Feminism in Canada
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The history of feminism in Canada has been a gradual struggle aimed at establishing equal rights between women and men. The history of Canadian feminism, like modern, Western feminism in other countries has been divided by scholars into three "waves", each describing a period of intense activism and social change. The use of “waves,” however has been critiqued for its failure to include the feminist activism of, for example, Aboriginal and Québécois women who organized for changes in their own communities as well as for larger social change.
- 1 Waves of Canadian feminism
- 1.1 First wave
- 1.2 Second wave
- 1.2.1 Canadian women during and after World War II
- 1.2.2 Royal Commission on the Status of Women, 1970
- 1.2.3 Violence against women and the battered women’s movement
- 1.2.4 National Action Committee on the Status of Women
- 1.2.5 Canadian Human Rights Act, 1977
- 1.2.6 The Charter of Rights and Freedoms
- 1.2.7 Abortion
- 1.3 Third wave
- 2 Critiques of the "waves" view of Canadian feminist history
- 3 See also
- 4 Notes
- 5 References
- 6 Further reading
- 7 External links
Waves of Canadian feminism
The first wave of feminism in Canada occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This early activism was focused on increasing women’s role in public life, with goals including women’s suffrage, increased property rights, increased access to education, and recognition as “persons” under the law. This early iteration of Canadian feminism was largely based in maternal feminism; the idea that women are natural caregivers and “mothers of the nation” who should participate in public life because of their perceived propensity for decisions that will result in good care of society. In this view, women were seen to be a civilizing force on society – which was a significant part of women’s engagement in missionary work and in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).
Early organizing and activism
Religion was an important factor in the early stages of the Canadian women’s movement. Some of the earliest groups of organized women came together for a religious purpose. When women were rejected as missionaries by their Churches and missionary societies, they started their own missionary societies and raised funds to send female missionaries abroad. Some of them raised enough to train some of their missionaries as teachers or doctors.
The first of these missionary societies was founded in Canso, Nova Scotia in 1870 by a group of Baptist women inspired by Hannah Norris, a teacher who wanted to be a missionary. Norris asked the women in her Church for help when her application to the Baptist Foreign Mission Board was rejected. The formed their own missionary society, and soon there were Presbyterian, Methodist and Anglican women missionary societies forming across the western provinces, Quebec, Ontario and the Maritimes. These new societies not only enabled women to work as missionaries, they also gave women the opportunity to manage the funding, training and employment of female missionaries in foreign countries.
Women’s religious organizing was also a means through which women could advocate social change. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, for example, was formed in 1874 by Letitia Youmans of Picton, Ontario, in order to raise awareness of the negative consequences of alcohol consumption on society, and ultimately to ban alcohol and promote evangelical family values. Inspired by its American counterpart, the WCTU grew to become one of the first organizations to fight for suffrage while also being a training ground for future suffrage leaders. The Hebrew Ladies Sewing Circle (founded 1869) also worked to promote social change through religion-inspired organizing. It was originally organized by Ida Siegel to provide girls in their community training in sewing skills and as a response to the conversion attempts of Jewish youth by Protestant Evangelicals in Toronto grew to establish a Jewish Endeavour Sewing School where they taught girls sewing, Jewish religion and history. Other examples include the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) which provided (and continues to provide) services such as reception centres, shelters, and educational programs for single working class women along with The Girls’ Friendly Society (Anglican-based), and the Grey Nuns of Montreal who provided daycare centres for working women.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries women in Canada were also making inroads into various professions including teaching, journalism, social work, and public health. Grace Annie Lockhart became the first woman in the British Empire to receive a Bachelor's degree, providing clear evidence of the justice of women's claim to full rights in the field of higher education. Advances included the establishment of a Women’s Medical College in Toronto (and in Kingston, Ontario) in 1883, attributed in part to the persistence of Emily Stowe, the first female doctor to practice in Canada. Stowe’s daughter, Augusta Stowe-Gullen, became the first woman to graduate from a Canadian medical school.
