“Women Losers in a False Economy”: Feminist Resistance to Neoliberalism in Alberta

Nancy Janovicek, University of Calgary

Feminists argue that COVID economic recovery plans may “turn back the clock” on the gains that women have made in the workplace by ten or twenty years.[1] Dubbing the pandemic downturn the “she-cession,” feminist economists are critical of the focus on infrastructure-based economic recovery plans because they ignore workplaces dominated by women workers, the sectors that have also experienced the largest number of job losses. Governments still dither on daycare even though many studies demonstrate that affordable, accessible early childhood education – with well-paid staff – is the most cost-effective way to advance women’s equality and is essential to women’s participation in the paid workforce.[2] Racialized women, especially those in the Temporary Foreign Workers program discussed in Nicholas Fast’s post in this series, are most vulnerable in this precarious economy. While recognizing systemic inequities among women, an underlying assumption in these evaluations is that there have been significant gains that ought to be protected by policy interventions. 

It’s interesting to read the newsletters of the Alberta Status of Women Action Committee (ASWAC), which was active from 1976 to 1997, alongside present-day feminist analysis of “bro-covery” plans because there isn’t really much new in current feminist analysis of economic policy.[3] I’m not making an ahistorical argument that nothing has changed.[4] But the fundamental consistencies between earlier analysis and current concerns are notable: the marginalization of women in the workforce; the undervaluation of caregiving work; and the disproportionate impact of cuts to the public sector and social welfare programs on women. In the pages of the ASWAC newsletter, activists identified global “neo-conservative” shifts that undermined local efforts to defend national social welfare states and the provincial programs that women required for equal participation in the workforce.[5] 

Feminist publications like the ASWAC Newsletter taught women that their experiences mattered and that they should not be intimidated by economists and pundits who dismissed gender analysis and insisted that deregulation, deficit reduction, and privatization were necessary for economic growth in the new global economy.[6] ASWAC was a grassroots feminist response to the Alberta government’s refusal to establish within government an Advisory Committee for the Status of Women to advocate for policies to advance women’s equality.[7] Mobilizing their anger at government unwillingness to acknowledge that Alberta’s male-dominated resource-based economy and austerity measures deepened gender, race, and class inequities, ASWAC activists drew on national and international debates to develop sophisticated economic analysis grounded in women’s experiences in Alberta. 

ASWAC activists rejected popular portrayals of a masculine political economy in Alberta. They demanded recognition of the significance of women’s paid work and the systemic barriers that maintained the pay gap. In 1982, Alberta had the largest percentage of female participation in the workforce in Canada and a significant proportion of these women were single, widowed, or divorced. The pay gap between male and female workers was staggering; in 1981, the average annual income for women was $10, 576 compared to $21, 673 for men.[8] While the public sector offered some mobility for women in an economy dominated by the oil industry, these jobs were becoming insecure because of the provincial government’s acceptance of neoconservative demands for smaller governments. The 1984 decision to eliminate the Provincial Government Temporary Staff program, which replaced full-time union jobs with contract workers from private agencies, was, according to an ASWAC activist who lost her job, one example of how “women [were] losers in a false economy.”[9] She argued that these jobs enabled women to support their families, and for this reason she would not work for minimum wage without benefits because these agencies and their shareholders were “putting furs on their backs and rings on their fingers by charging their clients double what I earn.”[10] Women insisted that they were breadwinners and opposed policies that did not recognize the economic contributions that women made to their families and to the province.

