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Some facts and dates in Canadian women's history of the 20th century

This article appeared in the Winter 2000 edition of the CRIAW Newsletter, vol. 20, no. 1

Millennium of Achievements

by Marika Morris, CRIAW Research Coordinator
edited August 2013

A thousand years ago only certain cultures, such as the Mohawk, offered women any kind of equality, such as matrilineal descent and the choosing of chiefs. 

Today, just like one thousand years ago, some women around the world are still sold into prostitution, forced to marry against their will, have no right or access  to birth control or abortion, have little access to education, and are completely economically dependent on men.

However, Canadian women have also made significant gains over the last millennium, and particularly over the past 100 years:

  • In 1897, after a very long fight, Clara Brett Martin became Canada's first lawyer and the first woman to practice law in the entire British Empire. She overcame editorials opposing women lawyers on the grounds that the physical attraction between them and the judges and juries would be intolerable; She lobbied for a bill in the Ontario legislature that would overturn the Law Society of Upper Canada's regulations barring women because only "persons" could be admitted. She was taunted and ridiculed by classmates, professors, the public and the media simply for enrolling in law school.(1) 
  • In 1909, the Criminal Code was amended to criminalize the abduction of women. Before this, the abduction of any woman over 16 was legal, except if she was an heiress. The maximum penalty for stealing a cow was much higher than for kidnapping an heiress.(2)
  • In 1910 Québec legislation reduced the working hours for women in the textile industry from 60 to 58 hours per week, the first of other legislative amendments to reduce women's work week.(2)
  • In 1913 the Home and Domestic Employees Union was formed in Vancouver. In 1915, Helena Gutteridge ensured that equal pay was written into the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council constitution. Her work to bring together women's groups and labour activism resulted in BC's first minimum wage act in  1918. (2)
  • Suffrage activist and shit-disturber Emily Murphy became Canada's first woman judge in 1916.
  • By 1917, over 35,000 Canadian women worked in munitions factories while Canadian men fought overseas in World War I. (1) 
  • After a long struggle, Canadian women (except First Nations women) obtained the right to vote in federal elections in 1918, after some limited women's suffrage was granted the year earlier. (3)
  • In 1921, Canada's first woman MP Agnes Macphail began several successful campaigns, including prison reform and the establishment of old age pensions. In the same year, BC passed Canada's first maternity leave legislation. 
  • In 1921, Nellie McClung was elected to the Alberta legislature, where she campaigned for old age pensions, mothers' allowances, legal protection for widows, better factory conditions, minimum wage, birth control, and more. Alberta was the first province to have public health nurses, municipal hospitals and free dental and medical care for kids. (2)
  • In 1922, Martha Bowes of Saskatoon's CJWC was the first female Canadian radio broadcaster on the airwaves in between January and February. (4)
  • In 1925 the federal divorce law was changed to allow a woman to divorce her husband on the same grounds that a man could divorce his wife - simple adultery. Before this, she had to prove adultery in conjunction with other acts such as "sodomy" or bestiality.(2)
  • In 1928, Canada's Olympic Team included women for the first time. (2)
  • In 1930, another change to federal divorce laws allowed a woman deserted by her husband to sue for divorce after two years of being abandoned from the town her husband lived in before separation. Before, a woman's legal residence was wherever her husband lived, even if she didn't know where he lived. (2)
  • In 1931, Saskatchewan labour activist Annie Buller spent a year in jail for setting up a defense fund for striking workers. She later managed two newspapers and worked for rights for working-class women. (2)
  • In 1932, Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw directs Canada's first family planning clinic, which was illegal at the time. In 1936, Ottawa nurse Dorothea Palmer was arrested for telling women about birth control. (2)
  • By 1938 all provinces except Nova Scotia expanded minimum wage laws to apply also to men. What started as activism to protect working-class women also ended up benefitting male workers. (2)
  • Québec women obtained the provincial vote in1940.. (3)
  • In 1941, Québec allowed women to practice law. In the same year, Eileen Tallman organized the first Canadian bank strike. (2)
  • In 1943, there was a massive influx of women into the paid labour force, taking over many traditionally male jobs while men were away at war. In 1945, Saskatchewan CCF MP Gladys Strum announced in Parliament that "No one has ever objected to women working. The only thing they have ever objected to is paying women for working." (2)
  • The National Gallery exhibited the work of early Canadian painter Emily Carr in 1945, the same year she died. (2)
  • In 1946, restrictions on Chinese women entering Canada were relaxed. Chinese men had died in the building of Canada's railroad since the 1860s, but were not permitted to become Canadian citizens until 1946. (2)
  • In 1947, Canadian women no longer lost their citizenship automatically if they married non-Canadians. (2)
  • In 1951 Ontario enacted Canada's first equal pay legislation. Other provinces followed suit between 1952 and 1975. (2) 
  • In 1952, Manitoba women were first permitted to serve on juries. New Brunswick women become jurors in 1954, and PEI women in 1966. (2)
  • A federal Women's Bureau was established in 1954. (3)
  • In 1955, restrictions on married women in the federal public service were removed. In the past women public service employees were fired upon marriage. (3) This occurred only 45 years after a 1910 report concluded, "Where the mother works, the baby dies." (1)
  • In 1955 women from Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and other Caribbean nations were recruited as domestics and granted landed immigrant status.(2)
  • Aboriginal women (and men) obtained the federal vote in 1960. (2)
  • In 1965, a woman established a shelter for "prostitutes, lesbians and junkies" (!) in Toronto.(2)
  • In 1966, women won a battle against high food prices through massive supermarket boycotts. (2)
  • In 1967, women student protesters succeeded at integrating women into the University of Toronto's Hart House, for which women students paid fees but were restricted from entering. (2)
