Status of Women | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Status of Women

The first European expeditions that came to Canada to explore and trade for furs did not include women.

Early records of fur-trading companies suggest it was common for both French and English traders to enter into marriage with Indigenous women à la façon du pays - by a mix of European and Indigenous customs.

The Indigenous women who married fur traders provided an important link between the 2 cultures: the trader secured the trade of his wife's band or tribe and he learned from her survival skills, Indigenous customs and languages. Some Indigenous women acted as unpaid interpreters for fur-trading companies and achieved a good deal of importance. Such marital arrangements continued until missionaries and fur-trading companies actively discouraged them in the 19th century. In the early days of the fur trade, an Indigenous woman whose husband had left her would return to the tribe, but as the economic base of Indigenous life deteriorated, it became difficult for tribes to reabsorb women and their children. Their vulnerability was confirmed with the passage of the Indian Act in 1876. Indigenous women who married non-Indigenous men immediately lost their status and relinquished the right to live on reserves. Such discrimination, since Indigenous men marrying whites were not affected, was the source of great distress and ultimately political protest for Indigenous women.

French Colonization

A few French women arrived in New France beginning in the early 1600s. Their numbers remained small until 1663, when young women of marriageable age, known as Filles du Roi, were given free passage to New France and provided with a dowry. The majority of women in the colony, including widows, were quickly married. They were expected to bear and raise children for the colony, to care for their homes, cook, sew and garden. Early French Canadian records also indicate that it was not unusual for women to own property, run inns, keep books and generally manage the family business (see communauté des biens).

The resourcefulness and fortitude of these pioneers was exemplified by Agathe de Saint-Père, who took over the raising of 10 brothers and sisters when she was only 15 and continued her own business career after marrying at age 28. She had weaving looms installed in houses throughout Montréal and ran the cloth industry for 8 years until she retired and devoted herself to work at a Québec hospital.

Women in religious orders played a significant role in developing the early institutions of New France. Marguerite Bourgeoys founded the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, which opened its first school in 1658, and was active in the establishment of many more schools, including La Providence, an industrial school for girls. In 1753 Marie d' Youville was granted a Royal Charter for the Grey Nuns, Sisters of Charity. The Grey Nuns ran the Hôpital Général in Québec and became the most active order of nursing sisters in the hospital field (see Christian Religious Communities).

The British Period, 1713-1914

The predominantly rural nature of the BNA before 1850 had implications for the position of women in society. Settlement was characterized by small independent landholdings and the labour of women was crucial to the survival of the economic unit (see homesteading). Census figures for the 19th century indicate that more than 90% of female children born in any decade between 1810 and 1870 eventually married. Married women and their children worked as a production unit on the farm in the area immediately surrounding the house and outbuildings. Women produced a great deal of the goods that their families required: they tended livestock, managed the garden, preserved fruit and vegetables, spun yarn, wove cloth and sewed clothing. Accounts of 19th-century writers like Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill describe some of the work of women during this century (see pioneer life).

As the century progressed a number of trends converged to alter the traditional position of women in society. The agricultural unit was increasingly drawn into the money economy as demand increased for cash crops and as agricultural technology improved. Many necessities that had been produced on the farm were replaced by purchased goods. The mixed production characteristic of early landholdings gave way to more specialized agricultural production.

As there was less for children to do on farms and as urbanization progressed, children spent less time in productive work and more time at school. The tendency of these changes was also to diminish the involvement of women in agricultural and domestic production and to emphasize their role as one of service towards family members as they related to the larger society. More than city women, however, rural women found themselves still bound, albeit in fewer ways, to the pace and the needs of production.

The rapid growth of Women's Organizations by the end of the 19th century reflected the increasing politicization of women. Women's missionary societies were formed in most Canadian churches in the 1870s and 1880s; the first Canadian Young Women's Christian Association was founded in 1870; the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in 1874 (see Temperance Movement); the Dominion Order of King's Daughters in 1886; and women's organizations in Ontario and Manitoba formed the first suffrage associations in the 1880s and 1890s (see Women's Suffrage). By the end of the century a number of women's associations had achieved national stature and a federation of women's groups, the National Council of Women of Canada, was formed in 1893. The women who agitated for the vote were often those who had gone through a period of "apprenticeship" for political action in organizations that preceded the suffrage movement.

