October is Women’s History Month

September 16, 2020

October is Women's History Month and we are proud to recognize and celebrate the contributions of women and girls to our past, present and future.

Nurses and health-care workers make their impact by tackling women’s issues head on, whether they are fighting for pay equity with their male colleagues or trying to end violence and harassment in the workplace. Their compassion and determination make them fierce advocates for their patients and clients, as well as strong role models for all Canadian girls and women.

The COVID-19 pandemic taken an unquestionable toll on women and girls worldwide. They bear the brunt of the negative social and economic impacts of the pandemic, even while female-dominated professions, including nurses, personal support workers, food service workers, cleaners and other essential workers, lead the charge on the front lines.

A United Nations policy brief analyzing the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls says, "Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their sex...With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, even the limited gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back.” Canada's human rights commission issued a similar warning, that "disproportionate impacts could have long-term and far reaching consequences" adding that if we hope to "restore momentum in our efforts to bring about gender equality in Canada, social and economic recovery efforts must take a feminist approach.” Visit the UN Women website to learn more about the effect the pandemic has on women and girls, and the importance of focusing on gender equality in our COVID-19 response and recovery.

Pivotal moments for Canadian women

Women’s right to vote and run for public office
All Canadian women 21 years of age or older became eligible to vote in federal elections on May 24, 1918 regardless of whether they were permitted to vote in their respective provinces and territories. A little over a year later, they won the right to be candidates in elections, meaning they could be Members of Parliament in the House of Commons.

The exclusion of women from the Senate
Emily Murphy, the first female appointed to Edmonton Hospital Board and later the first woman in the British Empire to be appointed a magistrate, was a prominent writer and leader of the women’s suffrage movement in Canada. She helped to secure passage of legislation in Alberta that gave wives the right to share ownership in their husband’s property. Her advocacy for women and children led to calls for her to be appointed to the Senate.

Canada did not yet have its own constitution and was governed by the British North America Act. It specified that only "qualified persons" were eligible to be appointed to the Canadian Senate, a provision that had historically been interpreted to mean men only.

The "Persons Case"
A provision in the Supreme Court of Canada Act that allowed any five persons acting as a unit to petition the Supreme Court for an interpretation of any part of the constitution was used by Murphy to fight this institutional sexism. On August 27, 1927 she invited Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby to join her in petitioning the Supreme Court to review the government’s decision that denied women from becoming senators.

In 1928, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that women were not considered "persons" under the law. Murphy and The Famous Five then appealed the court’s judgment to the only higher legal authority that existed at the time. As a result, on October 18, 1929 the Privy Council in Great Britain ruled that women could become Senators because they are in fact persons: "The exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours." The ruling had wide-reaching implications, determining that women’s rights could no longer be prejudiced traditions.

Remembering the achievements of The Famous Five
On October 18, 1999 a bronze statue called "Women Are Persons!" by Edmonton artist Barbara Paterson was unveiled in Calgary by Her Excellency, Adrienne Clarkson, Governor General of Canada. The following year, a similar statue in Ottawa became the first permanent monument on Parliament Hill that commemorates Canadian women.

More Information

Learn more about ONA's Human Rights and Equity team and their ongoing work here.

The labour movement plays an integral role in fighting for women’s equality in the workplace and in society. Visit the Canadian Labour Congress website for background on a variety of topics affecting women at work including pay equity, violence against women and more.

The Canadian Women's Foundation shares "The Facts" about the negative impact of the pandemic on women.

The Department for Women and Gender Equality (previously Status of Women Canada) is a federal government organization dedicated to equality for women and “their full participation in the economic, social and democratic life of Canada.” They cover a wide variety of topics including ending gender-based violence and increasing women’s economic security.

Visit Ontario’s Pay Equity Commission website for information about employer obligations around pay equity and other resources.

Check out the Ontario Women’s Directorate’s timeline of the great leaders that contributed to the Canadian history.