Arthur News School of Fish
Women working during the World War I era. Photo via <a href="">Wikimedia Commons</a>.

Peterborough Women in Labour

Written by
Stephanie Levesque
March 5, 2020
Peterborough Women in Labour
Women working during the World War I era. Photo via <a href="">Wikimedia Commons</a>.

Way back in 1898, the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada called for the abolition of female labour in all branches of industrial life such as mines, factories, workshops, etc…

That attitude changed somewhat, and in an excerpt from Standing Strong, Facing Forward, “in 1902, 50 working women presented Peterborough Federal Union 9240 with a petition asking to be affiliated with the union.” By 1913, the Trades and Labour Congress had added equal suffrage for men and women to its platform. This decision was reflected locally when two years later the Peterborough Trades and Labour Council advocated “equal pay, civil, and political rights for men and women and abolition of all laws discriminating against women.”

Almost 100 years ago, in 1921, following a decade in which the position of women had improved dramatically, the average wage for women in Peterborough was still only $610 per year, as compared to $1,100 for male workers. Women roughly made 55 percent of what men made, and today it is around 67 percent.

Slowly, slowly, there is some progress.

Today, most delegates and executive members of Peterborough & District Labour Council are women, predominantly representing public sector workers in the education and health care fields. There are many local women whose shoulders these current women stand on. Whether it is the young women who worked in the textile factories here in the 30’s and 40’s; those who worked at the Auburn Bonnerworth Mill were known as the Bonnerworth Girls, or those women workers at Tilco Plastics here in the 60’s, led by Lillian Downer, President of the Local Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA). The 19-month strike resulted in a Royal Commission on Labour Disputes, particularly the frequent use of injunctions against strikers.

Tara De Blois’ book Standing Strong, Facing Forward: The History of the Labour Movement in Peterborough and District details much of the story.

It wasn’t until 2001 when Bev Tovonen became the first female president of the Peterborough & District Labour Council. She served a two-year term. Four years later in 2007, Marion Burton became president of the Peterborough & District Labour. When she stepped down as president in January of 2019, she was the longest serving president in the history of Peterborough & District Labour Council.

Much of Peterborough’s labour history can be ready in Tara de Blois’ book. As well, Trent University Professor Dr. Joan Sangster has written numerous articles and books on the history of working women.

Stephanie Levesque is the Labour Programs & Services Development Officer of the Peterborough & District Labour Council.

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