Women also established and became involved with organizations to advance women’s rights, including suffrage. In 1893, the National Council of Women of Canada was formed which was designed to bring together representatives of different women’s groups across Canada, providing a network for women to communicate their concerns and ideas. When they endorsed suffrage, in 1910, the NCWC did so on the basis that women had an indispensable role in society which should give them the right to participate in public life by electing their government, in keeping with the maternal feminism prevalent in the period.
During World War I, women took on not only traditionally feminine jobs, but also heavy work such as in munitions factories. This changed role of women increased women's political prominence, and issues such as women's suffrage were raised.
During the 1920s, women adventurers pushed the boundaries of acceptable behavior for women. From 1922 until 1929, Aloha Wanderwell (born in Canada) became the first woman to travel around the world in a car, beginning her journey at the age of 16.
Women's right to vote in Canada
Organizing around women’s suffrage in Canada peaked in the mid-1910s. Various franchise clubs were formed, and in Ontario, the Toronto Women’s Literary Club was established in 1876 as a guise for suffrage activities, though by 1883 it was renamed the Toronto Women’s Suffrage Association. Compared to other English speaking industrialized countries, Canada’s suffrage movement gained success rather easily, and without violence. The tactics adopted by the movement in order to bring about reform included collecting petitions, staging mock parliaments and selling postcards.
Widows and unmarried women were granted the right to vote in municipal elections in Ontario in 1884. Such limited franchises were extended in other provinces at the end of the 19th century, but bills to enfranchise women in provincial elections failed to pass in any province until Manitoba finally succeeded in 1916. Alberta followed the same year and Emily Murphy became the first woman magistrate not just in Canada, but the entire British Empire. At the federal level it was a two step process. On Sept. 20, 1917, women gained a limited right to vote: According to the Parliament of Canada website, the Military Voters Act established that "women who are British subjects and have close relatives in the armed forces can vote on behalf of their male relatives, in federal elections." About a year and a quarter later, at the beginning of 1919, the right to vote was extended to all women in the Act to confer the Electoral Franchise upon Women. The remaining provinces quickly followed suit, except for Quebec, which did not do so until 1940. Agnes Macphail became the first woman elected to Parliament in 1921.
|Province||Date of Women's Suffrage||Date of Women's Ability to Hold Office|
|Manitoba||January 28, 1916||January 28, 1916|
|Saskatchewan||March 14, 1916||March 14, 1916|
|Alberta||April 19, 1916||April 19, 1916|
|British Columbia||April 5, 1917||April 5, 1917|
|Ontario||April 12, 1917||April 24, 1919|
|Nova Scotia||April 26, 1918||April 26, 1918|
|New Brunswick||April 17, 1919||March 9, 1934|
|Prince Edward Island||May 3, 1922||May 3, 1922|
|Newfoundland||April 13, 1925||April 13, 1925|
|Quebec||April 25, 1940||April 25, 1940|
|Dominion of Canada (federal government)||Relatives of individuals in the armed forces - September 20, 1917. All female British subjects in Canada, May 24, 1918||July 7, 1919|
Women ruled legally to be "persons"
The Famous Five petitioned the Supreme Court to decide whether women were included in the definition of the word "persons" as used in the British North America Act (Canada's de facto constitution at the time). Hinging on this decision was whether women could be appointed to the Senate or not—the body which approved divorces among other decisions important to women. The Supreme Court, interpreting the Act in light of the times in which it was written, ruled in 1928 that no, women were not "persons" and could not be so appointed.
The five women, led by Emily Murphy, appealed the case to the Judicial Committee of England's Privy Council. In 1929, the five Lords of the Committee ruled unanimously that "the word ‘persons' in Section 24 includes both the male and female sex.…" They called the earlier interpretation "a relic of days more barbarous than ours."
Though feminism in Canada continued after the work of the Famous Five, during the Depression and the Second World War, feminist activism in Canada was not as clear to see as it was during the fight for suffrage and thereafter. However, women’s engagement in the workforce during the Second World War would bring about a new consciousness in women about their place in public life, that led to a public inquiry on the status of women, as well as new campaigns and organizing for equal rights. Whereas the first wave was organized around access to education, and training, the second wave of Canadian feminism focused on women’s role in the workforce, the need for equal pay for equal work, a desire to address violence against women, and concerns about women’s reproductive rights.
