Following last week’s light hearted look at marriage proposals, I found myself exploring the whole question of property, wages, suffrage and marriage in Canada. I got mad! Then, this morning the CBC news announced that women’s income compared to their male counterparts is, in fact, going backward. In 2015 women earned 72¢ for every $1.00 earned by men. In 2009 the number was 75¢.
Why? Because “women’s work” is paid on a lower scale than “men’s work” and because women provide the majority of unpaid labour in our society. For centuries women have petitioned, marched, struck, gone to jail and appealed to the courts to redress the unequal treatment of the sexes. A few months ago Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed a gender-balanced Cabinet because, he famously announced, “it’s 2015.”
Yet, here we are in 2016 and the problem of disparity persists. Hardly surprising since, for centuries the subservient position of women was legislated in the law of the land.
For example, a married woman in pre-Confederation Canada in 1859 could own property, but she could not sell it without her husband’s consent. In 1871 Manitoba passed a law “allowing” a woman to keep her property, but her wages belonged to her husband.
Perhaps the most ludicrous example of this type of thinking was the question of whether women were “persons under the law.”
In 1876 a British common law ruling stated that “women are persons in matters of pains and penalties, but are not persons in matters of rights and privileges.” Nice eh? Women can go to jail but they can’t go to parliament. Since Canada’s law is founded on English law, the ruling applied here too.
1883 Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald introduced a bill into parliament to grant the right to vote to unmarried women and widows provided they owned property. The bill failed.
In 1885 The Dominion Franchise Act defined an eligible voter as a male person. It also included the proviso that , “a man can vote if he or his wife own property; she is responsible for the property tax.” Here we go again. She pays the penalties (taxes) he gets the privileges.
During the decade 1890-1900, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and Quebec all introduced bills giving women the vote in provincial elections. The bills were all defeated.
The situation came to a head in 1917 when Emily Murphy, a qualified lawyer, was denied a position on the bench because her opposition claimed she was not a “legally defined person.” It is this moment that galvanizes Murphy and her supporters into ultimately forming the “famous five.”
In August, 1927 Emily Murphy, invited four women, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards and Louise Crummy McKinney, to her house to consider petitioning the Supreme Court for a decision on the question of whether women are persons according to the British North America Act of (1867).
When they brought their case, the government petitioned the Supreme Court of Canada to answer the question, “Does the word ‘persons’ in Section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867, include female persons?” The case was argued on March 14, 1928, Emily Murphy’s 60th birthday.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a woman is not a “qualified person.”
In 1929 , Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards and Louise Crummy McKinney , took their case to The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England (Canada’s final Court of Appeal at the time). The Privy Council overturned the decision of the Canadian Supreme Court and recognized Canadian women as “persons” under the law.
Finally, we got the “rights and privileges” of a citizen, not just the “pains and penalties!”
But women must keep vigilant. As one court rules in our favour, another may rule against. Given that we have centuries of a patriarchal system as our heritage, women’s rights is “new” in our culture. It is fragile and must be nourished. Yesterday was International Women’s Day. It is telling that we still need a “day.”
Let us honour our foremothers by keeping vigilant, by shining a light on inequality, and by performing our civic duties with diligence and gratitude.