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Reviewed by:
  • Transforming Labour: Women and Work in Post-war Canada
  • Susana P. Miranda
Transforming Labour: Women and Work in Post-war Canada. By Joan Sangster (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. x plus 416 pp. $35.00).

In this ambitious monograph, Joan Sangster offers the reader a more comprehensive look at women's work in a still understudied period, the 25 years after the Second World War, by exploring diverse cases studies relevant to the broad topic. Sangster is a leader in the field of Canadian women's labour history, and this book represents a culmination of years of research and published articles. She uses documentary, media and archival sources, including union and government-collected records, legal cases, the popular press, and ethnographic writing as sources. Her research and analysis privileges both the historical significance of macro processes of capitalist accumulation, colonialism, and state initiatives, and the feminist historical-materialist imperative of recognizing "evidence of women's daily lives and on the integration of culture, belief, and tradition into the process of class formation" (12).

The period from 1945 to 1970 was marked by the increasing feminization of the workforce and particularly the increased participation of married women with children in paid work. Sangster engages with a revisionist view of this period, which rejects a conception of these years as culturally and gender conservative, but a period in which women continued in paid labour and activism. Yet, Sangster argues that both of these approaches were true for this period— that "the idealized, domesticated femininity promoted in advertising, film, and magazines had an ideological influence, always existing in tension with women's actual working lives" (9). Thus, the theme of "contradiction" is a thread that runs through the seven chapters in this monograph.

Contradiction is evident in the first chapter, where Sangster looks at the new realities of women's labour-force participation counter-posed to conservatively feminine representations of women workers in the mainstream and labour press. Chapter two tells the story of the 'Dionne girls' a group of Polish immigrant women brought to Canada in 1947 by Ludger Dionne, a Quebec Liberal MP, contracted to work in his spinning mill for two years. This episode reflects public, political and labour debates regarding "unfree" contract labor, "deserving" versus suspect immigrants, and perceptions of these women as 'victims' in contrast to their own attempts to secure better lives in Canada. In chapter three, Sangster examines the effects of Cold War union battles in three areas: fur, electrical, and textile work. In all three Sangster contends that the purging of Communist and more radical leaders from unions dampened attention to women's and gender-equality issues, precisely in a period when these issues were becoming increasingly important for women workers. The fourth chapter examines women retail workers at the Dupuis Frères department store in Montreal. This chapter is one of my favourites, and makes a strong contribution to research on the growing service economy of the period (which is still very under-researched) and in particular retail work, a sector unions have had such a hard time organizing. The history of the union at Dupuis Frères, then, and women's relationship with it, offers a rare glimpse into unions in this sector, as well as the unique social and political context in Quebec, including growing militancy in the union movement, and different understandings of nationalism. Particularly fascinating was Sangster's juxtaposition of employee files and the store's in-house [End Page 1139] magazine, Le Duprex. While the magazine offered images of idealized happy workers, Sangster uncovers discontent, sabotage, and rebellion in employee files, such as those employees who repeatedly lost dresses in the delivery process (on purpose?), or stashed away orders to fix sewing machines (129). As Sangster argues, this brewing discontent and individual resistance led to the rejection of paternalism and a new-found militancy on the picket line in 1952.

In chapter five, Sangster offers an intriguing look at the contradictions of the Fordist accord for women. By analyzing grievance files, she shows that despite the limitations of contractualism and codified management discipline, women used the grievance process in an effort to make their voices heard...


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