  • In 1968, the Presbyterian Church first ordained women. In the same year, inmates of the Kingston Prison for Women began publishing their magazine Tightwire, which provides the perspective of women in conflict with the law in articles, poetry and fiction. It was a banner year for women's self-expression, with books published by Margaret Laurence, Marie-Claire Blais, Claire Martin, and Mary Van Stolk. (2)
  • In 1969, the distribution of information about birth control was decriminalized. In the same year, Toronto women picketed a bikini contest held in sub-zero temperatures by carrying mannequins sectioned off like cuts of beef. One contestant opened her coat to show a placard that stated "I have a mind." Other similar protests were to follow. (2)
  • In 1969, Women's Liberation Clubs were formed in some high schools, colleges and universities, following the development of informal "consciousness-raising groups" a few years earlier. (2)
  • In 1970, Kenojuak's Inuit stone-cut The Enchanted Owl was used on a stamp, and she received the Order of Canada. (2)
  • Also in 1970, the same year as the ground-breaking report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, women organized a cross-country "Abortion Caravan" to demand access to abortion services without charge. The Commission, by the way, did not even mention violence against women. It was still an unspoken and stigmatized reality. (2)
  • By 1971, Canada accepted an equal number of female and male immigrants. In the same year, Dauphin, Manitoba ceased to fire its female civic workers upon marriage. (2)
  • In 1971, Québec finally allows women jurors after eight Québec women were jailed earlier in the year for protesting the all-male jury law.  The federal government amended the Canada Labour Code to prohibit sex discrimination, reinforce equal pay for equal work, and establish a 17-week maternity leave. A year later, the federal government also abolished sex discrimination against potential jurors in criminal cases. (2)
  • In 1972, BC NDP MLA Rosemary Brown became the first Black woman in Canada to be elected to a legislature. The federal government instituted its first child care expense deduction. The same year saw the first issue of The Other Woman, a lesbian feminist newspaper. (2)
  • In 1973, Pauline Jewett was the first woman President of a co-educational university - Simon Fraser in Burnaby, BC, (3) a hundred years after women weren't even allowed to enrol or graduate from most universities. Jewett went on to become a Member of Parliament focusing on issues of peace, disarmament and women's equality.
  • In 1973, the first rape crisis centres in Canada opened - in Vancouver and Toronto. In the same year, Interval House, one of the first shelters for abused women, also opened in Toronto. By 1975 there were five transition houses in BC. (2) This was 73 years after a woman in an "insane asylum" because she claimed her husband abused her was given a gynecological operation to "cure" her - a common practice around 1898. (1)
  • In 1974, the RCMP hired its first woman member, (3) one hundred years after an 1874 magazine stated, "Woman's first and only place is in her home." (1)
  • In 1975, the federal government amended 11 laws in keeping with equality for women, including providing equal rights for women and men in public service pensions. (2)
  • The remaining overt discrimination against female immigrants was removed from the Citizenship Act in 1976. (2)
  • In 1978, the first "Take Back the Night" march was held in Vancouver. Also that year, female flight attendants won the right to continue working after marriage and past the age of 32. (2) In the same year, the law changed so that women could no longer be fired for pregnancy in federally-regulated industries. 
  • In 1980 in Nova Scotia, the first woman to be elected leader of a provincial political party holding seats in a legislature was Alexa McDonough. In the same year, a 1957 rule disallowing women fishers working with their husbands from receiving UI benefits was overturned. (2)
  • In 1981, 1,300 women met concerned about women's rights being excluded from the proposed new Charter of Rights. They lobbied Members of Parliament intensively which resulted in the inclusion of women's rights in Canada's constitution. (2)
  • In 1982, NDP MP Margaret Mitchell was laughed at in the House of Commons when she raised the issue of violence against women. The outcry from women brought national attention to the issue.
  • In 1983, rape laws were broadened to sexual assault laws and for the first time, made it a criminal offence for a man to rape his wife. In the same year, Ontario police were directed by the Attorney General to lay charges in domestic violence cases. Before this, men usually faced no consequences for beating their female partners. (2)
  • In 1983, the Canadian Human Rights Act prohibited sexual harassment in workplaces under federal jurisdiction. (3) Before this , women in these workplaces had no legal recourse if their employers demanded sexual favours.
  • In 1985, the law was changed so that Aboriginal women who married non-status men could retain their Indian status, 14 years after Ontario Native Women's Association President Jeanette Corbière-Lavell launched an unsuccessful court challenge to overturn sex discrimination in the Indian Act. (2) This was 99 years after employees of the Indian Affairs Department were charged with trafficking in Aboriginal women. (1) 
  • Also in 1985, CRIAW Board member Audrey McLaughlin was elected to the House of Commons as MP for the Yukon, and in 1989 became the first female leader of a federal political party with sitting members.
  • In 1986, Sharon Wood from Canmore, Alberta was the first Canadian woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest. (2) A century before, women were discouraged from any sport by doctors who claimed sportswomen's uteruses would shrivel and they would become mentally ill. (1)
  • In 1988, the first woman Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Bertha Wilson, wrote one of the majority judgements which struck down Canada's restrictive abortion law. When she had first applied to law school, a professor told her to go home and take up knitting.
  • In 1993, Canada's refugee guidelines were changed to include women facing gender-related persecution.
  • In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled that job standards and tests cannot be solely based on capabilities that would favour men. The case was brought by BC forest fighter Tawney Meiorin, who had been laid off from her job after a completely satisfactory job performance due to a new physical fitness test based on men's abilities, and having little to do with the ability to actually do the job.

