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Five Women Who Should Be Household Names in Canada

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The year 2016 marks a century since women in Canada first got the right to vote and so it seems like a fine time to celebrate the achievements of Canadian women. Here at the Museum we share the stories of many Canadian women who have fought for human rights. Some of them are very well-known, like Buffy Sainte Marie and Malala Yousafzai (a honourary Canadian citizen) while others aren’t as famous, but really should be. Today’s blog is all about these less famous women – women who should be household names in Canada.

5) Nellie McClung:

A black and white image of Nellie McClung sitting at a desk. She is wearing a white blouse and holds a pen in her hand. On the desk there is a lamp, an inkwell and some paper.
Nellie McClung working at her desk. Photo: Glenbow Archives NA1641-1

Since this is the centenary of women winning the vote in Canada, it’s fitting we start this list with someone who played a leading role in that struggle. Nellie McClung was instrumental in helping Manitoba become the first Canadian province to give women the vote in 1916. But that is only the tip of the iceberg – McClung never stopped advocating for the rights of Canadians and worked all her life as an activist, an author and a politician. Perhaps most famously, McClung was one of the “Famous Five” – a group of women who convinced the courts to finally recognize women as persons under the law in 1929.

McClung is one of the 12 women featured in our Let them Howl outdoor exhibit and is also a part of our Geo-Connections game that you can play online.

4) Viola Desmond:

A head-and-shoulder portrait of a smiling Viola Desmond. She is wearing a light blue jacket with embroidered patterns on it. The jacket is held together at the collar by a large pin in the shape of a hand making a “V for victory” symbol with its first two
Viola Desmond. Photo: courtesy of Joe and Wanda Robson.

When people think of segregation – the enforced separation of racial groups – they usually think of the United States and the civil rights movement let by Martin Luther King. But segregation happened in Canada, too – and Desmond was one of the first people to challenge it. In 1946, Desmond – a Black Nova Scotian and a beautician – was already a business leader in her community in Halifax. Then, in that same year, she refused to leave a whites-only section of a movie theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia and was arrested as a result. She appealed the arrest and lost her case, but her courageous stand inspired future civil rights activism across Canada.

3) Marina Nemat:

Marina Nemat smiles and stands beside a large digital display screen. She is wearing a red jacket and is looking directly at the photographer. The screen features a picture of people sitting on steps in front of large stone columns.
Marina Nemat visited her exhbit at the Museum in November 2014. Photo: Lyle Stafford/CMHR

Imagine being imprisoned and tortured for speaking out against your government.  For Marina Nemat, there was no need to imagine – in 1979, when she was only sixteen years old, she was arrested by the Iranian government. She spent more than two years in Evin prison, where she was tortured and very nearly executed. In 1991, Nemat emigrated to Canada and eventually decided to speak out about her experience. She has written two books – Prisoner of Tehran and After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed and now regularly speaks out against torture at high schools, universities and conferences around the world.

2) Huberte Gautreau:

A head-and-shoulders image of Huberte Gautreau. She is sitting in a chair, wearing a shawl and looking at someone who is out of the frame.
Huberte Gautreau during an interview she conducted with the Museum.

A Francophone Acadian who grew up in the tiny New Brunswick village of Pré-d’en-Haut, Huberte Gautreau would grow up to travel the world fighting for the rights of women and communities.  Gautreau became a nurse and fought for health and human rights in many countries, such as the United States, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon and Peru.  She always focused on vital issues such as sanitation, clean water, education and women’s equality.  Here in Canada, Gautreau has also been very active.  Among other achievements, she helped establish a shelter for battered women and counselled people about sexual and gender harassment in her home province of New Brunswick. Today, she continues to work for the rights of women and others.

1) Jaime Black:

Six red dresses are suspended in air on hangers in front of a backdrop. The backdrop features an image of a birch wood forest with more red dresses hanging in it.
The REDress Project in the Canadian Journeys gallery at the Museum. Photo: Ian McCausland/CMHR

Her name isn’t a household name yet, but her powerful art is becoming very well known. Black is the artist behind The REDress Project, a work that focuses around the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. The Project has collected hundreds of red dresses by community donation and installed them in public spaces across Canada as a visual reminder of the numerous women who have died or disappeared. Several of these dresses have been installed at the Museum and it has become one our most talked-about exhibits. These dresses are sparking countless conversations about missing and murdered Indigenous women. These are conversations that Canadians need to have – and Jaime Black’s artwork is helping move the dialogue forward.

So there you have it – five women that should be household names in Canada. If we all go home and work these inspiring women into our conversations with friends and family, soon they will be household names.  But there’s no reason to stop there – there are many other amazing women in Canada and from around the world who are working for human rights. Which ones will inspire you?

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