As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, it is a good time to reflect on the lives and experiences of women in Canada. Some of our First Nations peoples, including the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, are from traditional matrilineal societies where the line of descent is through the mother. Women in these societies historically enjoyed social equality, respect and took part in community decision making. That was no so for the colonizers, the white settlers who arrived a few hundred years ago. Non-aboriginal Canadian society was built on patriarchy, where males held all the power. This held firm up until the 1960s when the Women’s Liberation movement was born.
Unraveling the shift in women’s rights throughout the years in this country, I started to think about my own life and growing up female in a country where the status of women has changed dramatically in the last 100 years.
Canada is my home, but I have lived in many different countries – the United States, Swaziland (now called Eswatini), Ghana and Vietnam. Women face challenges everywhere, but in comparison to some of these countries, Canada is progressive. For instance, in Eswatini I was confronted by attitudes and laws that could have been from another century. Sent over as a volunteer by Canadian international development non-profit Crossroads International in 2013, I worked with an organization that focused on ending gender-based violence and helping local women understand their human rights. The fight to not be simply their husband’s property continues to this day for those women.
Not that long ago, women in Canada faced similar battles against patriarchal discrimination. In the 1920s, my grandmother was employed as a teacher in northern Ontario. When she married my grandfather the “marriage bar” went into effect, requiring her to quit her job. In Canada, this requirement was dropped by the 1950s. In other countries it lingered – the United States officially terminated it in 1964, and in Ireland it continued until 1973. Only in 1964 were Canadian women allowed to open a bank account without obtaining their husband’s signature.
My other grandmother was born in London, England and her early employment was as a domestic servant to a doctor and his family. When she came to Canada, she met my grandfather and became a housewife and mother.
Back then, teaching, nursing and domestic service were the main career paths women could take. Once they married, employment was either banned or frowned upon. Both of my grandmothers were smart, engaged individuals and while they loved their husbands and children, I wonder how they might have proceeded if other opportunities were present. I also wonder about other women of their generation who had so much to contribute to society outside the home, but were not allowed to participate.
The suffragettes fought long and hard for the right to vote and my grandmothers would have been in that first cohort in Ontario, dropping their ballots into the boxes during provincial and federal elections. I regret that I did not ask them how this felt, but as a child of the 1960s it never occurred to me that there was a time when women had no political clout.
My mother, following in her mother’s footsteps, became a kindergarten teacher. By then the marriage bar had been lifted and she remained a teacher for some years after she married. Eventually she quit and put her energy into raising my brothers and myself. She also took on a herculean task and started a nursery school for mentally challenged children that continues to thrive today. When we were older, she went back to teaching kindergarten then returned to school to study gerontology and worked for a spell in a senior’s residence. My mother had a real can-do attitude. She blossomed during the 1960s and 1970s when the Women’s Liberation movement was first taking hold and did things that would have been impossible for her own mother to do, such as start a nursery school. She embraced the movement’s demands for social change and equality wholeheartedly.
When I was little, the most common answer girls gave when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up remained “a teacher” or “a nurse.” But by the time I got to high school, the choices had expanded exponentially. As long as you took the required courses and achieved the necessary grades you could choose your own path. Engineer? Pilot? Lawyer? Doctor? No problem.
Unlike my grandmother, who chose to study education because young ladies only worked as teachers, nurses or secretaries, I was free to choose what I wanted as a career. Reading and writing have always been a passion, so I opted for journalism. My first magazine job was editing a publication distributed to universities and colleges across the country. I loved the strict adherence to deadlines, the freedom to choose content that would interest students and the ability to profile inspirational leaders in the fields of arts and sciences. In the 1980s I wrote freelance articles for some of the widely circulated women’s magazines and eventually became editor of an national entertainment magazine. Other jobs over the years included editing a movie magazine, working as a newspaper reporter, managing editorial for a multitude of print and online projects, and freelance writing assignments. I have learned and grown immensely throughout my working life and have many mentors to thank. Most importantly, I realize I must thank the women who went before me. Standing on the shoulders of my grandmothers and mother, I have been allowed to take flight in a career that would have been very difficult to achieve for a woman during the years they made their life choices. For this, I am extremely grateful.
Canada is not a perfect place for women, there are still challenges ahead, but it is getting better and better.
HISTORIC MILESTONES FOR WOMEN IN CANADA
- Before 1899 – Before colonization, First Nations women had a voice in the decision-making process of their communities.
- 1871: More than 50 per cent of the light manufacturing workforce (shoemaking, printing, tobacco) were women and children.
- 1876–77: Dr. Emily Howard Stowe, one of Canada’s first female doctors and her daughter, Dr. Augusta Stowe-Gullen, spearheaded Ontario’s suffrage campaign for 40 years
- 1901: Women made up 13.4 per cent of the total (paid) labour force. The marriage “bar” was in operation – women were legally required to resign upon marriage.
- 1909: The Criminal Code is amended to make illegal the “kidnapping of women.”
- 1914-1918: World War I A temporary influx and change in occupations away from domestic service. Attitudes toward single women working outside the home became more favourable. Women were employed in manufacturing on a mass scale for the first time, making munitions.
- 1916: Women won the right to vote in provincial elections in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. This was followed by B.C. and Ontario (1917), Nova Scotia (1918), New Brunswick (1919), Prince Edward Island (1922), Newfoundland (1925) and Quebec (1940).
- 1918: Canadian women (but not Aboriginal and Asian women) won the right to vote in federal elections.
- 1919: Women obtain the right to hold office in Canadian Parliament.
- 1925: The federal Divorce Act is modified to entitle women and men to divorce for the same reasons. Previous to this, women had to prove “bestiality” on the part of their husbands.
- 1939 – 1945: World War II. To encourage women to join the labour force, child care centres and tax incentives were provided (they disappeared at the end of the war). Although many jobs previously done by men were now done by women, any modification to equipment or organization of work was used as an argument to say that work was no longer the same, therefore not equal, thus pay differentials continued.
- Late 1940s: Women of colour – Chinese, Japanese and East Indian – are allowed to vote at the provincial and federal level.
- 1951: Ontario adopts the country’s first pay equity legislation.
- 1960’s: The start of the Women’s Liberation Movement. It consisted largely of white, well educated women who fought for reforms such as paid maternity leave, rape crisis centres, and changes to abortion laws.
- 1960: Aboriginal women win the right to vote in federal elections.
- 1964: Women entitled to open a bank account without obtaining their husband’s signature.
- 1967: The Royal Commission on the Status of Women chaired by Florence Bird is created.
- 1971: The Federal government modifies the Canada Labour Code to prohibit discrimination based on sex and to provide for seventeen weeks of maternity leave.
- 1972: Rosemary Brown becomes the black woman elected as a Member of Parliament.
- 1977: The Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA) was passed, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, and ensuring equal pay for work of equal value.
- 1978: The Canada Labour Code was amended to eliminate pregnancy as a basis for lay-off or dismissal.
- 1980: In Nova Scotia, Alexa McDonough becomes the first woman to lead a provincial political party.
- 1982: The Canadian Charter of Rights is enacted.
- 1983: Rape laws are modified in order to include sexual aggression and to make illegal the rape of a wife by her husband.
- 1989: Audrey McLaughlin, a Member of Parliament for the Yukon, is the first woman elected as Party Leader of a federal party.
- 2004: Women make up slightly more than 50 per cent of Canada’s population but only 21 per cent of the House of Commons.
- 2009: For the first time, there are more women in the labour market than men.
Source: Public Service Alliance of Canada,
Government of Canada: Rights of women
The Canadian Encyclopedia: Women and the Law
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