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Remember This, Newmarket: When women fought to be 'persons'

In this week's column, History Hound Richard MacLeod begins the first of a three-part series on women's fight for equality in Canada

Over the next few weeks, my articles will focus on the history of women’s struggle for equal rights in Canada, a topic that has been neglected in many of our history texts for far too long. This quest for equality is still very much on our lips today and I think it would be most helpful to know the background of just how we have got to the stage where we find ourselves today.

In this first instalment, I will look at 10 key moments in the history of women’s rights in Canadian history and in subsequent articles we will examine the fight for the vote and for employment equity. 

It's always a good idea to reflect on just how far we have progressed and just how far we still must travel. 

I think that you will be surprised to learn just how recently some of these rights and freedoms were extended to women. Case in point, women have only had the right to vote in Canada for the past 105 years, while Indigenous women didn't get the right to vote until 1960. 

It is imperative that we celebrate these victories that have been hard won as we look toward the future. From Criminal Code amendments to the appearance of maternity leave, these are a few of the key moments in Canadian history that have helped to define our journey toward women's rights in Canada. 

Let us begin in 1884 Ontario, and the creation of the Married Women’s Property Act. The passing of this act meant that married Ontario women would have the same legal rights as men and could purchase property. Manitoba was the next province to follow suit in 1900 and gradually the other provinces and territories did the same. Many of us remember the Murdock case in the 1970s when a court needed to intercede when a wife had to go to court to be awarded her equal share of the family wealth upon the dissolution of her marriage.

In 1909, an amendment to the Criminal Code passed that criminalized the kidnapping of women. It is hard to believe but previously, the abduction of a woman over the age of 16 was legal unless the woman was an heiress.

Women's suffrage in Canada occurred at different times in different jurisdictions to different demographics of women. Beginning in 1916, Caucasian women in Canada begin to slowly obtain the right to vote, starting with the provincial elections in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta in 1916.  

Municipal suffrage was earned in 1884 for property-owning widows and spinsters in the provinces of Quebec and Ontario; in 1886, in the province of New Brunswick, to all property-owning women except those whose husbands were voters; in Nova Scotia, in 1886; and in Prince Edward Island, in 1888, to property-owning widows and spinsters.  

In 1917, the federal government provisionally extended limited war-time suffrage to some women in 1917, with the catch that they must have male relatives serving overseas. By 1918, most Caucasian women can vote in federal elections, but it will take until 1951 for provincial voting privileges to be extended to white women in every province and territory within Canada. It is not until 1960 that Aboriginal women finally get the vote.

By the close of 1922, all the Canadian provinces, except for Quebec, had granted full suffrage to White and Black women. In Newfoundland, which at the time was a separate dominion, women earned suffrage in 1925. Women in Quebec did not gain full suffrage until 1940.

Asian women (and men) were not granted suffrage until after the Second World War in 1948, Inuit women (and men) were not granted suffrage until 1950 and it was not until 1960 that suffrage (in federal elections) was extended to First Nations women (and men) without requiring them to give up their treaty status. Incarcerated women (and men) serving sentences fewer than two years in length were granted suffrage in 1993, and incarcerated women (and men) serving longer sentences were given the vote in 2002. 

In 1921, British Columbia passes legislation giving women six weeks maternity leave before and after giving birth. No other province or territory will grant maternity leave to women until 1964.

We just watched the Olympics from Tokyo and delighted at the success of our female athletes.  It was not until 1928 that, for the first time, Canada’s Olympic Team would include female athletes. I have included a photograph of Ethel Catherwood training for the Olympics in 1928. Catherwood was one of six Canadian women who competed. She took home the gold in the high jump.

Thanks to the petitions of Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy and Irene Parlby, (better known as the ‘Famous Five’) women were finally recognized as ‘persons’ under the law in 1929 and could finally hold political office. One year later, Cairine Reay Wilson became the first woman appointed to the Senate. Inspired?  

In 1951, Ontario passed the Fair Employment Practices Act (creating fines and a complaints system to minimize discrimination) and the Female Employees Fair Remuneration Act (to tackle the gender wage gap).  We are still burdened with the disgrace of unequal pay for equal work even after all these years, but the issue was first recognized in 1951. 

The female population had single-handedly kept our economy humming during the war when our men were overseas and the groundswell of support for women in the labour force finally brought this inequality to national attention.

Then in 1985, sections 15 and 28 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into effect, establishing the constitutional right to equality. The government cannot discriminate against individuals based on their sex or sexual orientation.  Again, the success of this change is open to debate, but an attempt was being made.

There have been several surprising revelations that jumped out at me while doing my research for this article, including the fact that it took until 1983 and the passing of Bill C-127 to make sexual assault (and rape) within the context of marriage a crime. Totally unbelievable!

After all, it was in 2006 that activist Tarana Burke began the #MeToo movement citing the fact that “Sexual harassment does bring shame,” she goes on to state that ‘it’s powerful that this transfer of power is happening, that these women are now able to not only share their shame, but to put the shame where it belongs: on the perpetrator.’ Legislation alone will not move us toward equality, only a total change in public opinion will do that.

Many of my colleagues pointed to Kim Campbell serving as Canada’s first woman prime minister in 1993 as a major break through even though it was for less than five months. We tend to grasp on to tiny events or blimps in history to declare that we have ‘made it’ but have we really? 

My grandmother was a suffragette, a five-foot nothing little lady who assumed her rights rather than asking for them. I grew up most of my life with only a mother to raise me and so the inequality of our system was brilliantly clear to me. My Mom was as capable as any man and like my grandmother, she assumed her equality; acted as if it was a fact of life and not a privilege to be earned.

I remember thinking in 1977 upon graduation from my undergraduate training that the world was on the verge of change, that the future held endless possibilities for everyone, that equality was just around the corner.  I was sadly wrong it would seem.  

In every female candidate we interviewed for employment opportunities, I saw my grandmother and mother, fully competent and deserving of an opportunity that should be equally afforded to them.

In my next instalment on this topic, I will examine the whole issue of suffrage and the long fight to obtain it. I learned a long time ago that if you do not have a seat at the table, then there will be no one present to protect your rights. 

Sources: 10 Key Moments in The Canadian History of Women’s Rights by Andrea Kar; The Toronto Star and the Newmarket Era; The Famous Five Website - — Famou5; The History of Canadian women and Feminism in Canada; No Easy Road: Women in Canada 1920s to 1960s by Beth Light and Ruth Pierson; Library of Parliament - Women's Right to Vote in Canada


Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.