Canadian women during and after World War II
During the Second World War, Canadian women were actively pursued by the Canadian government to contribute to the war effort. One of the ways in which women contributed to the war effort was by joining the workforce. Prior to the war, some young and unmarried women had already joined the workforce, but during the war an increased need for female workers arose in many industries due to the depleted pool of male workers who had largely been mobilized to fight in the war. Although women continued to work in their pre-war traditional fields of employment such as textile manufacturing, retail, nursing, and homecare services, as the demand for labour intensified in all industries, women became employed in many non-traditional fields including: manufacturing, trade, finance, transportation, communication, and construction.
In response to the labour needs of many industries, the Canadian government created a special Women’s Division of the National Selective Service to recruit women into the workforce. The first groups of women to be recruited were single women and childless married women. The National Selective Service then recruited women with home responsibilities and later women with children. By 1944, more than one million women worked full-time in Canada’s paid labour force.
The inclusion of women with children into the workforce led the federal government to develop a program known as the Dominion-Provincial Wartime Day Nurseries Agreement in order to assist working mothers with childcare during the duration of the war. Under the Agreement, the federal government offered to help the provinces subsidize childcare programs. Quebec and Ontario took advantage of the agreement and developed childcare facilities such as nurseries and after school programs.
Women also contributed to the war effort by volunteering. As soon as the war broke out, many local women’s volunteer societies quickly mobilized to contribute to the war effort. Women in these organizations engaged in a range of activities including: sewing clothes for the Red Cross, cultivating “victory” gardens, and collecting materials like rubber and metal scraps for wartime production. By the middle of the war the Canadian government established the Women’s Voluntary Services to coordinate the wartime activities of the local women’s societies across Canada.
Women also participated in the war by joining the military. Prior to the war, with the exception of the Nursing Service of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, the Canadian army was composed only of men. Yet, by 1942 women were recruited into the military, air force, and navy. In fact, by the end of the war 20,497 women were members of the army, 16,221 were members of the air force, and 6,665 were members of the navy. When women were first recruited they mostly worked in administrative and support positions such as stewardesses and clerical aides, but as the war carried on women were promoted to more skilled positions such as motor vehicle mechanics, electricians, and sail-makers.
In the final years of the war, the Canadian government expected women to return to their roles in the home once the war ended. In 1941, the government created an Advisory Committee on Reconstruction (composed entirely of prominent Canadian men) to deal with the post-war reconstruction issues. Shortly after its creation, some Canadian women advocated for female representation within the Committee due to the vital contribution of women to the war effort. Consequently, in 1943, the government created a subcommittee to deal with issues women would encounter once the war ended. The subcommittee was headed by Margaret McWilliams, a journalist and notable women’s organization activist, and consisted of nine other women from across the country. The subcommittee produced a report with a number of recommendations including that women should be trained or retrained for jobs on the same basis as men and that household workers should receive labour benefits like unemployment insurance. The report received little public attention and ultimately failed to achieve any of its recommendations. However, many of its recommendations were discussed once again, decades later in the 1970 report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.
When the war finally ended many Canadian women did as the government expected of them and returned to their roles in the home. Additionally, when the war ended some of the services the government offered working women during the war like childcare were stopped.
Yet, in the years following the war, the number of women joining the workforce steadily increased as women's contribution became more and more necessary to sustaining both the home and the economy - a fact addressed by a number of government initiatives. In 1951, the Ontario government passed the Female Employees Fair Remuneration Act, and by the end of the 1950s, all provinces except for Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador had passed similar legislation. In 1954, the Government of Canada created a specialized women’s department within the Department of Labour, and in 1956, it also passed legislation providing pay equity for women working in the federal civil service.
