Fast & Curious: International Women’s Day Edition

Note: In honor of International Women’s Day, I set out to profile Women Unlimited, a women’s group founded in Sydney in the early ’80s. I discovered the group had been formed from the steering committee of a conference held in Sydney around that time and the conference itself was so interesting, I ended up writing this entire first article about it, so I will follow up with a separate piece on Women Unlimited. Happy International Women’s Day, all!


On the weekend of 4 March 1983, a conference called “Women and the Economy” was held in Sydney, Nova Scotia.

Women and the Economy Conference Agenda

Women and the Economy Conference Agenda

Things kicked off on the Friday evening with a panel discussion featuring the women who would lead the next day’s workshops and ended on Sunday afternoon with a showing of the NFB documentary Not a Love Story at the Vogue Theater. In between there were workshops, a trade fair and a Saturday night keynote address by Kate Millet followed by a concert featuring Rita Joe AND Rita MacNeil.

I’m not going to make this about myself, but I have to confess that where 2019 Mary Campbell is blown away by this agenda, 1983 Mary Campbell apparently had other things to do that weekend. I am embarrassed to admit I didn’t attend this conference — I don’t even remember this conference — and that is all the more incredible given that, prior to the official opening:

In the hope of reaching some of the female students in the area, the Conference began on Friday afternoon with a special session for the staff and students of Holy Angels High, an all girls school here in Sydney. The workshop speakers delivered a condensed version of the material to be covered in the weekend’s workshops, which was followed by a panel discussion with the students.

I graduated from Holy Angels in 1983 but I did not attend those presentations. And it gets worse:

Following the conference one of the English teachers gave an assignment to her class…The students were asked to respond, in essay form, to this statement. “The battle for Women’s Liberation has been won. The Canadian woman today suffers no limitations that are not self imposed.”

Fortunately for the honor of Holy Angels, a number of my classmates not only attended the presentations, they took what they heard to heart, as can be seen from the essays they wrote afterward (a number of which are now on file at the Beaton Institute). Here’s some of what they had to say in response to the assertion that the battle for Women’s Liberation was over:

Yes, and did you also hear that pigs can fly? In my eyes, this statement couldn’t be further from the truth. If the working woman suffers no limitations, why does she earn 58 percent of what a man does?

This quote is far fetched and certainly not true because of the society in which we live where men are still considered better than women. women are considered to be the weaker sex and that is why the best jobs are handed over to men even though a woman may be better qualified. Men think of women as sex objects with no brains.

Are the only limitations women suffer today self-imposed? Or are they a combination of the way we feel about ourselves and the way men look at us?

By no means has the Canadian woman won the battle for liberation. We have come a long way, but there is still a long way to go.

Women have to seize the opportunities presented to them or they will be left behind. We have to talk to each other about our problems and work on a solution, together. Granted, we will not solve this problem overnight but we have no hope fighting as individuals. We have to take a stand, so let’s all stand together and remember, you are what you think you are.

And my personal favorite:

In the 1930s women were given the right to vote; this was their first step on the road to equality. The women of the thirties were the pioneers of this road but the ladies of the eighties are the pavers.


By 1983, the so-called “second wave” of feminism (the first having been turn-of-the-20th-century fight for suffrage) was well underway. In fact, the conference happened  precisely 20 years after the event that was considered to have launched the second wave, the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. 

And it took place 13 years after the release of the report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada.

Commissioned in 1967 by Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, the report was three years in the making as the commission held public hearings in 14 cities across the country, heard some 890 witnesses (including some who, unable to attend the hearings, used a “hot-line” telephone service to speak directly to a commissioner), received 468 briefs and about 1,000 letters of opinion and ordered up 40 special studies.

The  final report is 175 pages long and crammed full of interesting facts and observations about the status of women in Canada in the late ’60s.

Take the issue of equal pay for work of equal value. The report notes that by 1969, the federal government and all provinces and territories except Yukon had passed some form of legislation dealing with equal pay, but that legislation was far from perfect. The 1956 federal Female Employees Equal Pay Act, for example, applied only to women employed by federal Crown Corporations — but it didn’t apply to women in the Public Service, or at federal agencies, or on the staff of the Senate or the House of Commons.

