Professor Meg Luxton on Policy, Histories and Grassroots Organizing
Interview by Dr. Tiffany Pollock
I had the opportunity to chat with Professor Meg Luxton about her extensive work around gender and public policy, and a digital feminist archival project she is collaborating on. This is the first in our Feminists in Focus Series and I was grateful to interview a scholar, educator and activist that I’ve long admired. Meg is an associate of the Centre for Feminist Research (CFR) and was the Director in 2006-2007 and 2008-2009. She was also a co-leader in developing the CFR’s Gender and Public Policy Research Cluster which brings together researchers and graduate students who share an interest in how feminist concerns intersect with the policy landscape. Professor Luxton’s in-depth involvement in grassroots activism, as well as her extensive studies of how Canadian policy shapes and has responded to feminist concerns centred our conversation.
Pollock: How did the Gender and Public Policy Research Cluster at the Centre for Feminist Research begin?
Luxton: It began in 2006 out of a conversation I had with my friend and colleague Susan Braedley (Professor of Social Work, Carleton University). I’d been asked to take over as interim director of the Centre for Feminist Research and we both knew it would be a heavy administrative load and I was trying to figure out what I could do that would energize my research interests. Out of that conversation I realized that what I really wanted was a study group that would look at gender and public policy. Susan and I put together a list of people and circulated a notice to invite anyone interested to a meeting. That group met monthly for ten years until about three or four years ago, and we are in the process of trying to reanimate it. Starting in January, alongside colleagues such as Ena Dua and Barbara Cameron, I’d like to get a group together to begin looking through two documents: one is American and called Feminism for the 99%: a Manifesto[i] and the other is a Canadian report titled A Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for Canada: Making the Economy Work for Everyone[ii] that came out of the YWCA and the Institute for Gender and the Economy. The report is a feminist economic recovery plan for Canada and is a modest social democratic welfare state claim, while the manifesto is a socialist feminist anti-capitalist position. So, I thought it would be interesting to get a group of people together and look at these two documents because they are addressing a similar concern but from very different political perspectives. I’m hoping that might be of interest to people, and that our readings would open a discussion about what we think of public policy in Canada right now.
Pollock: What types of outcomes have emerged from the Gender and Public Policy Cluster?
Luxton: One important outcome happened in collaboration with my colleague Susan Braedley. We got funding for an international conference that was organized through the CFR called Penetrating Neoliberalism: Changing Relations of Gender, Race, Ability, Sexuality and Class which brought together about twenty participants. The presentations were developed into chapters that became a book that Susan and I edited called Neoliberalism and Everyday Life. The second outcome emerging from this cluster was a SSHRC-funded project Engendering Public Engagement, Democratizing Public Space and Barbara Cameron was and continues to be the Principle Investigator. As part of that project we had another conference that brought together a whole bunch of people during which we presented, engaged with and critiqued each other’s work. That conference has produced a book manuscript that Barbara Cameron and I have recently sent out to book publishers in the hopes that it will get published.
Pollock: Can you share a bit about the forthcoming book?
Luxton: Yes, the book is called Gender Policy Frameworks: Feminism and the Canadian State, 1970 to 2020. There are about thirteen contributors, and because it centres Canadian research the authors are mostly Canadian but from different parts of Canada. The starting point for the book is the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada in 1970. It was the first ever report that involved a systematic investigation of federal policy as it affects women in Canada, and it was the last to date. So, the book looks at what provoked and led up to the Royal Commission, what the Royal Commission said and what impact it had from 1970 until now. The book also looks at what’s happened to federal policy related to women’s issues and what we are now calling gender justice. Over that fifty-year period there are new issues that have come up that were not talked about in the Royal Commission, and some of the issues that were discussed in the report continue to be issues.
The book explores about twelve different policy issues and what’s happened to them with particular focus on the ten to fifteen year period after the Royal Commission during which the federal government put in place resources and institutional structures to advance the status of women, as it was called then. There were lots of gains, and there was a well-organized women’s movement in that period that operated at the federal level to shake up federal policy and it had quite a few important successes through that period. However, through the 1980s, and especially with the Mulroney government in 1984, you get a major shift in policy because that is when they start introducing what gets called neoliberal capitalist economics; one of the central platforms of neoliberalism is to cut government spending on social services and cut support to activist groups. As a result, there was a systematic dismantling of the infrastructure of the women’s movement making it much tougher for women to organize around feminist concerns. But, they were still doing it; we are still doing it. Our hope is that the book gives people insight into how women in Canada, and particularly feminists, have organized around federal policy issues, how they’ve formulated their policies, where that formulation has come from and what happens. We ask: How do governments respond? How do governments take up the demands posed by the women’s movement? What happened, and particularly, what happened with the significant shift from a Keynesian welfare state model to a neoliberal capitalist model?
