Perhaps the greatest achievement was fighting for and ensuring equality was clearly embedded in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

And, of course, how can we forget the day they occupied the secretary of state’s office to protest cuts to the status of women councils — a successful protest that began here in this city and moved right across the country.

The sheer volume of change, the breadth of organizing, the impact of their activism has always been to me both extraordinary and unique. There is not a single day when I sit in my office that I don’t think about and honour this history. 

We simply cannot speak of women’s activism on this sacred day without acknowledging our union sisters and their organizing in this province. We must remember that this day was once called International Working Women’s Day; its 1908 roots honour International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, whose strike slogan was, “We’d rather starve quick than starve slow!” 

Unions in our province have played a key role in elevating the status of women, in the workplace and in the home. This is a fact that can often get lost in our current time of anti-union rhetoric.  Working conditions that are the norm for so many of us, was not always so – from simply being allowed in the workforce, to parental leave, to fair wages. It is to our unionized sisters that we owe a great debt. From Julie Salter Earle to Nancy Riche, to the fierce women and trade unionists here in this room that organize this day, union women fight every single day to ensure that we do not lose hard-won gains for working women. 

There were also mistakes.

The history of our Indigenous sisters is missing is our history books. We must acknowledge and redress that much of what we have fought for and won did not benefit nor include our Indigenous sisters. To my white sisters, let us stop calling our Indigenous sisters to dance for us at our events; check your privilege and ensure there is a permanent seat for them in all your activism should they want it, because we have so much to learn, and so much to history to correct. 

 Feminism…started with the resistance of our Indigenous sisters at the point of contact. To perpetuate our limited concept of feminism is inherently racist and erodes their history and their existence.

As my friend and colleague Heather Jarvis reminds us: we must not think of feminism in waves any longer. Feminism did not start with the suffragettes, it started with the resistance of our Indigenous sisters at the point of contact. To perpetuate our limited concept of feminism is inherently racist and erodes their history and their existence.

Recently, when speaking with my friend and colleague Amelia Reimer, she said: “While you are still fighting for wage parity we are still fighting not to be killed.” Understand this truth, and understand for our sisters the path to ending violence, poverty, racism, and colonialism is deeply tied to their treaty and land rights. Fight with them, fight for them.

We have long left immigrant women in our province lacking the supports and services they deserve – from the early Irish women who landed on this shore seeking peace and a better life, to the Syrian women newly landed here. Let us continue to fight for their access to basic human rights and for organizations like the Multicultural Women’s Organization to receive the funding and recognition they so deserve. 

Our outport sisters have long been the backbone of this Island, the economy, the family, and of course, the fishery. Today they experience twice the amount of family violence than their urban sisters, and do so with minimal or no services at all. Let us always remember that safety is a human right. Let us not abandon them in our activism.

We have much to celebrate as of late:

  • We saw the first all-party provincial debate solely on issues facing the status of women in our province.
  • When it seems second nature for young women to denounce feminism, two new, young feminist organizations have emerged, who are fierce and engaged in direct action feminism: GLOW (Generating Leadership Opportunities for Women) and SPAAT (Smash Patriarchy: An Action Team).
  • Trans activist Kyra Rees whose activism forced the government to amend the Vital Statistics Act to allow transgender people to change government identification to match their gender identity.
  • Where there were no services for women who work in the sex trade we now have SHOP, which exists solely to advocate for the human rights of sex workers.
  • A Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry has begun. And, we are watching.
  • We have heard loud and clear the rumbles of a collective resistance recently, from Spaniard’s Bay to Jian Ghomeshi, from posters telling us not to be victims to the awful treatment of incarcerated women. Women are again standing up and speaking out. We hear you!
  • Returning to our roots, all eight status of women councils will formally ratify a Provincial Committee on the Status of Women. From Lab West to Port aux Basque to St John’s, the committee will serve as a unified and powerful grassroots, non-partisan voice on the status of women in N.L.
  • In partnership with Breakwater Books we are relaunching the Newfoundland and Labrador Women’s Almanac!

IWD is always a day for us to celebrate and to honour our history. But it is also a time to take stock of where we are at in this long and, at times, painful journey to gender equality and justice.

And, currently in our province, the status of women is alarming. 

We have the second highest childcare costs in the country, the highest wage parity gap in the country, sexual harassment in our workplace is rampant, intimate partner violence has left us with a list of murdered women that is far too long. Women in leadership is still shockingly low and has always been. Access to women’s-centred healthcare, including reproductive healthcare, places our lives at risk and poverty, deteriorating mental health and addiction are the seeds that have sown from this.  

These are difficult times. There is a lot to do, and we must roll up our sleeves again. For the long haul.

What we know is that we are about to enter another four years of an austerity budget. And no matter the amount of research, anecdotal evidence and voices from around the globe and here at home, governments seem to conveniently forget that women are always adversely and negatively affected by austerity budgets.  We are the largest user of services. We are the lowest paid. We do the bulk of unpaid labour and the care giving.

 Governments seem to conveniently forget that women are always adversely and negatively affected by austerity budgets.

Sisters know this -> They Cut, We Bleed.

We know this from a decade of Harper, who silenced and closed women’s organizations, left many women’s serving programs silo’ed, in fear and sadly silent. The last decade here at home, while we continued to work hard, voices went silent, solidarity eroded and we fell down on the fight. We grew tired under relentless threats of cuts and backlash. 

And it must stop now. It is time to come together, no matter our differences and our fears, and get back on the path to gender equality and justice in the province. 

If there was ever a time to reclaim the rich and powerful spirit of N.L. feminism it is right here, and it is right now. It is time for the doing, for rolling up our sleeves and being in for the long haul.

Remember that the history of feminism in this province was not achieved just by formal organizations, but that much of the change came about because one woman stood up and said, “This is not right.” Every woman and ally here has within them the power to make real change in the lives of women and girls. Yes, we all come from different places, communities, abilities and resources, but small changes have huge impacts. Organize, agitate, educate, speak out, volunteer — our very lives depend on this. Feminism is not something we wear, it is what we do — and we do it everyday.

A couple of months ago I spoke at the December 6 vigil at Memorial University. At that time, I said: Let us not just mourn. Let us turn grief into action. I would like to leave you today with 14 opportunities for action, for reflection, and perhaps as a starting point to our mobilizing. We must not ignore our combined history, our strengths, our human rights. We must reclaim our own unique and extraordinary feminism:

14 Opportunities

Thank you.

Jenny Wright is a feminist, activist and the Executive Director of the St. John’s Status of Women Council. She has worked in community for more than 20 years in the areas of homelessness, poverty and social justice. Jenny holds a Master of Social Work degree from Memorial University and has worked in England, New Zealand and across Canada. Her passion is in the areas of women in leadership, gender equality, and justice. Jenny lives by the sea on the southern shore.

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