Moreover, proving in court that two jobs were “identical” was not easy and made enforcing equal pay laws difficult. The report includes this account, received as part of a submission:

A large manufacturing firm whose workers are represented by our Union, employs people in the classification of `Janitor’ and `Janitress’. The duties of these people are essentially the same, that is — to clean the respective male and female washroom facilities. Despite the fact that the jobs are virtually identical, the male Janitors’ wage rates are five per cent higher than those of the female Janitresses. One small difference in the job content is that the Janitor must wheel the garbage from his work area to the disposal area, whereas the Janitress places the garbage from her work area outside the washroom, from where it is taken to the disposal area by a male employee. This is not much of a difference, but it is enough to disqualify a claim for equal pay under present legislation.

And here’s an eye-opener: in 1970, when the report came out, Nova Scotia was one of three provinces that permitted the establishment of lower minimum wages for women than men.

And women accounted for about 7% of doctors and 3% of lawyers in Canada.

I could go on, but you get the idea. What’s interesting for our purposes is that the topics covered by the Status of Women report are very similar to the topics covered in the workshops during the Women and the Economy Conference in ’83.


On the Saturday of the conference, attendees signed up for workshops — some morning, some afternoon. Here’s the full list with the names of the leaders except in one case where I couldn’t establish who the leader had been:

Feminism and the Law

Women’s Health Issues (Janet Campbell)

Women and Economic Security (Martha MacDonald)

Women and Social Action (Kathy Coffin)

Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value (Angela Miles)

Microtechnology (Fran Soboda)

Family Violence (Jennifer MacNeil)

I got a sense of what the conference was like from reading the reports that were filed at the end of each workshop — many of which included resolutions passed by the participants. I can’t decide which is more striking almost 40 years later — the areas in which women have made great strides or the areas in which the concerns of 1983 seem entirely topical.

For example, the question of day care came up in two separate sessions  — Equal Pay for Equal Work and Women and Economic Security — and resulted in the following resolution:

Government funding for day care should increase. The funds forthcoming should be distributed as outlined by the task force on day care to each of the three areas of concern: (1) Accessibility, (2) Affordability, (3) Quality.

The question of the under-representation of women in the professions and trades was also discussed. This is interesting because while there have been clear improvements on the professional front, the picture isn’t entirely rosy. As of 2016, for instance, women accounted for 41% of all doctors in Canada, but only 36% of all specialists.

Likewise, in the legal profession, there is good news and bad — women have been going to law school in much higher numbers, but many either don’t remain in legal practice or don’t rise to the highest-paid positions. A 2016 study by the American Bar Association found that while women account for over 51% of first-year law students and 46% of associates, they account for only 22% of partners. Here in Canada, the situation is similar — in 2008, the Law Society of Upper Canada conducted an extensive study into the retention of women and concluded:

Women have been entering the legal profession and private practice in record numbers for at least two decades. However, they have been leaving private practice in droves largely because the legal profession has not effectively adapted to this reality.

The departure of women from private practice means that the legal profession is losing a large component of its best and brightest in core areas of practice.

The society actually launched a pilot project in 2009 to try to improve the retention of women — one of the chief aims of which was to improve women lawyers’ work-life balance.

And when it comes to women in non-traditional jobs — namely skilled trades, like construction worker, plumber, electrician — Stats Canada figures for 2017 show 49,068 Canadian women registered in apprenticeship programs compared to 356,637 men. Men outnumber women in all categories except early childhood educators and assistants, community and social service workers, hairstylists and estheticians and user support technicians.

Number of apprenticeship program registrations in Canada (2017)

Both sexesMalesFemales
Major trade groupsTotal registration statusTotal registration statusTotal registration status
Total major trade groups405,699356,63749,068
Automotive service41,11539,1082,007
Early childhood educators and assistants4,6772584,419
Community and social service workers2,0343511,683
Electronics and instrumentation6,7116,147567
Exterior finishing11,82011,607213
Food service19,97711,8988,079
Hairstylists and estheticians15,0031,56313,440
Heavy duty equipment mechanics12,96312,681282
Heavy equipment and crane operators12,82812,477351
Interior finishing17,28015,4201,860
Landscape and horticulture technicians and specialists4,8273,5101,317
Metal workers (other)11,43910,818621
Oil and gas well drillers, servicers, testers and related workers1,8031,8003
Plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters44,93443,6921,242
Refrigeration and air conditioning mechanics9,6099,477132
Sheet metal workers8,4338,172261
User support technicians4,9442,4272,517
Stationary engineers and power plant operators4,1674,026141
Construction workers (other)2,9252,730192
Other major trade groups20,62217,2293,393

