Women and Wage Labour in Australia and Canada, 1880-1980

Raelene Frances, Linda Kealey, Joan Sangster
1996 Labour (Halifax)  
ONE OF THE MOST important, yet subtle revolutions in the labour force of the industrialized countries over the past 100 years has been the increasing growth of female participation in formal wage work. The most significant and rapid changes have come in the post-World War n years, as women's participation rate in the labour force has climbed steadily, along with significant changes in the marital and family profile of women workers, who are increasingly partnered, and/or have dependent
more » ... dependent children. Since 1940, for instance, the female share of the labour force has more than doubled and the female participation rate has tripled. In some ways this revolution, or feminization of the workforce has simply involved a re-deployment of women's work, a change in the locale of their daily labour. As Jill Matthews has pointed out for the Australian case, the increased employment of married women in the 1930s and 1960s reflected the penetration of capital into the informal economy, where married women had been diligently working, producing goods and services for many years. 2 Similarly, Marjorie * Thanks to Bruce Scales. Pat and Hugh Armstrong, The Double Ghetto: Canadian Women and Their Segregated Work, 3rd ed. (Toronto 1994), 15. Jill Matthews, points to five areas of paid work already done by women for money; the private sale of skills such as laundering and child minding; the sale of home produce, such as food and crafts; the provision of lodging; the operation of small businesses, such as sewing, music lessons; and outwork done for industry. Cohen's economic study of 19th-century Canadian women argues that even in the family-based agricultural economy, women's domestic labour and especially their generation of small cash through activities such as dairying facilitated the accumulation of land and capital for rural families. Notwithstanding this important reminder that women have always worked, and taking into account the under-representation of women, especially non-Anglo women, in labour force statistics (discussed below), mis article will focus primarily on women's formal labour force participation, concentrating especially on die changes which occurred since the late 19th century. One of the most obvious similarities between Canada and Australia is the persistence of occupational segregation of women in the labour force, as well as die ideological justification for this separation, based on a model of a nuclear, heterosexual family of male breadwinner and female "dependent" Similarly, wage inequality based on gender, the undervaluing of women's work, the double oppression of indigenous women and women of colour, and neglect of women's occupational hazards at work are all depressing similarities between the two countries. Explanations for the resilience of a sexual division of labour, as well as its particular contours, for the persistence of the family wage ideal and for the marginalisation of non-Anglo women workers may therefore bear similarities in these countries. Examining the patterns of inequality and oppression women experience across national boundaries may be a useful means of uncovering the rationales, causes, and weaknesses of these interconnected systems of class, race, and gender exploitation. At the same time, the similarities should not be overstated. The very different legal regimes, especially with relation to unions and bargaining, the different economic structures in each country, and different histories of immigration have produced important contrasts which must also be integrated in our analysis and used to modify these larger theories. The most striking difference between the Canadian and Australian industrial scenes is the existence of compulsory arbitration in the latter. Australian feminist literature on arbitration has argued that it has had important consequences for women workers. On the negative side, it has acted to institute or solidify sexual divisions of labour which relegated women to lower paid, lower status work. More positively, it has provided "a floor of protection" for the wages and conditions of female workers especially valuable in times of economic downturn. It has also arguably prevented the differentials between male and female earnings from widening even further. 4 In some versions of the argument, the Australian centralized wage-fixing system is held entirely responsible for the higher earnings of full-time female workers compared to their counterparts Marjorie Cohen, Women's Work, Markets and Economic Development in Nineteenth Century Ontario (Toronto 1988). C. O'Donnell and Nerolie Golder, "A Comparative Analysis of Equal Pay in the United States, Britain and Australia," Australian Feminist Studies, 3 (1986), 59-90. WOMEN and WAGE LABOUR in unregulated industrial relations systems such as that in the United States. To date, however, no such systematic comparisons have been conducted between Australia and Canada, although their more similar economic structures would suggest some profitable analysis in this direction. Women's Labour Force