She-cession recession

The lockdowns and closures of the CoVid-19 pandemic have had a terrible and uneven impact particularly on women in service sector jobs. Single mothers have lost income in some cases, or they have been forced to continue working in highly-exposed, front-line service sector jobs in order to support families.

December 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, whose recommendations pushed for an end to discrimination based on gender and marital status, notably in the workplace. Pandemic lockdowns have reversed much of the economic gains of women over the last half century. The Commission’s proposals included far-sighted recommendations including universal childcare, which remains unachieved and only given lip service in Canada. Barb Cameron notes that, while seen in retrospect as mostly geared to white, heterosexual womens’ issues, overlooking the challenges faced by minorities and women who face multiple forms of disadvantage — layers of economic class, racial, ethnic, age and other discriminations — the Commission recommended the end of the Indian Act which discriminated against Indigenous women who married non-Indigenous men. Although this was mostly removed from the legislation in the Liberal government in June 2019 some discriminatory elements remain.

The Commission studied women workers in government, unionized, service and retail. For example, the Commission reported:

Long before women had established a place for themselves in offices, they were firmly ensconced in retail stores. Stores continue to be an important source of employment for women who have no special training… The hours that storesare open and their peak sales periods lend themselves to the employment of fairly large part-time staffs. Of the full-time and part-time employees ind epartment stores, approximately two-thirds are women…. To provide insight into the position of these women, a study of women in department store chains was undertaken for the Commission. In all, 38 stores were covered. All regions of Canada were represented and all major downtown stores in the chains and a number of suburban stores were included. The study covered a total of 22,978 full-time employees and 25,035 part-time employees. The number of women full-time employees exceeded the number of men by some 3,000. The number of women working part-time was almost four times as great as the number of men… It was found that women working full-time or part-time were pr-dominantly employed in the lower-paid sales clerk positions (80 per cent) and as cashiers. On the other hand, 72.5 per cent of the higher paid sales positions were held by men. (Commission Report 1970 p.142-3). The photograph of the commission members held in the archives is likely unusual for the period in the number of women members.

Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada (Dominion Wide Photographs Limited, Library and Archives Canada, 1971-191 NPC).

A Vision of a New Economic and Domestic World

The Commission accepted the testimonies that women’s “place” is not just “in the home”. This highlights the fundamental spatial division in modernist capitalism of the domestic and the public, dividing home from the workplace and repressing the importance of the domestic by ignoring domestic labour (see Mitropolous Contract and Contagion 2002, topic of a future post). In short, they proposed to make a new, equitable spatialisation of socioeconomic production and reproduction. Changing society so that it produced a new kind of space represented true revolution, as Lefebvre would argue in his 1974 Production of Space.

Several briefs pointed this out: “Women, too, in large part still believe that a woman’s place is in the home, at least while her children are young.” (Brief 64) “The all-too-prevalent opinion, common amongst women as well as men, that women with the odd exception are less ambitious, timid, less capable, less well-organized than men, is fallacious, if closely examined.” (Brief 75)

This was against the prevailing opinion of men at the time, evident in polling conducted by the press:

During the 1968 public hearings of the Commission, two Canadian daily newspapers published questionnaires “for Men Only”… in order to obtain a sampling of men’s opinions on the question of women. Such surveys are usually affected by different kinds of bias: for example, the sampling might not be representative of the whole population. Nevertheless they are not meaningless even though the results have to be interpreted with care. In these samplings the results showed, generally, traditional opinions. Many of the respondents declared that women tended to find more discrimination than in fact existed and that Canada did not need a Royal Commission on the Status of Women. More than half the replies received by the Toronto Star declared that woman’s place is in the home. In the survey by Le Devoir, majority opinion favoured a male rather than a female superior on the job. (Commission Report 1970 p.12; newspapers were Le Devoir (Montreal) and the Toronto Star, which received 492 and 739 completed questionnaires respectively)

It is clear that we stand, on the best days, in a fundamentally different society. However, on the worst days we are back in the Mad Men world that the Commission created the legal and legislative tools to dismantle. On December 7th, the Commission’s 50th Anniversary passed as a footnote, almost without mention in the press. It is our shame. Where do we think we are? I think we are still lost between these two spatialisations, these two societies.

-Rob Shields (Univ. of Alberta)