The book was all prepared and ready to go and two key events took place that we will have to address if a publisher accepts the manuscript. COVID-19 is one of the big crises of our times, in addition to climate change, and it’s clear that when people live in crowded communities with inadequate housing and don’t have a lot of resources, they are harder hit by these pandemic events. But, those events affect all of us and it is in all of our interests to take care of the people who are most vulnerable. The experience of COVID-19, particularly the revelations around who the essential service workers are, and what their living conditions and working conditions are like, might reanimate an interest in federal government policy around social concerns. Another significant event that happened after finishing the book is, of course, the important victory of Indigenous women changing the Indian Act. In the summer of 2019, Indigenous women who are under the Indian Act finally achieved full legal equality with men under the Indian Act. That is a struggle that has gone on since 1867 and was one of last groups of women in Canada to finally acquire formal legal equality with men from the same population. There are still women and men in Canada who don’t have the vote, for example, but I think that was the most important legal victory, a policy change. So, the book will have to be reworked to take these changes and events into account, but we are hoping that this book will be one contribution to a reanimation of debate about what kinds of policies we want and that would work to advance gender justice.
Pollock: Yes, it is certainly an important time to be thinking deeply about gender and policy. What would you consider to be the most urgent areas of concern from a policy perspective?
Luxton: Well, a simple straightforward answer is clearly child care. COVID-19 has revealed the essential necessity for decent, affordable, safe and high-quality child care for every child whose adults want it. And, COVID-19 has been interesting because it has revealed how our economy absolutely depends on parental labour - both the people who are parents in the paid labour force and the unpaid parental labour that is done mostly by women. But, I think a bigger issue is that COVID-19 has revealed who the real essential workers are, and how vulnerable so many of them are because of low wages, inadequate housing, limited access to proper healthcare and all of these kinds of issues. It’s interesting because right now there is a debate about a guaranteed annual wage. I would never publicly oppose that, but I think it is the wrong demand. A better demand is guaranteed public services: there should be free, or at least affordable, public transit; there should be affordable homes; and dental care, pharma care, and eye care should be provided for everybody. If that were guaranteed in the way that acute care is, at least reputedly, guaranteed, the living conditions of the people excluded from and at the bottom end of the labour force – those with the lowest paid, most insecure jobs – would be made a lot more secure. So, I’m not opposed to people getting more money, ever, but If we had well-developed programs that collectivized the risk and ensured people had the basic requirements of a standard of living, it would alleviate many of these issues. And, maybe that's one thing that COVID-19 has made possible, but I don't know if we'll be able to keep up the momentum around it. COVID-19 has shown that if a federal government thinks it's relevant, they can invest tons of money in the general population in trying to support people and the country will not ground to a halt economically. And, if it's possible for people to understand that and recognize that this is an example of why a government can in fact afford to provide basic social services to everyone without somehow collapsing, it becomes clear that this is a political struggle, not an economic issue.
Pollock: How might academic researchers and graduate students work in ways to influence policy decisions?
Luxton: One of the most effective ways is to start with the people on the ground, the people most affected by a particular issue: What do they say about their circumstances? What do they think would improve their circumstances? As researchers, we can listen, observe and support community organizing, always asking ourselves how we can work together to move something forward. Looking at almost any issue where people have been most successful in organizing around it – and I’m thinking of feminist or women’s activist organizing – is when you bring together groups of people, talk about what their concerns are, organize various activities, and through those conversations and observations develop an analysis. After this work, you often have broad enough support that pressure can be exerted on the people who make the policy changes. Now, you can do that kind of research and organizing and still not win because people in charge of decisions have their own vested interests or the opposition is even more organized and effective. But by bringing people together to figure out what they want to change, by creating networks and new knowledge about the issues, grassroots mobilizing often leads to positive change. Child care is such a good example – people have been mobilizing around child care since the beginning of the 19th century, with some examples in Britain from the mid-1800s. But, in Canada there’s been huge mobilizations and there is a large number of people who support the development of collective child care centres that are properly funded. But, there is also huge resistance; some claim it’s very expensive even though there’s been good economic analyses which demonstrate that if money is invested in providing good child care, the value is returned. As now, when the pandemic has exposed the centrality of women’s employment to the economy and the necessity of good child care, there is widespread support for new child care policies and provisions. I think the Black Lives Matter movement is another good example. First of all, you’ve had several centuries of people organizing against anti-Black racism. You have all sorts of lessons that people have learned, all sorts of connections, networks, groups and organizations that all know each other and have developed some trust to work together. When there is a moment – and in this case it was the murder of George Floyd –all of that can get mobilized. And while it may be true that there is also huge resistance, you’ve got new demands emerging such as defunding the police which is such a simple thing; we don’t need more militarized police; we need more social services which means shifting the money from guns, vests and tear gas to areas such as healthcare, for example. These demands on key decision makers come from years of grassroots organizing and when an event happens that energizes people, they mobilize. I would say that this is exactly how we defeated the criminalization of abortion in Canada. It was because there was such a large majority of people who supported the effort based on years and years of community organizing, developing alternative abortion clinics and challenging the law, they realized that they could not enforce it any longer.
