Exploring women’s rights and gender equality
If I were alive in Canada before 1929, I would not have been considered a person. “Persons” under the British North America Act referred only to men. In fact, a group of five women had to take this fight to the highest courts in the land before they finally achieved recognition as persons.
I am a Program Interpreter at the Museum and part of my job is to give guided tours. On International Women’s Day, I shared this story of the Famous Five – Nellie McClung, Henrietta Edwards, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy and Irene Palby – in front of the “We Are All Persons” exhibit alcove in the Canadian Journeys gallery. On this day, my tour focused exclusively on the stories of women working to advance human rights.
In 1927, the Famous Five petitioned the Supreme Court to decide whether “persons” included women. By this time, a woman had already been elected to the House of Commons, but the Senate was still closed to women because of the way the Canadian government interpreted “persons” under the British North America Act. The court unanimously ruled against the women. Undeterred, they appealed to the Privy Council of England, at the time the highest authority in the land. In 1929, the Famous Five won a momentous victory. The Privy Council declared Canadian women to be “persons” and eligible to become members of the Senate of Canada. These women are five faces of the struggle for gender equality in Canada.
Continuing through the Museum’s galleries, our tour stopped in the Stuart Clark Garden of Contemplation to take in the surroundings – the natural light beaming through the glass cloud, the basalt on the floor and surrounding the ponds, and the still water. Water reminds us of the foundational role that women play in Indigenous societies as keepers of the water. In many Indigenous communities, water is maternal: women are water-carriers and life-givers. Water is also the lifeblood of Mother Earth, ensuring life to all living things.
In the Actions Count gallery, we stopped at Ce qui nous voile – “What Veils Us”. In an effort to break down stereotypes, Quebec activist Andréanne Paquet created this photography exhibit, which features Muslim women from her home province sharing their stories of why they choose to wear the veil. In a video interview, one of the participants in the photography project, Dalila Awada, speaks about a powerful experience she had with a stranger. A person who is transgender approached her at the exhibit, and told her that he did not understand her exact experience as a Muslim woman – but he did understand discrimination. He understood how it felt to be judged, and to be excluded, and it was this shared understanding that inspired him to stand with Awada 1 against discrimination. This exhibit provides an opportunity for me to ask the people in my groups to reflect on our own individual identities, asking ourselves: how have I been affected by discrimination? By stereotypes? By exclusion? When have I been made to feel less than?
There is more work to do in the struggle to achieve gender equality in Canada. The women who have taken a stand against injustice can inspire each and every one of us. We can learn from their stories, and walk with them on the road to making gender equality a reality.
1 We interviewed Dalila Awada for Islamic History Month. (link: https://humanrights.ca/blog/islamic-history-month-interview-dalila-awada)