Royal Commission on the Status of Women, 1970
The Royal Commission on the Status of Women was a Canadian Royal Commission that examined the status of women and recommended steps that might be taken by the federal government to ensure equal opportunities with men in all aspects of Canadian society. The Commission commenced on 16 February 1967 as an initiative of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. Public sessions were conducted the following year to accept public comment for the Commission to consider as it formulated its recommendations. Florence Bird was the Commission's chair. The Commissioners appointed were: Florence Bird (chairperson), Elsie MacGill, Lola M. Lange, Jeanne Lapointe, Doris Ogilvie, Donald R. Gordon, Jr (resigned from Commission), Jacques Henripin, John Peters Humphrey (appointed following Gordon's resignation).
Violence against women and the battered women’s movement
The Battered Women’s Shelter Movement in Canada emerged predominantly during the late 1960s and early 1970s, within the framework of second wave feminism. Building on the oft-used second wave slogan, “the personal is political, second wave understandings of the state's role in regulating private life paved the road for a re-conceptualization of domestic violence as a social problem as opposed to a completely private matter. The movement was generated in large part because for women who had experienced domestic violence, “there was no place to go.”
National Action Committee on the Status of Women
The National Action Committee (NAC) was formed as a result of the frustration of women at the inaction of the federal government in regards to the recommendations of the Royal Commission. Beginning in 1972 as a coalition of 23 women's groups, by 1986 it had 350 organizational members, including the women's caucuses of the three biggest political parties. Partly funded by government grants, the NAC was widely regarded as the official expression of women's interests in Canada, and received a lot of attention from the media. In 1984 there was a televised debate on women's issues among the leaders of the contending political parties during the federal election campaign. The NAC and women's issues were receiving a lot of attention and the NAC was rapidly growing, although beginning in 1983 it had competition from REAL Women of Canada, a right-wing lobby group.
Canadian Human Rights Act, 1977
Passed by prime minister of the time, Pierre Trudeau, The Canadian Human Rights Act gave basic rights to all humans. There was no discrimination based on sex, race, religion, sexuality etc... It specified that there must be "equal pay for work of equal value". There had been significant disparity between the pay received by women and by men. However, by the mid-1980s there was still disparity: full-time female employees earned on average only 72% of what men earned.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms
|“||identify clearly the various rights to be protected, and remove them henceforth from governmental interference.||”|
With so much division in Canada on what should be included in a bill of rights the federal government decided to hold a Special Joint Committee of the House of Commons and the Senate, which allowed the public to submit amendments to the constitution. Women’s organizations saw this as an opportunity for Canadian women’s rights to be legally and equally represented through entrenchment in the charter.
On November 20 the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) had their opportunity to speak. The NAC saw the importance of equal recognition in the Charter for both men and women as a way to combat systematic discrimination.
In response to the Nation Action Committee’s presentation Senator Harry Hays responded,
|“||I was just wondering why we don’t have a section here for babies and children. All you girls are going to be working and you’re not going to have anybody looking after them.||”|
This statement exemplified the ignorance and discrimination Canadian women were facing.
In February 1981 the National Action Committee scheduled a conference for women on the constitution that was cancelled by the federal government. In response to the cancellation Doris Anderson, president of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women and prominent feminist resigned in protest, this act of protest galvanized Canadian women.
Feminist groups were angered at the cancellation of the conference and began to organize their own conference and a coalition was formed, which came to be known as the Ad Hoc Committee of Canadian Women on the Constitution.
On February 14, 1981, about 1,300 women exercised their democratic right and marched into parliament to debate the charter. They were demanding a specific clause on equal rights between men and women.
|“||Notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.||”|
A significant concern of second wave feminists in Canada was access to abortion. Until 1969, abortion was illegal, and women were dying from trying to procure abortions outside of the law. For these reasons, abortion was legalized in 1969, under the conditions that it be performed at a hospital, be approved by a medical committee and be crucial to the woman’s health. Only one in five hospitals had the committee required to approve of the operation resulting in many women crossing the border to the United States to receive one. By 1970, women nation-wide mobilized to organize a cross-country abortion caravan from Vancouver to Ottawa that called for increased reproductive freedom, through increased access to abortion and birth control.