Pollock: And, one of your projects is honouring such grassroots feminist activism in Canada from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Luxton: Yes! It’s called Rise Up: A Digital Archive of Feminist Activism
How was the idea for Rise Up generated?
It started in the fall of 2014. The trigger was that Broadside, a Canadian feminist newspaper that published between 1979 and 1989, had digitized their back issues and posted them on a website. We realized that the this was the only accessible archival material about the women's movement in Canada in the period of the late 1960s to the 1990s and it was centred in radical feminist thought. We – I think there were eight of us initially - said, let's post three socialist feminist publications on a website, just so that is available too. And we had three specific ones – Cayenne, Rebel Girls Rag and the International Women's Day Newsletter. We started with these three and the project kind of took off and became something way bigger than any of us had anticipated. I think there were a bunch of underlying concerns for us, like the widespread public argument that the women's movement of the 1970s was predominantly white middle-class women. That's wrong and it silences all the Indigenous women, women of colour and working-class women, among others, who were organizing. That argument also privileges liberal feminism and erases socialist feminism. So, I think all of us were motivated by an effort to try and shift this a little bit.
Pollock: How did you choose the timelines and why would you consider materials from this period important to the present moment?
Luxton: We spent a lot of time trying to figure that out and it was really the two decades of the 1970s and 1980s when there was a large-scale mobilization across the country of women's organizing, groups and activities. We thought if we focused on that it could be manageable. It was basically a pragmatic decision as we are operating with no funds and with volunteer labour. The 1990s is a little closer to now and some of that material just started to get electronic records and things like that. So, there is, I think, more stuff available. I'm not sure that everybody in the collective would agree with me on this, but I think the socialist feminist politics that a lot of us developed in that period – the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s – was explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, and continues to be absolutely pertinent today because we are still living with the same conditions. What we’ve learned is that we did not start out with issues of colonialism and racism as front and center in our consciousness at that time, and thanks to the endless efforts of Indigenous women and women of colour, I think now there's a much stronger recognition of the ways in which anti-capitalist work has to be anti-colonial and anti-racist. Working with an archive, which is at one level about capturing historical documents so that they're available, is also an engagement with the present as much as with the past. So, we are as a collective trying to work through how we understand, for example, colonialism and how it was playing out in the material that's available and what that material says.
But, much of what happened forty to fifty years ago is really still central to the present. There are some things that have significantly changed, like we are now talking about ensuring access to safe, effective abortions rather than decriminalization, but many of the things, particularly economic aspects like wages, employment security, immigration and anti-racism are still as important now as they were then. I think the politics is still pertinent today and one way of denying the value of that politics is by denying its history and this is where the archive intervenes. If we're ever going to build an alternative to the kind of capitalist system we currently have, it's useful for people to have the political analysis that was developed over 200 years and constantly gets smashed and silenced and then re-emerges. So, for me personally, getting some of this stuff up there is important. Also, a lot of women and men worked really hard to make social change and to improve their lives and the lives of others, and that should be acknowledged; it should be known. There is so much knowledge that is denied us, that is obscured, that is silenced and that needs to be out there.
Pollock: How did the collection start?