This is only a partial list, leaving out landmarks most people know about like the 1929 Person' Case and various pay equity victories. During the late 1800s and throughout the 1900s, small groups of women fought for rights for all women, and entrenched these new rights into law. With a minuscule amount of political, social and economic power, women have changed the character and priorities of nations. 

The continuing challenge is to eliminate poverty and violence, and to ensure that equality rights guaranteed on paper by national laws and international agreements become a reality for every woman of every race, language, ethnicity, economic status, ability, and sexual orientation. Sounds pie in the sky? So did the vote for women. So did the abolition of slavery. So did the decriminalization of homosexuality. So did laws against child labour. So did an 8-hour work day and a 5-day work week. Every good idea started with a handful of committed people who were called crazy, unrealistic, and worse. They were attacked, vilified, spat on, dismissed and ridiculed. Some were murdered. They were accused of shaking the foundations of society and heralding an economic collapse. Instead, economies grew by leaps and bounds with increased rights for citizens, as women piled into the paid workforce, as more people had money in their pockets with which to fuel the market. Fortunately for most of us, that handful of "crazy" people stood firm. Our duty is to continue where they left off, as social justice is still a far-away goal for many women in Canada and around the world. We wish you a happy and productive millennium, in which your goals, and those of the world's women, are finally realized.

(1) Alison Prentice, Paula Bourne, Gail Cuthbert Brandt, Beth Light, Wendy Mitchinson, Naomi Black, Canadian Women: A History (Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988)
(2) Moira Armour and Pat Stanton, Canadian Women in History: A Chronology (Toronto: Green Dragon Press, 1990)
(3) Status of Women Canada, Canadian Committee on Women's History and Department of the Secretary of State of Canada, "Towards Equality for Women: A Canadian Chronology," Women's History Month, October 1992. 
(4) STEWART,Peggy, Radio ladies: Canada's women on the air 1922-1975, British Columbia, Magnetewan Publishing, 2011. p.1