The restrictive nature of the abortion law led others to challenge it, including Henry Morgantaler, a prominent Montreal doctor who attempted to establish abortion clinics. In the R. v. Morgentaler case in 1988, Canada's abortion law was struck down by the Supreme Court using the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Bertha Wilson, the first woman on the Supreme Court, had been appointed in 1982. Section 287 of the Criminal Code states that abortion is a crime. However, section 7 of the Charter says "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice." Henry Morgentaler, who was trying to establish abortion clinics, forced the courts to rule on this issue, and in 1988 the Supreme Court ruled that section 287 of the Criminal Code was of no force or effect.
The third wave of Canadian feminism, which is largely perceived to have started in the early 1990s, is closely tied to notions of anti-racism, anti-colonialism, and anti-capitalism. The notion of a sisterhood among women prevalent in the second wave, is critiqued by third-wave feminists, who have perceived this seeming universalism to be dismissive of women's diverse experiences, and the ways that women can discriminate against and dominate one another. Third wave feminism is associated with decentralized, grassroots organizing, as opposed to the national feminist organizations prevalent in the second wave.
Critiques of the "waves" view of Canadian feminist history
Feminism in Quebec
Feminism in Quebec has evolved differently from in the rest of Canada, and its history does not necessarily match the idea of the three "waves" conventionally used to describe Canadian feminist history. After Confederation, the provincial government of Quebec continued to be closely associated with the Catholic Church, resulting in the preservation of traditional gender roles. The conservatism of the then-provincial government, and the privileging of Catholic values contributed to Quebec being the last province in which women received the provincial franchise. By the 1960s, during the Quiet Revolution, many women in Quebec linked the patriarchy that shaped their lives with the colonial domination of English Canada over Quebec’s affairs. Equality between the sexes would amount to little if both men and women were subordinated and misrepresented through English values, culture and institutions. Though the Fédération des femmes du Québec was founded in 1966 to advance the rights of women in Quebec, and the organization worked closely with the National Action Committee on the Status of Women in the 1970s and 1980s, tensions between English Canadian and Québécois feminists were strong during the debates over the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord, and at the time of the 1995 Referendum.
Marie-Claire Belleau on "L'intersectionnalité" and Feminisms in Quebec-Canada
Belleau applies a feminist methodology and research framework to the inter-woven issues of national and cultural identity (what she terms “nat-cult”), both within Quebec and between the province and the rest of Canada (ROC). These conceptions of self, be they feminist, Québécois, or Canadian, in turn affect the identity politics of the region. She deploys “strategic intersectionality” in order to analyze how feminism is represented in Canada’s two main legal systems. She cautions against eternalizing differences (essentialism) or erasing them (universalism). Quebec is a unique case study because of the problematic private/public divide, which is reinforced by the parallel civil/common law split in the province’s legal system. Furthermore, the Québécois are historically situated as both colonizers and as colonized peoples, further lending complexity to their identities.
Belleau employs “tactical thinking” to negotiate among Québécois and ROC feminisms, engaging with identity politics and processes of subordination and dissolution in how Quebec feminists are represented in the legal world. She argues that Quebec feminism should (and does) have a “distinct face” (). This is manifest in the approach of intersectionality as embracing cultural distinctions, ensuring no fights for social justice are subordinate to each other, and the understanding of emancipatory confrontations as independent but still interrelated. “Distinct feminism” preserves this nat-cult individuality.
The author also details the mythic “confrontational” portrayal of Anglo-Saxon feminism, and that much of Québécois feminist identity stands in contrast to this perceived antagonistic Anglo-Saxon feminism. Quebec men, similarly, struggle with their own conceptions of self, particularly amid historical confrontations with English-Canadian men. Conquest has led to hierarchy, exemplified through the past relationship of the Quebec matriarch and her male consort, l’homme rose, or the “pink man.” For women, many embrace their “Latin” heritage through an allegiance to their French past in order to assert their distinctiveness in a continent with competing cultural identities. Younger Québécois feminists wish to disassociate themselves from both Anglo-feminism and Latin-femininity to construct their own intersectional identity, and to remove themselves from the sexism inherent in some Latin cultures. In addition, as the author articulates, for First Nations women, this “French past” does not provide positive memories or cultural touchstones.
