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Organizing the Women’s
Labor League (1924)

Florence Custance has been described as "one of the original driving forces which helped to coordinate and bring about the communist movement In Its earliest days." (William Rodney, Soldiers of the International)

A school teacher born in England in 1881, Custance worked with Maurice Spector and William Moriarty in the Plebs League, one of the organizations which gave rise to the Communist Party of Canada. She was a delegate to the CP's founding convention in May 1921, and a member of its first Central Committee.

When the CP emerged from illegality in 1922 as the Workers Party, Custance was elected Secretary of its Women's Bureau, a post she held for seven years. She also played key roles in Canadian Friends of Soviet Russia, and in the Canadian Labor Defense League. She was a delegate to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922. She founded and led the Women’s Labor League, an organization whose activities are described below.

In consolidating its hold on the CP, the pro-Stalin faction led by Tim Buck drove out all party leaders with any ability or independence. Custance was removed from the National Executive Committee in 1929. She died shortly afterward, on July 12, 1929.

The article below is a report presented by Florence Custance to the April 1924 convention of the CPC, then called the Workers’ Party of Canada. It was republished in Labor Challenge on March 10, 1975, to illustrate the policies and activities of revolutionary women in the early years of Canadian communism.

Report to the 1924 Convention

by Florence Custance

Just as the master mind of Lenin perceived this necessity of an alignment of the workers and peasants in order that the dictatorship of the proletariat could be realized and remain a realization, so also, that same mind perceived the necessity of drawing the women of the working class away from reactionary influences, in order that they should become active participators in the struggle for working class emancipation.

Marx extolled the bravery of the women during the Paris commune. Lenin explained the fact of women's participation in the February Revolution of 1917 and showed that a great reserve of working-class energy for revolutionary purposes was to be found in the women if it could be mobilized.

The events in Germany of recent date prove to what extent women's participation in the revolutionary struggle will be a necessity. It was the women who were the most important in the hunger demonstrations. The women forced their husbands out of the factories into the streets to demonstrate with them against the high cost of living. In Germany and elsewhere, the struggle for power depends to much upon the courage, ingenuity, and fighting rebel spirit of the working women, as the working men. This struggle is not a sex affair. It is a class necessity. The duties as well as the suffering fall alike upon the shoulders of the working women and the working men.

Capitalism, in mobilizing female labor for its own ends, (thereby giving it independence of thought and responsibility) creates at the same time an additional new enemy force for its overthrow.

Let us turn to the position of women in Canada. The political status of women in Canada is, nominally, one of sex equality. And it must be said that women's position in the social sense is better than that of the women of Europe.

But when judging the position of the working women from the economic viewpoint, the opposite is the case. The labor of the working women of Canada is relatively more exploited than that of her European sisters. In this country nearly 400,000 women are compelled to be wage earners. Of this number 25 percent are engaged in industry. As far as can be estimated only 1 percent of this large army of workers are organized. Judging from the reports of the minimum wage board of Ontario, the extent to which women were exploited in some branches of industry at the time the board commenced investigations about two years ago takes one back to the early days of capitalism in England. The Board, in fixing the minimum rate at $12.50 per week for experienced women workers, can boast that it increased women's wages, in some cases, nearly 100 percent.

The practical questions confronting us in Canada are:

  1. How to attract the women to active participation in the every day struggles for better conditions of labor and higher wages.
  2. How to combat the reactionary influences which hold the working women in their grip. And how to take them forward to revolutionary class action and organization.

The methods adopted in Toronto by the Women's Labor League will form a good illustration as to how these difficulties are being met in their first stages. The following report was given by the secretary at the Annual Meeting of the League April 18th of this year.

"Progress of the Toronto Women's League
and the results of its activity for the year.

  1. "The No More War demonstration. The league helped largely in initiating this, going on record as being in favor of street demonstrations.
  2. "Our delegates to the Trades and Labor Council participated in the unemployed movement in the city, and endeavored to interest the wives of the unemployed workers in the movement.
  3. "The league made a struggle against the minimum wage, a rate of $12.50, with the conscious endeavor to use this to get the factory workers interested in organization. In this connection we have been instrumental in bringing the Trades and Labor Council into this work. The organizational committee of the council is now planning mass meetings for the unorganized women and girls who work in industry.
  4. "The league undertook a campaign to collect funds for the assistance of the women and children of the steelworkers who were on strike last summer In Nova Scotia. Later this activity was converted into defense work on a broader scale by organized labor.
  5. "The league established a precedent in Canada by celebrating International Women's Day and sending greetings to the working women of Germany.

"These activities have increased the prestige of the league and provided the members an incentive to work for the labor movement generally.

"Perhaps the most effective piece of work was accomplished by the league when it sent two resolutions to the Dominion Trades Congress of last year: 1. Called for the endorsement of the Labor League movement in Canada. 2. Called upon the Congress to take a stand upon the war question.

"The outcome of this publicity was the formation of leagues in Sydney, Drumheller and Hamilton, and closer connections with other leagues in the country.

"Following upon the discussion of the Labor League movement by the congress, a call was sent to working women's organizations to take part in a conference which the Toronto league is initiating. This national conference will lake place in London, Ontario, this year, at the time the congress meets.

"The western women have taken some action in this matter already. A conference of Western Women's Organizations took place at Brandon, Manitoba, on March 20-21 this year. Reports show that the women were not prepared for the militant work of the leagues and the conference showed strong tendencies to divert the work of the women into purely social channels.

"Plans for future work:

  1. "To bring the work of the league still nearer to the work of the labor councils and engage in activities that will attract women into the labor movement.
  2. "To work through the trades Councils in order to get the woman and girls who work in industry organized into unions. To reach the housewives by holding meetings of an educational character in the homes in various parts of the city.
  3. "To take steps to organize the celebration of International Women's Day on a much wider scale, by calling into being a committee similar to the May Day Committee."

The foregoing report gives a record of work that was accomplished in little more than a year, and under difficult conditions, such as no funds, no direct personal contact and the only method for an exchange of ideas being by continual letter writing. The experience of the past year proves that the work is fruitful. Also that the league formed recently, in which the women members of the party take an active part prove to be the most active. The Edmonton and Drumheller leagues are taking an active part in the organizing of women and girls.

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