Feb. 1, 2019

Never give up: A (short) history of feminism in Canada

As Canadian society has evolved and developed, so too has the fight for equality for women. And while gains have been made, many of the attitudes and obstacles that women face remain as prevalent now as they were in the early 19th century.

One of Canada’s first feminists, Mary Ann Shadd, was born in 1823 in Delaware, the eldest of 13 children. Her parents were freeborn abolitionists who ran a safe house on the Underground Railway. After teaching in schools in the U.S., Shadd moved to Canada in 1851 and settled in southwestern Ontario. She set up a racially integrated school, continued advocating for the abolition of slavery and started a weekly newspaper, the Provincial Freeman.

“Mary Ann Shadd was demanding universal suffrage (the right to vote) and women’s equality in the Provincial Freeman in the 1850s,” says Dr. Nancy Janovicek, PhD, an associate professor of history in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts, “decades before the first evidence that we have of women's suffrage organizing in Canada.”

When her newspaper folded in 1860, Shadd took her activism back to the U.S. She recruited for the Union Army in the early years of the Civil War and later studied law at Harvard, graduating in 1883 — one of the first women of colour to get a law degree. She was also the first black woman in North America to publish a newspaper, one of the first female journalists in Canada and, whether she knew it or not, Shadd was among the first to ride Canada’s so-called first wave of feminism.

The term ‘feminism’ was first used in Europe in the 1880s.

“Scholars think that feminist ideas date back to the 18th century,” says Janovicek. “The term ‘feminism’ was first used in Europe in the 1880s but few Canadian women active in the first wave would have identified as feminist.” In Canada, the word 'feminism' started popping up in the late 19th century, not long after a mother-and-daughter team set up the country’s first organization calling for women’s suffrage.

In 1876, Dr. Emily Howard Stowe, one of Canada’s first female doctors, and her daughter, Dr. Augusta Stowe-Gullen, started the Toronto Women’s Literary Club. It became the Toronto Women's Suffrage Association and eventually, by 1889, it was known as the Dominion Women's Enfranchisement Association.

The early suffragists were “really positioning their activism as mothers working to improve the world,” says Janovicek. “They wanted suffrage so they could achieve improvements in maternal care, infant care, and public health, as well as the end of child labour. Temperance (abstinence from the consumption of alcohol) was also important in the late 19th and early 20th century. They wanted the vote to improve the world and improve their ability to raise their children safely.”

But few of these early suffragists — generally affluent white women — were interested in advocating for the franchise for all women in the country. “Voting was dependent on property rights, so middle-class white women in Canada who had property were demanding the right to vote, but the fact that they owned property was still premised on the dispossession of lands from Indigenous peoples,” says Janovicek. “Recent scholarship is finding lots of evidence that black women, Indigenous women, and women from racialized immigrant communities were also organizing, albeit separately from white women.”

While the first organized suffragists were in Central Canada, activists across the country were making gains. Manitoba was the first province to give the franchise to women in 1916 (the last was Québec, in 1940). During the First World War, nurses and women serving in the military were given the vote along with those who had husbands, sons or fathers overseas. By 1918, women aged 21 and over became eligible to vote in federal elections. But Indigenous women and men, as well as members of other ethnic groups, were left out of the franchise. “It’s important to remember that it was an exclusionary privilege,” says Janovicek. “A lot of women still couldn’t vote and women who were excluded because of race still had to fight.”

The first wave of feminism in Canada ended around 1920, when most women had the vote. But while they could cast a ballot, no woman in the country was lawfully considered “a person” until 1929 when five women from Alberta, The Famous Five, took the matter all the way to the then-highest court of the land, the Privy Council in London, England.

Second wave

Canada’s second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s was part of the massive social change that included civil rights and the peace movements. Grassroots groups started forming in every corner of the country and creating gathering places for women. “First they came together to build a feminist movement and then they found that women who were abused were coming and saying ‘this is how the social workers and welfare office are failing me’,” says Janovicek. “It was grassroots women who started to figure out how to deal with domestic violence. Groups of volunteers came together and set up shelters for ‘battered women starting in the 70s, and it really took off in the 80s.”

And as they were helping women in their communities, feminists were also fighting for a bigger voice in the halls of power. “Women from different political parties had different ideas about what equality for women would look like, but they wanted feminist reforms,” says Janovicek. In 1967, after months of lobbying from dozens of organizations, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson established the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada. Three years later, the commission tabled 167 recommendations for reducing gender inequality across Canada, including changing the Indian Act and family laws and addressing poverty.

It was grassroots women who started to figure out how to deal with domestic violence.

“When you look at the letters from women who wrote to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, union women were there, Indigenous women were fighting against discrimination in the Indian Act,” says Janovicek. “The dominant voices often overlooked the complexity of race in those early years. To say it was just a white middle-class movement I think dismisses other women who were working really hard to make sure their voices were heard.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Henry Morgentaler and women across the country were fighting against the 19th-century laws that sent women and their abortion providers to jail. In 1968 in Montreal, Morgentaler opened the first freestanding abortion clinic in the country. The next year the laws were changed to allow abortions, but only in a hospital and only if three doctors on a hospital committee agreed the woman’s life was endangered.

Morgentaler continued to open clinics across the country and he continued to get arrested. In 1970, hundreds of women formed an “Abortion Caravan” and marched on Ottawa. In 1975, Morgentaler spent 10 months in jail. In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s abortion law, ruling it infringed on a woman’s right to “life, liberty and security of the person” under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Today, 50 years after Morgentaler opened his first clinic, the fight to ensure access to safe abortion continues in many areas of the country.

Third wave

Those who have grown up with feminism as part of a general societal conversation are considered to be part of the third wave of feminism. “There’s a lot of overlap,” says Janovicek. It’s been “a convenient way” for people to identify themselves with different aspects of feminism, but there are commonalities with them all.   

One of these is the concept of “intersectionality”—how feminism connects to racism, immigration status, gender and sexual identities and how advancing the cause of one group of women can inadvertently lead to the marginalization of another group.

While this has been part of feminist conversation for decades (the term was coined in 1989 by U.S. feminist and civil rights activist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw), the theoretical understanding of intersectionality is “sharper” now. “Students are keenly aware of the privilege that white women have over people who are marginalized by race, sexual or gender identity,” says Janovicek. “They’re aware of the need to be an ally and understand they have to work at making change in a much broader sense.”

Like the generations before them, third-wave feminists — women and men — continue to fight for women’s rights. There are still giant pay gaps in the workplace, unequal and threatened access to abortion services across the country, thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women and troubling levels of sexual and domestic violence directed at women. Misogyny roars from every corner of the Internet.

Meanwhile, many of the gains Canadian women have made over the last couple of centuries are far from assured. “I don’t think we are closer than we were 20 years ago in a national and global sense. I think a lot of what we’ve gained is at risk,” says Janovicek. “I can’t believe we have to make these arguments over and over again. While it's disheartening, also demonstrates why we can't be complacent. We can’t give up.


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Dr. Nancy Janovicek, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of History in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts. Her research interests are in the Canadian women's movement, history and ethics policy, and the "Back-to-the-land" movement in B.C.'s West Kootenays. Read more about Nancy

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