Participation While the Canadian and Australian economies varied in substantive ways, both experienced a period of industrialization after the mid 19th century which led to increased numbers of women participating in the paid workforce. Women, far more than men, remained seasonal, domestic, and part-time workers as the economy expanded in the 20th century, but their participation in paid work was still a major factor in the production of wealth in both countries. And while some facets of their work -their occupational segregation -remained depressingly constant, there was one decided change over time: their increased participation in work for pay. From the 1880s on, women's participation rate in the Canadian workforce climbed steadily along with increased immigration, industrial expansion, and the transformation of agricultural and home production to workshop and factory production. In 1891, women made up about 11 per cent of the total workforce; by 1921, this had increased to 15 per cent, and by 1951, women composed 22 per cent of the workforce. In Australia, for the first half of the 20th century the proportion of women officially in paid work remained fairly constant at around 25 per cent, except for a slump in the 1930s depression and an increase during both wars, especially World War II. Women made up one-fifth of the total workforce, a figure almost identical to the Canadian one for 1951. After the war the proportion of women in paid work rose steadily in both countries, but at a slightly higher rate in Canada. In Australia the figures reached 26 per cent in 1954, 35 per cent in 1966, and exceeded 40 per cent in 1973. 6 Over the same period, the percentage of Canadian women in the official workforce rose from 22 per cent in 1951 to 27.3 per cent in 1961 and 34.6 per cent in 1971. By 1983, 52.1 per cent of Australian women were in paid work, compared to 60.1 per cent of Canadian women. 7 The majority of Canadian women in the workforce before World War n were single, and either supported themselves, or more often contributed to a family wage economy, with their blue-and white-collar wages. Women's work did vary considerably across the country, with some regions highly dependent on seasonal work and household production, such as the fisheries in the Maritimes. In more regionally depressed areas of the country such as Newfoundland, which became Patricia Grimshaw, et ai, Creating a Nation (Ringwood 1994). part of Canada in 1949, there is also evidence that women's wages, no matter how small, could make up a significant part of the family's basic subsistence; in inter-war St John's, for example, daughters doing domestic, shop or factory work, might become the sole support of the family in times of unemployment Other regions also had distinctive female work patterns; the prairies had high levels of agricultural and domestic labour, while industrial work was more clearly centred in Ontario and Quebec. In Australia, rural, maritime, and mining industries dominated the economies of Queensland and Western Australia for much longer than the more quickly industrialized south-east Here, too, the fragility and instability of the male wage meant that women's earnings were crucial to the family's survival. Official labour force participation rates undoubtedly under-represented women's remunerative work, in part because of women's high involvement in the informal economy (where exchange or barter might also take place) and because their work as servants was often sporadic and insecure. Traditional methods of describing and measuring work have especially obscured the work of native, and later visible minority women. As Sylvia Van Kirk has shown in her work on the fur trade, native women's unpaid labour was essential to the process of profit and accumulation which built the capitalist enterprise of the Hudson's Bay Company. Later, native women's work was often an essential part of kin production, such as farming, hunting, and trapping, but this was seldom registered in official censuses, a fact accentuated by the state's attempts to marginalize native people within a reserve system. Similar difficulties occur in relation to the work of Australian Aboriginal women, who were not even counted in the national census until 1971. Nevertheless, their work in the pastoral, maritime, and mining industries of northern and central Australia was often crucial both to the economic viability of these enterprises and to the survival of dispossessed Aboriginal groups. 9 A similar problem was encountered in assessing the work of later female immigrants, such as Chinese women coming to British Columbia in the early 20th century. These women worked in family businesses or as domestics, but were less likely to be in blue-collar jobs, and they were banned from some white-collar and professional jobs. Given the active efforts of the state to discourage the immigration of Asian women (because of their reproductive role) their work was more likely to be hidden from official census takers within households or small businesses. Similarly, Japanese women engaging in the sex industry in northern Australia in
doi:10.2307/25144092 fatcat:yjhuyuf4lrgejl45h34s5stzqa