Women’s equality has come a long way and we’re not finished yet

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Congratulations to Shari Graydon, member of the Canadian Women’s Health Network’s Expert Review and Advisory Committee (ERAC), for receiving a Governor General’s award in Commemoration of the Persons Case (October 2007) for her advocacy work as President of MediaWatch and the Women’s Future Fund. 

This prestigious award honours individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the advancement of women, and commemorates the “Famous Five” -- Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby and Nellie McClung – who, in 1929, fought and won the right for women to be recognized as persons under the law (and, therefore, eligible to sit in the Senate).


John F. Kennedy once noted, “Things do not happen. They are made to happen.”

Every October 18th  in Canada we celebrate a classic example of that truth: the Persons Case.

Eight decades ago, five feminist activists from Alberta appealed a decision by the Supreme Court of Canada that women were not persons under the law. On October 18th, 1929, England’s Privy Council overturned the decision.

The Canadian government didn’t easily decide to declare women persons, grant us the vote, or bring in laws to prevent employers from firing us once we got married. Women themselves made those equality gains happen, just as they continue to today: sacrificing time and income to make sexual assault and divorce laws fairer, to improve the matrimonial rights of Aboriginal women, to secure maternity benefits and fair pay.

In the ’60s, women fought to ensure that we’d have legal access to birth control. In the ’80s we fought to make it a criminal offense for a man to rape his wife. And as recently as 2005, we fought to prevent the use of sharia law in this country.

Canada enjoys a reputation around the world for its leadership in equality rights. But that leadership owes much to the research and advocacy work of women – work that last year the federal government decided it would no longer support. As a result, many of the organizations that have made equality happen for Canadian women are threatened with closure, and some have already succumbed.

My own volunteer work in pursuit of greater equity for women is made possible by privilege. I donate time and money to advocacy work because I can. I am not a single mother struggling to feed my kids on minimum wage. I am not an immigrant woman dependent for my citizenship status on a man who beats me. I am not a sex trade worker for whom a life on the streets is preferable to the abuse I suffered at home.

I am white, able-bodied, educated, childless and married to a successful professional. I have connections, well-paid work and leisure time. Space has often been made for my voice. I am the kind of woman who people point to as evidence that the women’s movement is no longer necessary. But I am not remotely representative.

On paper, in law, women’s equality has come a long way. But many women have yet to realize the same opportunities afforded me, and many inequities remain. Here are just a few of the changes that I and many other women believe are necessary for Canada to truly deserve its reputation:

We’d like the words of our national anthem to include us. We’d like daughters to be as cherished as sons, and raised as if they might one day fly to the moon or run the country. We’d like it to be unthinkable for a lingerie company to promote thong underwear and push-up bras to seven year olds. And we’d like the news coverage of violence against women to challenge, not perpetuate, rape myths.

We dream about a time when women can “take back the night” the other 364 days a year... When we have more chance of winning the lottery than being murdered by our spouse.  When the conviction rate for sexual assault is high enough to deter men from pretending that “no” means “knock her unconscious first.” 

We’re aiming for the day when menstruation is once again viewed as an affirmation of women’s amazing capacity to perpetuate the species, and not as a troublesome condition in need of suppression. We’d like pharmaceutical companies to invest more in the development of a form of birth control that men can use, and less on marketing anti-depressants to women. And now that the unnecessarily high rate of C-sections has been so well-documented, we’d like to see the interventionist trend in maternity care reversed.

We’d like the picture of Canadian power to look more like us, in all our diversity… For women to be equally represented in Parliament, not lagging behind Rwanda and Iraq with only with 21% of MPs. We believe that if women were actively recruited, supported, and allowed to run in ridings where they had a genuine chance of winning, then maybe our governments would get tough on the roots of social problems, not on the symptoms of crime.

Certainly the degree to which our collective economic future depends on women’s willingness to sacrifice their physical and economic health to create future taxpayers would be clearer. The indispensability of a national childcare program would be a given, and fewer children would suffer from the constraints of poverty.

These changes would continue the tradition that the Famous Five began. And they would benefit all Canadians. Studies from around the world make it clear that economic prosperity and good health follow social equality. When women are educated, given genuine choice around childrearing and employment, treated with respect, paid fairly, and protected from violence, the entire society benefits.

We all have a vested interest in making it happen.