Luxton: Our collection started with the basements of the people who were involved. The Nellie Langford Library at York University has a very good collection that originally came from the YWCA in the 1970s, and both coordinators – Vicki Drummond (1999-2016) and Brenda Blondeau (2016-present) – have been unbelievably supportive in allowing us to borrow the material to scan it. And then, of course, we try to get materials through word of mouth and many emails to people. One of the things we're struggling with in Rise Up is that, not surprisingly, the material that is there does not reflect, the way we would like it to, the activities of Indigenous women and women of colour. What’s on the archive is what was available – it's not everybody and there are absences we are trying to address. I spent a year and a half going through my networks of Indigenous women and asking them if they have materials or know people who might, and although people liked the idea, they did not have materials. We kept doing these calls over the years but have very little. There are larger organizations such as the Native Women's Association which has boxes and boxes of material, but they don’t necessarily have the time or resources to go through it. Also, archival collections are not often activists’ top priority and the people whose material we really want to get are often really busy activists, which makes it harder. One thing we would like to find are materials about from the 1950s when there was a wonderful mobilization in British Columbia of the Indian homemakers Association, which was formed in response to the federal government giving money to Indigenous communities to improve living conditions in ways deemed appropriate by the government, and the women took it and used the funding to fight for their communities. There's a little bit in the public record about those organizations, but we have not been able to locate any archival material. It may not exist anymore, and it may not have even existed, as people do a lot of that kind of work orally. The history we know is shaped by who keeps track of it, who knows about it and who has access to the public statements about it, and we would love to get more of the histories, people and voices that there isn't much known about, and it's difficult.
Pollock: Can anyone contribute to the archive?
Luxton: Yes, absolutely. We do have a few constraints and requirements. One of the decisions we made is that we do not take newspaper materials because it is available elsewhere. We don't have a lot of resources of time and energy to scan, so we have to be limited. Ideally, if people have collections, if they can do the scanning, that's better for us. If they can do the optical character recognition as well, which is a lot of work, it is also appreciated and easier for us to put up. But, we're open to trying to do whatever we can to get stuff up there.
For more information and to look through the materials, you can visit the website at https://riseupfeministarchive.ca
Pollock: Thanks so much for this rich discussion and sharing your thoughts and projects. Do you have any final thoughts about the connections between policy, histories and the many voices and efforts that have contributed?
Luxton: It would be really wonderful if more people thought that knowing their history mattered – what the official history is but also the history that isn’t in the official accounts. I think there’s been major gains in the last fifty years or so around labour history, Indigenous history and women's history, but it’s important for people to know where a policy came from, and the reasons why we have the kinds of policies we have. A good example for me is the Treaties. A lot of non-Indigenous people do not understand the kinds of demands, actions and activities of Indigenous people. So, they see the challenge around land claims and opposition to pipelines and things like that and they don't understand where that comes from. Similarly, people outside of Quebec do not necessarily understand the nature of the Canadian Constitution and the legal agreements that the rest of Canada has with Quebec. And, while people who might oppose certain demands and actions might not change their political views, they would have a better understanding if they knew the history. One of the contributions academic researchers can make is, on the one hand, to ensure that the people typically “hidden from history” are more visible and, on the other hand, to contribute to efforts to make our society more equitable, to promote social justice.
Dr. Meg Luxton is a Professor in the School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, York University. She is the former Director of the Graduate Program in Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies and of the Centre for Feminist Research. Dr. Luxton’s research investigates sex/gender divisions of labour and their implications for the socio-economic situations of people across class, race/ethnicity and region. It explores the changing ways "ordinary people" in Canada make a living and sustain themselves, their households, families and communities. It exposes the work involved in unpaid domestic labour and shows its relationship to the larger economy. It studies the interactions among markets, states, communities and households and how they produce and reproduce gender, race/ethnicity and class relations, especially as these are developing in the context of global neoliberal capitalism. She has also contributed to theorizing feminist political economy, social reproduction and how to conceptualize the relations among gender, class, racialization, ethnicity and other systemic inequalities. Dr. Luxton also works with feminist organizations and unions, documenting a range of organizing efforts such as union women in non-traditional jobs, workers organizing in unions and in their communities, wives supporting their husbands' unions during strikes, links between the labour movement and the women's movement. She has published widely on the women's movement in Canada and internationally, women’s work, paid and unpaid, and relations among work, family and class.
[i] Arruzza, Cinzia, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser, Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto, (London; New York: London, 2019)
[ii] Sultana, Arjum, and Carmina Ravanera, “Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for Canada: Making the Economy Work for Everyone,” The Institute for Gender and the Economy (GATE) and YWCA Canada, July 28, 2020, https://feministrecovery.ca