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A battle not yet won.

In 1992, the Environics polling people asked women if they were feminists; only a third of them said Yes. However, the same poll found that four out of five Canadians - women and men - thought that the women's movement had been good for women but that more should be done to promote the equality of women in society. The century-old struggle continues.

While women in Britain and the United States were fighting for political equality many of their Canadian sisters focussed their attention on simpler goals. The Women's Christian Tempera Union, which was founded in 1874, launched a crusade against booze. The National Council of Canadian Women (1893) denounced liquor, divorce, prostitution, profiteering, and "the modern cult of self-indulgence and its god, pleasure." The Women's Institute (1897) fought for the pasteurization of milk and university-based training in home economics.

These groups reflected a common feature of life for Victorian women in Canada. They saw themselves as engaged in "maternal feminism." In their roles as wives and mothers, Canadian women were also guardians of social norms. They would do more good, they believed, through gentle persuasion than by confronting the power elites.

Not everyone agreed with this submissive role. Canadian women such as Emily Stowe, Nellie McClung, Cora Hind, and Emily Murphy took on the politicians on their own ground. They followed the lead of pioneers such as Mary Wollstonecraft who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, or John Stuart Mill, who wrote, in 1869, "The most important thing women have to do is to stir up the zeal of women themselves." And, that's what Emmeline Pankhurst, in England, tried to do. She was a leader of the so-called suffragettes who concentrated on gaining political rights.

The suffragettes believed that their equality would be assured once they had the right to vote. They were wrong. They demonstrated, held rallies, chained themselves to railings, even died for the cause. For their trouble, they were arrested, spat upon, and sometimes punched in the face. The right to vote did come, but it's been suggested that it was won more by the silent majority than the vocal suffragettes.

The radicals defined the issue of women's rights; they put the topic on the agenda. However, Mrs. Pankhurst's group didn't believe that the right to vote should be extended to all women of all classes. Meanwhile, millions of working-class women toiled in factories to sustain the war effort of 1914-18. These women probably did as much to advance the cause of womens' rights as all the antics of the suffragettes.

Women gained the right to vote in Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan in 1916; B.C. and Ontario followed a year later. In 1918, all women were permitted to vote in federal elections. By 1922, all other provinces had granted women the vote, except Quebec, where women had to wait until 1940.

Women might be able to vote but they still weren't people. The Persons Case of 1929 was a landmark for Canadian women. Prior to that, the law said that women were not persons and that, therefore, they could not qualify for seats in the Senate. The Privy Council in England overruled Canada's Supreme Court and said that to deny the fact that women were people was "a relic of days more barbarous than ours."

With the right to vote more or less won, the women's movement waned. It reawakened spectacularly in the 1960s. Now, the issues were more encompassing, with the focus on economic and social equality.

The late 1960s, saw the emergence of a new feminist movement, led by the writings of Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, and Shulamith Firestone. They held that society's major power relationship was one of domination and oppression of women by men.

The feminists of the 1960s concluded that the whole of society is pervaded by a sexism that relegates all women to a subservient role. Sexism is a deep-rooted, often unconscious, system of beliefs, attitudes, and institutions in which distinctions between people's worth are made on the grounds of their sex and sexual roles. Whether consciously or not, the sexist sees women (or men) as inferior, and behaves accordingly. In the aggressive form of sexism - male chauvinism - there there is an assumption of male supremacy in all the important areas of social activity. This often goes hand in hand with treating women as anonymous objects for male sexual pleasure.

It's not surprising, then, that a major focus of feminism in the 1960s and '70s was for women to gain control over their own bodies. Issues here involve fertility control, sexual relationships, sexual violence, and medical power over women's health. The birth control pill was a major breakthrough. Women now were able to determine when and how often they would get pregnant. They could plan their families around their own careers and needs. An almost instant result of the availability of the pill was a dramatic decline in family size. This revolution happened quietly. The one over abortion has been much more fiery.

Between 1965 and 1969, when abortion was illegal in Canada, 40 women were reported to have died because of botched attempts to end a pregnancy. While legal abortion is widely available to women today, access varies from province to province. In 1992, for the first time in history, the number of abortions in Canada exceeded 100,000. However, many women are still concerned about the power and control exerted by men.

Two cases focussed attention on this issue in 1989. Both Chantal Daigle and Barbara Dodd became pregnant. Both decided to seek an abortion. Both were prevented from doing so by their boyfriends who got court injunctions to stop them. Both court orders were eventually thrown out, but they pointed up the fact that women still did not have complete control of their own bodies. Two judges had attempted to take reproductive choice, the most symbolic and fundamental of women's issues, right back to square one.

The Daigle and Dodd cases may have ended what many called the post-feminism period. During the 1980s, many women assumed the battles had been won and backed away from activism. But, author and psychologist Paula Caplan says the time for complacency has not yet come: "Just because you get equal pay and laws against sexual harassment doesn't mean you live happily ever after. We are still making discoveries about discrimination, about the still profound sexism that exists in our society."

As sociologist Lorna Marsden says: "Now, the hard questions start, and they go way beyond getting a job then getting a promotion. Women want to be part of the hard-core decision-making. The unidentifiable shadow that's there now, the barrier ... will have to go."


1. Why has research into male contraception been so slow? Clearly, many women suffer from the side effects of taking contraceptive pills, why is it only them who should suffer? Discuss these questions.

2. Psychologist Dorothy Dinnerstein wrote The Mermaid and the Minotaur in 1977. In it she argues that equality between the sexes will only come when men share equally in child rearing, from a baby's earliest days. This means that women must give up some of their domestic powers to men, and men must give up some of their worldly powers to women. Yet, countless studies show the same thing; women continue to stagger under the burden of two jobs - office and home - with men still contributing very little to domestic life. Through discussion, define the division of domestic tic duties among the families of class members.

3. Three very important books reawakened the feminist movement: The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963); The Female Eunuch(1970) by Germaine Greer; and Sexual Politics by Kate Millett (1970). Assign a team of students to study each book and then lead a seminar on the roots and beliefs of the feminist movement.

4. Women of colour and aboriginal women say the feminist movement is driven by the ideals and concerns of white, middle-class women. These are not necessarily the same concerns of all women. For example, the right to equal pay is of little value to a black woman who cannot even get work because of racism. Open clipping files on these issues and follow their progress.
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Title Annotation:women's rights past and present
Author:Taylor, Rupert J.
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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