My Canada, 37/150: Now that we are persons

Ninety years ago, I was not legally a person.

The path to women getting the vote, women inching their way to a legal standing of “equal”, differs in every country in the world. In Canada, a pivotal moment was the 1929 “Persons Case”. It was a moral fight played out on technical grounds.

To quote extensively from the Canadian Encylopedia on the matter: “In 1928, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that women were not “persons” according to the British North America Act and therefore were ineligible for appointment to the Senate. However, the women appealed to the Privy Council of England, which in 1929 reversed the Court’s decision. The Persons Case opened the Senate to women, enabling them to work for change in both the House of Commons and the Upper House. Moreover, the legal recognition of women as “persons” meant that women could no longer be denied rights based on a narrow interpretation of the law.”

Emily Murphy, even though not legally a “person”, had been appointed a judge in 1916; the opposition she faced led her to mount this court challenge along with four other prominent women now known as the “Famous Five”:  artist and activist Henrietta Muir Edwards; novelist and provincial government member Nellie McClung; Women’s Christian Temperance Union leader Louise Crummy McKinney; and United Farm Women of Alberta founder Irene Parlby.

36 famousfivearticle
A newspaper article written by Nellie McClung following the court appeal that established women in Canada were indeed persons, under the law.

They were driven and ambitious women who by modern standards might seem insufferable. Some expressed views on race and sterilization of “undesirables” that make us choke, today. Others were convinced that alcohol must be stamped out in order for society to progress (tell that to the Europeans). But they did bust open an initial dam that had been holding back women from having equal rights to men in this country. Their achievement inspired the first permanent monument on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, unveiled in 2000, which commemorates Canadian women.

Canada is mid-pack when it comes to the timing of when certain rights became enshrined for women. The right to vote arrived in staggered steps, with finally federal (national) voting rights established in 1919. Women could petition for divorce for the same grounds as men in 1925. There’s an excellent long list of what women’s rights kicked in when on the Nellie McClung Foundation website.

When I grew up, it felt like it was “the sky’s the limit!” for women. I went off to university and blithely did not notice at the time that, of the 24 credits I took (I only needed 20 but who could resist great electives?) only 2.5 were taught by women. My world view was being shaped by men. Terrific, intelligent, challenging, funny men, often, but still.

Moving into my work life, I was not a woman who was “the first” at much. I was the woman who came after the woman who pounded down the barrier. I was the second, not the first, woman appointed a writer for the London Free Press editorial board. Quickly, though, especially after a reporting stint covering women’s issues, I came to identify with the “ism” of “feminism.”

There were quiet yes! moments, like the evening I signed for a pre-approved mortgage  that had been set up by a female bank officer around my age, 31 at the time. That would never have happened a decade earlier: she would not have had the job nor authority and I would have required the signature of some man – a father or husband – as guarantor.

There were despairing moments too, my heart broken by stories of women trapped by violence in their relationships that led me to volunteer with Women’s Community House.

Through my work I got to know many Canadian feminist pioneers of the later 20th century, such as law professor Constance Backhouse, whose work has shaped Canadian sexual assault laws, and the late Doris Anderson, who was editor of the women’s magazine Chatelaine from 1957 to 1977 and used its influence and reach to advocate for women’s equality amid the muffin recipes and fashion spreads. She went on to a second career as chair of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women.

The journey to women’s true equality continues, the road littered with detours and barriers. I write this on International Women’s Day in 2017, when our American feminist neighbours are terrified that hard-won equality rights for women are now in jeopardy due to the rise of a right-wing political agenda that wants to remove choice for women and thinks it’s just dandy to objectify a woman and measure her worth by her appearance and appeal to men.

We’re supposedly fine here in Canada, with a young, hip prime minister who, when elected, ensured his cabinet of ministers was 50 per cent women “because it’s 2015.” But because it’s now 2017, I joined the Toronto version of the international Women’s March on January 21. Because I am a person, equal to any man. How sad we still need march and mobilize to argue this self-evident truth.

Photo of the Famous Five statue in Ottawa, Ontario, created by sculptor Barbara Paterson, courtesy  Gordon E. Robertson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9433237

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