October is Women’s History Month and it is filled with days to celebrate, such as the very first International Day of the Girl on October 11 and Persons Day on October 18. It is a month to remember that women fought hard to secure the rights we enjoy today. The Persons Case, for example, granted Canadian women the right to sit in the Canadian Senate when it determined that women were indeed persons. Yet this case happened only eighty-three years ago which is the age of some of our grandmothers. When you stop to think that our grandmothers were not considered to be persons for part of their lives it hits home how far we’ve come with women’s rights in Canada.
Women’s History Month is a good time to learn about the history of women in Canada and to celebrate women who have helped to shape Canadian society in a positive way. It is also a time to celebrate individual womanhood, a time for self-reflection and awareness. Trent University professor Margaret Hobbs recommends attending speaker events (Market Place Hall is a good resource), seeding future projects and events, attending demonstrations and cultural events, like poetry readings and concerts, and reading about Canadian women’s history.
Historian, author, and feminist Joan Sangster, who is also a faculty member at Trent University, advises that days and months of commemoration can represent lots of publicity and discussion, but that these need to be followed by actions that will bring about meaningful social changes that will transform women’s lives. In regards to the International Day of the Girl, she asks, “Will this day actually result in social and policy changes that reduce the poverty and racism that defines many girls’ lives? If not, then commemoration becomes nothing more than a public relations statement.”
Sangter’s advice indicates that while women have come a long way since our country’s Confederation, there is still work to be done. The persistence of income inequality, violence against women, and racism experienced by women of colour are proof that advocating for women’s rights is still necessary. Canadian women have often been at the forefront of women’s rights and raising awareness on an international level. For example, the recent Slut Walk campaigns originated in Toronto under the leadership of female university students. While there has been controversy over the Slut Walks, certainly the campaigns signify that violence against women is a real challenge that exists in our present day society and that not enough is being done on a political level to address this issue.
Sangster also recommends celebrating and supporting the groups that have long been working with young women to actually produce change. For example, Justice for Girls advocates for the rights of low-income and homeless teenage girls. This is where women’s history reveals its importance. Canadian women have a long track record of accomplishing great things, advocating for collective rights, and bringing about real change for all members of society. For example, Elsie MacGill, the world’s and Canada’s first female aeronautical engineer, designed the Hawker Hurricane fighter plane in World War II, which helped win the war against Germany and which earned MacGill the title “Queen of the Hurricanes.”
More importantly, MacGill used her fame and clout to push for and secure women’s rights. She was one of the seven commissioners of the 1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women, which put forth 167 recommendations to ensure that women and men had equal rights and opportunities. MacGill and a few other commissioners went a step further and filed separate reports in addition to this in order to secure more controversial rights, like access to free abortion.
One of the impressive results of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women was the 1971 creation of a Minister position that would be responsible for representing the Status of Women. In 1976, the Office of the Coordinator, Status of Women, became a departmental agency of the federal government with the sole purpose of maintaining and improving equal rights and opportunities for women in Canada.
The current Minister of the Status of Women is Rona Ambrose. The plan for an International Day of the Girl was primarily led by Ambrose and in December 2011, the United Nations announced that October 11, 2012 would be the first ever International Day of the Girl. On the Status of Women’s website, it is stated that, “This international day will promote equal treatment and opportunities for girls around the world in areas such as law, nutrition, health care, education, training, and freedom from violence and abuse.” This day fittingly falls within Women’s History Month, for which the slogan this year is “Strong Girls, Strong Canada: Leaders from the Start.”
Keeping all this in mind, one would imagine that Minister Ambrose would continue to advocate for the rights of Canadian women and that she would embody the leadership qualities that the Status of Women is trying to exemplify for Women’s History Month. This is why her recent vote in favour for bill M312, a bill which would open the debate about when and if a fetus should be declared a human, which would then open the abortion debate, has been so controversial. Essentially, a vote in favor for this bill is an anti-choice vote. The irony of this is that Ambrose’s position as Minister of the Status of Women exists because of women who were staunchly pro-choice; women like MacGill who advanced our country in terms of science, engineering, aeronautics, and women’s rights.
There has been much controversy, discussion, and debate regarding Ambrose’s vote, with some arguing that she cast the vote because of her concerns about sex selective abortion. However, the top feminist leaders, historians and authors in this country are saying that her vote was clearly anti-choice. Both Sangster and Hobbs see the vote for bill M312 as anti-choice.
Hobbs does recognize that the nature of a private member’s bill allows Ministers to vote by their conscience. However, Ambrose voting in favor of bill M312 was a contradiction to her position of the Minister of the Status of Women and what that is supposed to represent. This is the very reason why Women’s History Month is important. There needs to be awareness about women’s roles in creating Canada’s history and what it’s meant on all fronts, including women’s rights. Our liberal abortions rights stems not from a moral debate, but from the result of a variety of Canadian men and women fighting tooth and nail for those rights.
Women were criminalized for using birth control. They were forced into procuring illegal abortions, having children when they were young enough to be children themselves, and were denied access to healthcare and education. Canada’s abortion laws were struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1988 after decades of demand for access to abortion from Canadian men and women. Regardless of people’s moral stances, do we really want to go back in time to back-alley abortions, higher rates of infanticide, and an absence of family planning?
Hobbs and many others have signed a petition for Ambrose’s resignation of Minister of the Status of Women and believe that Ambrose’s lack of comment on her voting decision is a betrayal to the women she is supposed to represent. Hobbs points out that actions that would turn back the clock on abortion rights is a betrayal to those who created the Status of Women. With Women’s History Month upon us, let us remember the achievements of our Canadian heroines and continue to follow in their footsteps in advancing women’s rights.