One final note: the Microtechnology workshop examined “the positive and negative effects that microtechnological advances have on the work of women.” The negative effects being, of course, the loss of jobs to automation, an issue that is even more pressing in 2019. The workshop final report noted:

It was the general consensus that our government, and our society in general, has not fully examined the massive changes that have been wrought by the introduction of the miniature silicon chip.

The group agreed on a single recommendation, that:

…a formal request be submitted to the MacDonald Royal Commission to consider a basic restructuring of the Canadian economy, with an eye to the redistribution of wealth.


Kate Millet (Photo by Linda Wolf - Contact us/Photo submission, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Kate Millet (Photo by Linda Wolf – Contact us/Photo submission, CC BY-SA 3.0)

That Saturday night, the conference ended with a concert featuring — as noted above — both poet Rita Joe and singer/songwriter Rita MacNeil.

“It was wicked,” says Paula Muise, one of the conference organizers and an original member of Women Unlimited.

But just before the concert, the keynote speech was given by Kate Millet, a leading light of second-wave feminism and the author of Sexual Politics, a book the the New York Times called “the Bible of Women’s Liberation.”

(As an aside, I haven’t read Sexual Politics and wasn’t really familiar with Millet, so I went to YouTube to look for old lectures or interviews and found almost nothing. In the one interview I did find, she explained that as an out lesbian, she didn’t get invited on television and was viewed as an “invalid spokesperson” of the women’s movement.)

Muise said that while it was true not everyone in 1983 was accepting of what would come to be called the LGBTQ community, the founders of Women Unlimited always intended it to be open and welcoming to everyone and they were very excited to have Millet attend the conference.

Muise said she gave her apartment to Millet and moved in with a friend who lived upstairs for the weekend. On Sunday, following the conference, Muise was responsible for getting Millet to the airport, but they left the house early and Millet convinced her to go for “a little drive around” the “mining communities.”

So off we go for the drive and when we get to the airport, the plane was still on the runway, the steps are still down and the woman, who knew me, because her son went to school with my brother, would not let Kate Millet on the plane.

Instead of flying home to New York, Millet ended up at the conference after party at the home of one of the organizers.


Reading through comment sheets participants in the Women and the Economy Conference filled out after the fact, you get a strong sense that women in Cape Breton were hungry for this sort of gathering. Here are some of the responses women gave when asked what their expectations of the conference had been:

I wanted to find out what other women in Cape Breton were doing in their lives.

Lucid, articulate expression of “female” related issues.

Awakening of political awareness, enlarging my individual responsibility in this regard.


That I would learn more about women[‘s] issues, that I have been very little involved in; to meet new people; to broaden my knowledge of just what is happening around here.

It was my first time coming to a conference of this type. I didn’t really have expectations but I am leaving it with a broader outlook on women’s rights.

Asked whether their expectations were met, women replied:

Yes, it was a great experience for my first time. It has made me aware that I need to become more involved with what is happening around me.

I know…one thing…that I need to become more involved with what is going on around me. Not just taking things for granted.

I felt there should have been some or more focus on women homemakers.

Reinforcement of fact that we need a women’s centre here for focus and networking.

While I do not think my values and commitments have changed I do feel that the conference gave me a better understanding and appreciation of the topics dealt with and broade[ned] my understanding of myself and of society in general…I never felt I was being preached to but rather being given the opportunity to think for myself.

Got my eyes opened to the different aspects and areas that women are volunteering their time to work for women’s rights.

But one of the main messages that came through was, as one participant put it:

What happens after this weekend?

What happened, as it turned out, was a second conference, the birth of Women Unlimited and the launch of the Ann Terry Project, all of which will be covered in Part II of this article.





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