ASWAC was actively engaged with the National Action Committee on the Status of Women and its opposition to the 1987 Free Trade Agreement and the Meech Lake Accord because they were concerned about the privatization of social services.[11] They were especially worried that the proposed opt-out clause could allow the Alberta government to reject long-demanded national daycare programs. The federal retreat from commitment to equal access to social programs across Canada, coupled with deep cuts to social welfare programs under the Klein government, angered activists who worked for women’s equality: “It is clear to us that the government wants women in the kitchen or the bedroom. Is this all a ploy to deal with high unemployment? Keep women out of the workforce?”[12]

Given the weakness of structural gender analysis in current recovery plans, it’s hard not to come to a similar conclusion. COVID-19 has laid bare how neoliberal policies have advanced a narrow definition of feminism that advances privileged women over racialized and economically marginalized women. Moreover, integrating women into neoliberal economic priorities has not addressed the structural gendered inequities that maintain socio-economic hierarchies locally and globally. Alberta’s reputation as a conservative province obscures a long history of resistance to the neoliberal policies that became entrenched in the 1990s.[13] How Alberta feminists responded to austerity policies, by demanding the protection of public services alongside structural changes in policy development, could provide insights for our ongoing struggles against social and economic injustice. 

Nancy Janovicek teaches women’s and gender history at the University of Calgary and volunteers at the Women’s Centre of Calgary. 

[1] Wendy Cukier, “Covid-19 may turn back the clock on women’s entrepreneurship,” The Conversation, 29 June 2020; Amanda Taub, “Pandemic Will ‘Take Our Women 10 Years Back’ in the Workplace,” The New York Times, 26 September 2020. 

[2] Anna Cameron, Vanessa Morin, and Lindsay Tedds, “The Gendered Implications of an Infrastructure-focused Recovery: Issues and Policy Thoughts,” Economic Policy Trends (September 2020).  

[3] The newsletters are available online at RiseUp: a digital archive of feminist activism.

[4] One of the most important developments in feminist economic analysis since the 1970s has been greater attention to the different impact of policies on racialized and Indigenous women. These debates also evolved in the ASWAC newsletters.

[5] ASWAC activists used “neoconservative” in the 1980s and 1990s. I have used this term – rather than neoliberalism – when discussing their analysis.

[6] This argument is inspired by E. A. Heaman, “Fairness Between Economics and History in Canada,” L. R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History, Au delà des frontiers: La nouvelle histoire du Canada/Beyond Borders: The New Canadian History, 7 February 2018. One example of demystifying economics from the newsletter is a discussion of the leaked 1990 federal budget which included an explanation of deficits. See Anne McGrath, “Shredding Oppressive Attitudes Hard Work,” ASWAC Newsletter 10, 6 (March 1990), 10-11.

[7] The organization continued to lobby for a government advisory council staffed by feminists and often debated the usefulness of lobbying a government that was hostile to feminist demands and adopted a broad definition of lobbying that included resisting the backlash to feminism in the media, raising public awareness about women’s issues, and educating women. “To Lobby or not to Lobby,” ASWAC Newsletter 5, 1 (January 1984), 6. 

[8] “CCLOW Research Project,” ASWAC Newsletter 4, 6 (September 1983), 6.

[9] Mary-Ann Warunkiw, “Women Losers in False Economy,” ASWAC Newsletter 5, 2 (March 1984), 8.

[10] Ibid.

[11] On feminist opposition to the Free Trade Agreement, see Marjorie Griffin Cohen, Free Trade and the Future of Women’s Work: Manufacturing and Service Industries (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987). On NAC’s engagement with the constitutional debates, see Judy Rebick, Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution (Toronto: Penguin Random House, 2004). 

[12] “18 Hours at a Glance,” ASWAC Newsletter 8, 4 (June 1987), 4. This article is a summary of issues discussed at the board meeting; activists also discussed limited access to birth control and abortion at the meeting.

[13] Alvin Finkel, ed., Working People in Alberta: A History (Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2021); on resistance to Alberta conservatism in a slightly earlier period, keep an eye out for Leon Crane Bear, Larry Hannant, and Karissa Patton, eds., Bucking Conservatism: Alternative Stories of Alberta from the 60s and 70s(Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, forthcoming in 2021).

Photo credit: RiseUp! Feminist Archive 

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