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Ruth Bullock 1909-1994

Socialist Challenge, May-June, 1994

by Ken Hiebert

Ruth Bullock, for decades a pillar of the Canadian Trotskyist movement, died April 8, 1994.

Early in life she was exposed to hard work on her family’s farm and to the socialist ideas in her family’s collection of books. Personal experience brought her up against societal and legal obstacles which denied women access to abortion and even to birth control. And it was this question that first drew her into organized activity. For her, the informal networking among women seeking access to birth control and abortion led to semi-clandestine activity arranging abortions for women referred to her.

In 1934 she joined the recently founded Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. Although a social-democratic party, it had the stated goal of eradicating capitalism. Ruth did not fail to notice the number of independent women who were prominent in the CCF.

During World War II Ruth rejected the policies of the CCF and the Communist Party, both of which fell in behind the war effort of the Canadian government. When she was first accused of being a "Trotskyite" she wasn’t sure what this term meant. At the end of the war, she and her husband Reg joined the branch of the Canadian Trotskyist movement in Vancouver. She remained an active member until 1985 when the branch was disbanded by a leadership in sympathy with the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S. The SWP and its sympathizers were at this time headed toward a split with the Fourth International. When Socialist Challenge/Gauche socialiste was recognized by the Fourth International as its section in the Canadian state, Ruth declared her support and remained an active supporter until her death.

Although our movement was far in advance of the rest of society in its understanding of what was then called "the woman question," Ruth nevertheless ran into obstacles and a lack of understanding among male comrades. But over time she emerged as a central leader of the organization. In 1959 she became the organizer of the Vancouver branch and in 1961 hers was one of three signatures on the founding statement of the League for Socialist Action, which brought the far-flung organization into closer collaboration.

Ruth was very demanding of herself and demanding of others. More than one young man in the organization was stung by her rebuke. But she could also be very warm and encouraging. Numerous women remember meeting Ruth when they joined the movement and her encouragement of their personal and political growth. For many it was Ruth who led them into their first study of the situation of women.

When the women’s liberation movement emerged in the late 60’s, our organization was ready to embrace it, in large part due to Ruth’s preparatory work.

Ruth steadfastness and determination set a high standard for younger members. Together with Reg and a few others, she was living proof that revolutionary activity need not be a passing youthful fancy. And she did not cut back activity because of advancing age. In October of 1970, when the Canadian government invoked the War Measures Act, suspending civil liberties across the country, Ruth and Reg abandoned their vacation, headed back to Vancouver, and reported into our headquarters, ready for action.

Ruth contributed thousands of hours to the Vanguard Bookstore, making it a prominent distributor of radical literature. And she was a formidable presence at Canada Customs when they were tempted to intercept certain periodicals.

The challenge before our organization is to win new militants like Ruth. If we cannot do this, we have no future. If we can raise up another generation of determined fighters such as Ruth, our future is assured.

"Not another God-Damned Housewife”:
Ruth Bullock, The “Woman Question” and Canadian Trotskyism
by Heather McLeod, M. A. thesis, Simon Fraser University, 1993

reviewed by Harold Lavender

In the 1940s and 1950s, Ruth Bullock juggled being a housewife, a CCF member, a Trotskyist militant (after 1945) and a women’s rights advocate.

From the 1930s to the late 1960s, Ruth Bullock helped provide information and contacts about birth control and abortion (still illegal) to working class women. She would welcome the rise of a new feminist movement in the 1960s with open arms. But how did she manage in an era before feminism was widespread? And how did the Canadian Trotskyist movement of this era respond to the woman question?

Heather McLeod’s thesis, written from a sympathetic pro-feminist perspective and based on extensive interviews with Ruth and archival material in the Ruth and Reg Bullock collection at UBC, fills in many gaps in our historical understanding. It offers insights into Ruth’s life and times and the record of Canadian Trotskyism on the women’s question. It finds both very real strengths and real limitations and problems in Canadian Trotskyist understanding and practice.

On the positive side, McLeod emphasizes that the Trotskyist movement was well ahead of the Communist Party in emphasizing democratic discussion and debate. She suggests that this facilitated Ruth’s later emergence as an organizer and leader of the Vancouver branch.

Trotsky himself wrote on women and the family criticizing the negative effects of the family and the regression of Stalinism’s glorification of the family. Further, in the late 1940s, the Trotskyist press carried serious articles about women’s oppression by Mary Wood.

However, in general, understanding seemed a little narrow and based on a class vs. class line. There was particular interest in women workers, and more limited interest in organizing housewives as consumers against inflation. But in general the housewives’ position was not highly regarded. Thus the reaction of a Vancouver organizer to a new recruit “Not another god-damned housewife.” At the same time, in practice there was the expectation and practice that women would perform traditional roles and they were left with many organizational responsibilities for the day-to-day functioning of the branch.

McLeod’s thesis shows how Ruth’s life history led her to become both a socialist an champion of women’s rights. But she did not find strong support for women’s liberation work inside 1940s and 1950s Trotskyism. She continued her work providing birth control and abortion information, but this was done rather off to the side of the organization, which had no formal position on these subjects.

In the process, McLeod asserts, Ruth developed a “doubled vision” which allowed her to successfully reconcile both being in a vanguard party and a women’s rights advocate. In a way, she anticipated what lay ahead: a future when it became possible to be a Trotskyist and an active member of the independent women’s movement. The full story of this period remains to be told. But McLeod’s thesis is a useful contribution to our understanding of what came before.

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