Canadian women are a colorful bunch; hence, the above picture to indicate a diverse grouping. Throughout the history of Canada – shallow and not yet completed in its formation, women and girls have been placed at a disadvantage with many men feeling as if they can garner superiority through subjugation in education, through the state, via religious orthodoxy – much of them, or within the home life – where women are assumed to be only naturally suited in domestic life for the convenience of the dominance narrative of men. Even recent turnovers in some areas, they are highly new and not by necessity indicative of changes to the fundamental mentalities and expectations of women, by men or women.
In the late 19th century or 1800s, Canadian married women earned property rights, which was new. Those became the first steps in the snowball for equality with the men in the society. This started in Ontario – hurrah – in 1884 followed by Manitoba in 1900 – softer cheering (16 years?). There was an act associated with the property rights for married women no less called the Married Women’s Property Act. Surprise, surprise, it gave married women legal rights to own property.
A status in ownership to land equivalent to the men. It is minimal but a step towards the world now seen today. If you look into the statistics of the people purchasing property, many more young women are buying property compared to men. It is in this that we see the outgrowth and development of motions set forth over one century ago. How these legal agreements may have played out on the ground may have been a different narrative than the simple statement of equality in provisions for the married women to purchase the property; but nevertheless, there we have some equality movement for the sexes.
All other provinces and the territories continued in the same direction. Regarding the ability of women in Francophone Canada to own property, it was only signed in 1964, not too long ago and important to bear in mind in consideration of the history of women’s rights.
Moving forward… the next development came in the form of the Civil Code of Québec. The Code was amended for married women to have full legal and property rights in Quebec. An important development for the equality of married Francophone women within Canada akin to the equality seen for Anglophone women within the provinces of Canada as well as the territories too.
Then came the idea of persons in 1867 – jumping back to the main timeline now and not the fulfilments, the document was amended to give married women full legal and property rights. In this year of some of the population of Canada’s alleged Lord, under the British North America Act, we find the definition of “persons” as another advancement for women’s rights.
This continued in the progression for the equality of women with female heroines in the Canadian narrative fighting for gender equality. Those women were the “Famous Five, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy and Irene Parlby.” These women were the ones to set about petitioning of the Canadian government – federal – for the Supreme Court of Canada to make an executive decision for the inclusion or not of women within the definition of persons with the Act.
As they petitioned in 1928, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against the inclusion of women in the definition of person/persons. The Supreme Court of Canada provided some reasons. One included the idea of the British North America Act in 1928 having to maintain the traditional definition of persons from 1867. You can probably note the similar arguments being made around the world about the notion of marriage as between one man and one woman.
The woman as in the image of Eve and God and the man in the image of Adam and God seems assumed prior to this, too, as the basis of the claims made regarding the definition of marriage tends to come from the major Christian faith groups in North America, if we take that specific segmentation in national geography, including Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical. These sects or traditions have been strong proponents of marriage as defined above and opposed to the notion of homosexual couples being able to marry on that basis.
With one caveat of the one basis in a legal secular argument for the maintenance of a definition and then the other in a religious context for keeping the definition the same, each time, secular-legal and religious, utilized for the restriction of the equality of persons with others in the society. The assumption: women are not equal to men; homosexual marriage is not equal to heterosexual marriage (probably connected to the idea of marriage as intended for procreation – no spilling of “seed”). In this particular case, the very definition of a person, even based on the premise of women being given the right to vote through the hard work of suffragism.
Insofar as I am concerned, the equality of the sexes in a democratic society comes from the basis of women having a form of equality with men through an equal vote. Each person having equivalent votes – rich and poor, men and women, black and white, and so on. The other stipulation for the rejection by the Supreme Court of Canada – the second of three – was the basis of the common law, where women could not hold political office.
Where women could not hold political office, the idea, I suppose, is women should or could not be politicians and so could not be beholden to any form of responsibility by being holders of power and influence in civic and civil society through the prevailing political system.
The third and final reason given was that the British parliament only meant, constructed and purposed, for “qualified persons” to be included in section 24 of the Act; where if women, so the argument went, wanted to have been considered those self-same qualified persons within the Act, then the document would have stated as such. However, this was not explicitly stated in the Act under section 24 and so women were not considered qualified persons.
Following the three-reason basis for rejection, there was an appeal to the Privy Council. The appeal ended with the Privy Council deciding in 1929 that the specification of the meaning of “person” was not clear. That lead to work for a better understanding of the word “person.” Keep in mind, this is history and the lifeline of gender equality in Canadian society through the British North America Act based on not a statement but a word: “person.”
What is a person? How does a person exist in theory? What is the relation between a physical biological real person with thoughts, feelings, and targeted objectives, and the law or the theory? How does sex – mostly – dimorphism fit into this for men and women under the status of a person? Why should this matter in a democracy (can’t we simply have a plutocratic polyarchic patriarchy)?
Words matter. To paraphrase Margaret Atwood, a word after a word after a word is a bunch of words; each needs a definition. Those definitions give the power and the force, especially regarding the law of the land and this Act in particular. Thus, the British North America Act was given a wider umbrella of definition. Within this greater definition, we find women as persons within the Act and equals in this particular instance with yet still more work to be done for the equality.
After this point in 1930, we find Cairine Reay Wilson appointed as the first woman in the Senate. Neat, huh?
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Image Credits: Pixabay