International Women’s Day celebrates the achievements of women and provides an opportunity to look back at the evolution of women’s rights, including about voting, holding political office and owning property.
Today is International Women’s Day, celebrated around the world each year on March 8th.
The United Nations writes this is “a day when women are recognized for their achievements without regard to divisions, whether national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic or political.” The day has been celebrated in some form and by some countries since 1909 though the United Nations began celebrating March 8th in 1975.
In Canada today, equality among genders is protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Human Rights Act, and other provincial and territorial human rights laws. But it wasn’t always so. Let’s look back at how women’s rights have evolved in Canada when it comes to voting, holding political office and owning property.
In the 1700s and 1800s, some women in Canada could vote if they met certain criteria, including owning property of a certain value. However, provincial and federal legislation in the 1800s took away many of these rights, including the British North America Act which only allowed British male subjects 21 years and older to vote.
Starting in January of 1916, Manitoba was the first province granting women the right to vote in provincial elections. Saskatchewan and Alberta followed that same year while British Columbia and Ontario followed in 1917. The rest of the provinces followed over the next several years, or as they came into existence. Quebec did not grant women the right to vote until 1940.
The right to vote in federal elections took a few more years and complications. On September 20, 1917, during the First World War, The Wartime Elections Act granted certain women the right to vote in federal elections. Women had to be the wife, widow, mother, sister or daughter of a person in the naval or miliary forces serving with Canada or Great Britain. Women also had to be a British subject and qualify as to age, race and residence.
On that same day, the Military Voters Act granted the right to vote to female British subjects who were on active service for Canada (including non-residents and “Indians”) or for Great Britain or an ally (only if they were resident in Canada, including “Indians”). These war-time voting rules applied only until demobilization of the relevant military personnel (i.e. the male relative or female on active service).
Women’s broader right to vote federally didn’t happen until January 1, 1919, when An Act to confer the Electoral Franchise upon Women took effect. At this time, 21-year-old British females who also met the qualifications required of male voters could vote in federal elections.
Indigenous women (and men) under Canada’s Indian Act did not get the right to vote without having to give up their status until July 1, 1960, when changes to the Canada Elections Act and the Indian Act took effect. From 1876 until that time, those with Indian status could vote if they gave up their status. ”Voluntary enfranchisement” required an “Indian” to apply for the right to vote, though the process favored those with university educations and included a 3-year ”probationary Indian” phase for others.
Holding political office
The right to vote and the right to hold political office are separate. Women received the right to run as a member of the House of Commons in 1919. However, women could participate in provincial, municipal, and other political offices before that. Women did not get the right to become a senator until 1929 following the Persons Case.
The Persons Case, as it is commonly referred to, was a challenge by the Famous Five female activists to the Canadian government to decide whether ”persons” in the British North America Act included women. The Supreme Court of Canada said it did not. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain – the court of last appeal in Canada until 1949 when the Supreme Court of Canada became the top court – overturned that decision.
Fun facts: In 1894, Maria Grant was the first woman to hold a public office in Canada when she ran for a school board. In 1921, Agnes Macphail was the first woman voted in as a Member of Parliament. On February 15, 1930, Cairine Wilson was the first woman to become a senator in Canada.
In 1884, Ontario was the first province to give married women the same legal rights as men to enter into agreements and buy property. Prior to this, unmarried women needed permission from their fathers and married women needed permission from their husbands. The rest of the provinces followed, including Manitoba in 1900, Alberta in 1922 and Quebec in 1964.
Fun fact: Alberta did not repeal its Married Women’s Act until late in 2018. The Act was short – only seven sections. The first section recognized a married women as having rights in property, debts, contracts, etc. as if she were an unmarried woman.
Rights versus experiences
While equality rights in Canada ensure all genders have the same legal rights, there are still differences in how women experience those rights.
For example, while women have equal opportunities to participate at work, they are more likely to need time away from work due to pregnancy or to deal with children or domestic responsibilities. This can leave them open to more discrimination in the workplace. In fact, the Alberta Human Rights Commission reports that 12% of human rights complaints received from April 2021 to March 2022 were related to gender, which includes pregnancy and sexual harassment.
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DISCLAIMER The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.