“All women who have ever voted, have ever owned property, have ever enjoyed equal rights need to remember that women’s rights had to be fought for.”
There’s an email making the rounds with that line, giving examples of the violence and hostility that suffragettes had to deal with in the early 1900s in the United States and England.
Add Canada to that list. Canada never “gave” women rights either. Women struggled for each right ever won – they had to “Agitate, Educate, Organize,” as a New Brunswick women’s group advocated more than a century ago.
The right to vote was only one early battle. Other issues followed, meeting with various degrees of hostility.
Tomorrow, Oct. 18, is the 80th anniversary of Canadian women being declared “persons-” thanks to the British Privy Council. A previous unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada had said that “persons” was “sometimes synonymous with human beings, sometimes including only men.” Under the British North America Act, women were not persons.
Think about it. At a time when Canadian women were voting and had been elected to the House of Commons, our leaders argued that women were not persons. As one female politician at the time said, politicians and judges who questioned women’s personhood were evidently comfortable with the idea that their mother was something other than a “person.”
If women were not persons, they did not necessarily have the rights and the protection of the laws that men benefitted from. That was the stake, along with the ability to enter universities and the professions. Virginia Woolf ridiculed
the men who rejected the women’s claims to personhood, calling them “great fighters,” a battle of “professional men versus their sisters and daughters.”
The Canadian women who brought the case to the British Privy Council – the Famous Five – were mostly concerned with the right to be appointed to the Canadian Senate. But the judgment is said to have had a far-reaching effect: it
overturned arguments that had been used by legislators for centuries “to keep women out of public life.” It was legally binding in all the countries of the British Empire, except in Britain.
It was called an important milestone in women’s struggle for full citizenship.
A milestone, but not the finish line.
Over the next decades, women’s groups would struggle and gain other rights and privileges of “full citizenship.” New Brunswick women would have to wait five more years, 1934, before winning the right to run in provincial elections. Until 1947, Canadian married women were classified with minors and lunatics, “under a disability” when it came to being naturalized or controlling their national status. Since the middle of the century, juries could include women, but only in 1972 did the federal and New Brunswick governments amend the laws to treat women and men equally in jury responsibilities.
As Canadian women participated more in public life, situations arose which required other struggles to have women’s interests taken into account on an equal footing.
One example is Stella Bliss. She was fired because she was pregnant. After her baby was born, she could not find employment, but could not get unemployment insurance benefits because she had been pregnant when she lost her job and she did not meet the more stringent criteria applied to pregnancy benefits.
The courts in 1979 did not think this was sex discrimination, because all “pregnant persons” were equally denied benefits and “any inequality between the sexes in this area is created by nature.”
Evidently the gauge for a full citizen was still male, and women did not measure up.
Cases such as Stella Bliss’ were not rare and they fired up Canadian women into insisting to be part of the constitutional talks in the early 1980s. The hope was that if equality were written into the Constitution, “full citizenship”
would be easier to obtain.
Full citizenship is still being built. Women’s groups still grapple with how to obtain for women equal benefit of the law and equal protection of constitutional rights such as security of the person. Equal political participation is far from
The history lesson is not finished without mention of the New Brunswick Persons case many years before the more famous Canadian one. Mabel Penery French had graduated in 1905 from the Law School in Saint John – she had led all her classes. When she applied for admission to the Barristers’ Society, it said since only persons could be admitted to the bar, it wanted a court opinion as to whether she was a person. So, the Supreme Court of New Brunswick pondered the question: “Is a woman a person?”
The five judges denied French’s request, one writing that “The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the… offices of wife and mother… Harmony of interests and views which belong, or should belong, to the family institution is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct career from that of her
French was not finished arguing her case. She ran up debt and, when sued by her creditors, argued she was not a person, so she could not be sued. The defence failed, but she succeeded in pointing out the absurdity of women not being persons. The New Brunswick legislature adopted a law in 1907 permitting women to
be admitted to the legal profession, presumably because we are persons.
Elsie Hambrook is Chairperson of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women.