Manitoba History: Book Review: Joan Sangster, Transforming Labour: Women and Work in Post-war Canada

by Marlene Epp
Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo

Number 69, Summer 2012

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Joan Sangster, Transforming Labour: Women and Work in Post-war Canada, University of Toronto Press, 2010, 416 pages ISBN 978-0-8020-9652-4, $35.00 (paperback)

The relationship between women and work in the decades following the Second World War is an ongoing area of research and debate among historians of women in Canada. Did the postwar years represent a regression from the so-called workplace gains made by women during the war, or was there more continuity than previously suggested? Did women’s paid labour decline after the war, or rather, was it transformed? Such questions are part of the backdrop to Joan Sangster’s Transforming Labour: Women and Work in Post-war Canada, a book which received honourable mention for the 2011 Sir John A. Macdonald Prize for the best scholarly book in Canadian history.

In this beautifully written and complex study, Sangster sets out to question the impact of the “Fordist accord” on women’s labour in the twenty-five years that followed the Second World War. She defines the Fordist accord as an “accommodation” between the state, capital and labour that ensured productivity and profits for business while also protecting wages and stability for workers. This accord began to break down following the global oil crisis of the 1970s. Sangster proposes that, contrary to male-centred labour studies that view a disjuncture between the “golden age” of the accord and the difficult years after its demise, for women workers the period was more one of continuity whereby the benefits of unionization were not equally experienced. This research question also reflects Sangster’s contribution to a revisionist view of the post-war era that departs from prevalent understandings of a conservative, domestic norm for women in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Another goal of the book is to reaffirm — in response to some postmodern theorists who declared otherwise — the usefulness of women’s material “experience” as a tool of analysis. Writing as a “feminist historical materialist,” Sangster assumes the “intersectionality” of class, race and gender, yet firmly reminds us that formation of class is gendered and racialized. At times one wonders if Sangster “doth protest too much” in countering postmodern analyses, since at least this reader needed no defensive rationale for the value of women’s lived experience as an ever-present dialectic between agency and subordination. At times heavy theoretical reading, the book also offers many engaging stories of women at work in an era when gender ideals and ideas were highly contested.

After an introduction that lays out Sangster’s research questions and the theoretical issues that frame her inquiry, the first chapter provides an overview of women’s labourforce participation in the post-war period and examines to what extent the “representation” of women’s work in the press was or was not reflected in the “realities” of the workplace. Sangster traces the trends and patterns of this era that saw an overall increase in female workforce participation, especially in the service sector, and that notably included more married women than before. The merits of this development was debated in the press, be it women’s magazines, union newspapers, or business reporting. Focussing most of her analysis on the union press, Sangster concludes that, even while arguing for better wages for both sexes, unions maintained prevailing ideas about the gendered division of labour, and also about a family model dependent on the male-breadwinner wage.

Each of the next five chapters have a unique focus, exploring a particular group of women workers in a specific workplace and regional setting. Chapter two examines the important issue of immigration and ethnicity in the postwar workplace with a case study of refugee women from Europe working under two-year contracts in Quebec’s textile industry, specifically the Dionne Spinning Mill. The story of these immigrant workers represents the interplay of union opposition to the “unfree” nature of their contracts, the desire of business owners to be both charitable and profitable, and the agency of women themselves in seeking to improve their lives.

Female agency is less evident in the third chapter, which examines the impact of Cold War politics on three unionized labour sectors – fur, electrical, and textiles. Women workers here appear mainly as pawns in the struggle between leftist and anti-communist union leaders. This theme continues partly in Chapter four, in which Sangster profiles women retail workers at Montreal’s Dupuis Frères department store, a context in which religion, nation and owner paternalism confronted an emerging sense of workers’ rights. Chapter five addresses an ostensibly more positive outcome of the Fordist accord in terms of the new access of women workers to arbitration for labour grievances, many of which were gendered. Here the workplace focus is on meatpacking plants and Bell Telephone.

Chapter six importantly acknowledges the limits of Fordism in Sangster’s attention to women’s work in Aboriginal communities on the prairies, while Chapter seven takes us into the era of second wave feminism as it analyzes letters written by women workers to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women beginning in the late 1960s. In the end, as Sangster’s conclusion indicates, the post-war era is one of “contradictions” for women workers, who likely thrived in many ways in new labour settings, even while the debates and ideologies about their “right to work” and their “workers’ rights” swirled around them.

Sangster notes at the outset that her focus is on formalized waged labour, as opposed to women’s unpaid, voluntary and informal work. Certain gaps in the range of women’s work will be noticed by most readers, and is acknowledged by the author. Women who were teachers, nurses, professionals, domestic workers, or were selfemployed, are largely absent from this study. Given the book’s emphasis on women workers within unions, it would be helpful to know early on how many women workers in Canada were unionized during this period— likely a small percentage of the overall female workforce— and not just what percentage of union membership was female. This demonstrates just how much more work needs to be done to understand the remarkable history of women workers over the past six decades. Sangster’s book nevertheless fills an important gap in our historical understanding of gendered and racialized labour during the post-war era; it also provides further evidence that women did not all “go home” after the war, but were active and activist in many workplaces.

Page revised: 12 January 2017