Ultimately, Belleau urges women to see projection, dissociation, and distinction as strategies used by both Quebec and ROC feminists to create constructive dialogues and coalitions among women.
Aboriginal feminism has also taken a different trajectory from the mainstream, white, Anglo-Canadian women’s movement. Aboriginal women have largely not participated in that movement, in part because Aboriginal women’s organizations have focused on issues related to colonialism and cultural discrimination. Further, some Aboriginal women have explicitly rejected the label of “feminist” because, it is perceived to suggest “a strongly anti-natal and anti-family stance that is offensive [to Aboriginal women] as they rebuild their nations.” Others have viewed the universal sisterhood associated with the second wave with hostility, perceiving the idea that all women are the same as an erasure of difference and as an attempt at colonization. By and large, Aboriginal women active in pursuing their rights, such as those belonging to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, “...do not see themselves as part of a separate feminist movement but rather one that will complement the aboriginal organizations, which tend to be male dominated.”
Aboriginal women have worked together to address gender and cultural discrimination as they experience it. One of the most notable instances of this activism was around the issue of who qualifies as a Status Indian under the Indian Act. The status of “Indian” was conferred upon persons whose father was a status Indian. According to an amendment to the Act made in 1951, a native man always passed on his status to his wife and children (whether she was Aboriginal or not), while a native woman who married a non-native lost her own status and could not pass on her status to her children. These conditions for qualifying for status caused many women to be displaced from their communities. These amendments inspired activism on the part of the Tobique Women’s Group, as well as the founding of the Native Women’s Association of Canada in 1973, in order to enable women to achieve equality not only as women, but as Aboriginal women. The struggle for women to receive equal status under the Indian Act was also clear in various challenges to the Act, first by Mary Two-Axe Earley, followed by the human rights challenges raised by Jeannette Lavell, Yvonne Bedard, and Sandra Lovelace in the 1970s. In 1985, the Indian Act was amended to address unequal treatment of native women with Bill C-31 which allowed the return of Native Status to those who had lost it.
Other women have also contested the mainstream feminist history of “waves.” In the case of Black Canadian women, the mainstream history of the first and second waves is problematic insofar as their struggles to enable women to leave their homes and partake in the labour force ignored that certain women had always worked to support their families. Most clear in American Black feminist Soujourner Truth’s “Ain't I a Woman?” speech, the experiences of black women in Canada have not been adequately addressed by conventional feminist histories. Like Aboriginal women, some black feminists have articulated their experiences in terms of a racially disadvantaged struggle for equal treatment, and that their struggle is not only against patriarchy, but systemic racism as well.
Black women saw a need to fund their own organizations, including missionary work in the late 19th century through the Women’s Home Missionary Society of the Baptist Church. Further, black women founded organizations like the Coloured Women’s Club in Montreal (founded in 1900) to expand opportunities for people in the Black community, through mutual support.
Though the “double burden” of work and household labour that would be an important element of feminism in its second wave, had long been present for black women, who were also less likely to be paid fairly. While it was middle class white women’s experiences during and after WWII, coupled with the emergence of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique that led middle-class white women to consider engaging in the workforce, “by the Second World War at least 80 percent of Black women in Canada worked in the domestic-services sector and earned less than their white counterparts.”
Black women in Canada established a national women’s organization in the post-war years, with the founding of the Canadian Negro Women’s Association in 1951. Though the organization started largely as a social organization, over several decades, it became more activist in orientation, and in 1980, after a national conference, it changed its name to the Congress of Black Women to reflect the changing structures and concerns of the organization.
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The issue came to a judicial head in 1988, when the Supreme Court ruled that section 287 of the Code offended section 7 of the Charter, and that the former was therefore of no force or effect (1 SCR 30).Check date values in:
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