Women celebrate eight decades as ‘persons’ in Canada

“We are not here to beg for a favour, but to obtain simple justice. Have we not the brains to think? Hands to work? Hearts to feel? And lives to live?” — Nellie McClung

I was in university in in the 1960s during the Burn the Bra era. Later, the Status of Women Action Committee was formed. It was a time of wanting equality in life and work, claiming ownership of our own bodies and thinking we could change the world.

I had little awareness of the brave and tenacious women ahead of me like my grandmother, Florence Hooper. She graduated from Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 1909 with a Bachelor of Arts.

My grandmother has always intrigued me, having known her only through her university and teaching pictures and her personal scrapbook of poems and clippings. She died when my father was 20 years old.

It’s difficult for me to piece together the puzzle of why she was so fortunate to attend university. My father thinks it’s because she wanted to.

Her family was not wealthy but was devout. Like the Ivy League colleges established by the Puritans, Carroll College was created by the Presbyterians.

She worked as a teacher in both Canada and the United States. After marrying, she was active in the church and community and served as the local correspondent to the Regina Leader-Post.

I wonder what her thoughts were on the women’s movement of the time.

Voting but still not a person

Women’s suffrage was not unique to Canada and the United States. The isolation and lack of opportunities for women were almost universal. Women came to a young Canada from their own countries, hoping for improved lives in their new world.

The suffragette movement struggled in Canada and around the world. With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and the enlistment of men in the armed forces, women entered the work force in unprecedented numbers and their role in the country’s economy could no longer be ignored.

On Jan. 28, 1916, Manitoba became the first province in Canada to allow women to be elected to the Legislature. A series of measures between 1917 and 1919 declared the women of Manitoba were citizens, persons and human beings.

By 1925, women could vote provincially everywhere except Quebec, where 15 more years would pass before the right was granted.

Women are persons

On Oct. 18, 1928, the Privy Council of Britain declared “women are persons.”

Until then, a British ruling of 1876 declared that women were persons in matters of pain and penalties, but not persons in matters of rights and privileges.

In 1929, after two years of legal debate, Canada’s highest court of appeal declared that the word person included both women and men. Five Alberta women, who became known as the Famous Five, had brought the case before the courts in 1927.

Being a person is not enough

By the early 1900s, some women in Canada had made a place for themselves in newspapers, and through the printed page, these women acquired an audience. Lillian Beynon was hired as women’s columnist for the Weekly Free Press and Prairie Farmer. Francis Beynon later became woman’s editor of the Grain Growers’ Guide. Nellie McClung was a novelist.

Cora Hind became a familiar figure in the rural areas, well aware of farmers’ problems in financing their operations and marketing their crops. She initially signed her articles with E.C. Hind to hide her female identity.

Women had a place to share and get reassurance from others in The Western Producer’s Mainly for Women pages in the 1930s.

Christa Scowby’s master’s thesis, Divine Discontent: Women, Identity and The Western Producer, reported that Mainly For Women played a vital role in recognizing the importance of community work to the physical and emotional well-being of farm women and the strength of the farming community.

Sarah Galvin is a home economist, teacher and farmers’ market vendor at Swift Current, Sask., and a member of Team Resources. Contact: team@producer.com.

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