Despite vigorous debate on the advisability of educating female children, the percentage of girls attending school rose from 23.1% in 1842 to 75.6% in 1881 (see Women and Education). Female students who went on for training in normal schools could enter the paid labour force as teachers, the first of the so-called "female professions." By the final quarter of the century, women occupied the majority of teaching positions in Canada. Religious orders had provided nursing care for centuries, as they had played a significant role in teaching. Women had acted in a voluntary capacity as midwives in rural communities (see birthing practices), and the establishment of training schools for lay nurses after 1874 permitted graduates to find work as paid nurses. In 1875 Grace Annie Lockhart became the first woman to earn a university degree in Canada, at Mount Allison University. Emily Stowe, Canada's pioneering woman doctor, began to practise in 1867, although she had been obliged to take her medical training in the US. Clara Brett Martin became the first Canadian woman lawyer in 1897.

Industrialization was given a boost in Canada after Sir John A. MacDonald introduced his National Policy of protective tariffs in 1879. Girls and women moved to the towns and cities looking for work, and many found jobs in sweatshops and factories. Garment and textile industries in particular hired large numbers to labour in factories or to do piecework in small shops or at home (see Women in the Labour Force). Though poorly paid, factory work did provide women with more freedom than traditional work in domestic service and on farms.

The demand for household servants continued throughout the 19th century and immigration policies encouraged women to come to Canada in domestic service. By 1891 census figures reflected the entrance of women into the economy as paid workers. Almost 196 000 women had jobs, and they represented 11.07% of the labour force. The jobs they held were predominantly in low-paying "female" occupations: domestic service (41%), dressmaking, teaching, sewing, tailoring, housekeeping, laundering, millinery and salesclerking.

Canada remained a predominantly rural nation until after WWI, but the manufacturing sector was growing in importance, and with it the service-producing sector, whose operation required large numbers of office workers. Between 1901 and 1911 the female labour force increased by 50%, particularly in occupations such as clerk, typist and salesclerk. Female pay was regularly 50-60% of male pay and in 1907 the National Council of Women adopted a resolution calling for "equal pay for equal work." Owing to the prevailing ideology of separate spheres for men and women, of the male breadwinner and of woman's place in the home, it was mostly single women who held jobs in the prewar years; other women who took paid work were considered "unfortunates" - widows, divorcées, deserted or separated women or wives of the unemployed.

1914 to 1945

During WWI women were brought into the labour force as new jobs were created and as men left their jobs to join the armed forces. Most found familiar jobs as secretaries, clerks, typists and factory workers. For the first time, however, many women worked in heavy industry, particularly the munitions industry, where by 1917 there were 35 000 women employed in munitions factories in Ontario and Montréal. Most of the women who worked during the war were unmarried. Although their wages increased during the war years, they never equalled men's; in the munitions factories women's wages were 50-80% of those paid men. Despite the movement of women into a few new areas of the economy, domestic service remained the most common female occupation.

The war effort increased women's political visibility. Women's organizations had supported the war effort by recruiting women to replace men in the domestic labour force and by collecting massive amounts of comforts for Canadian troops.

A Women's War Conference was called by the federal government in 1918 to discuss the continuing role of women, who took the opportunity to raise a number of political issues, including suffrage. Suffrage movements had been gaining strength since the turn of the century, particularly in the West, and in 1916 Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta had given women the provincial vote; Ontario and BC followed in 1917. On 24 May 1918 the Parliament of Canada bestowed the federal franchise on women, and by 1922 women had the provincial vote in all provinces except Québec. In the early 1920s the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom was formed in Canada in order to work for peace and disarmament.

In 1919 women were granted the right to hold political office in Parliament, and in 1921 Agnes MacPhail was the first woman to be elected as a federal member. In 1929, 5 Alberta women led by Judge Emily Murphy successfully brought the Persons Case before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England with the result that women in Canada became eligible for senatorial appointment.

Cutbacks and layoffs of women took place in the years immediately following the war, but by the 1920s women had re-established their wartime levels of labour-force involvement. Some new "female" professions, such as library work, social work (see Charlotte Whitton) and physiotherapy were emerging, but the most rapidly growing occupations were clerical. Domestic service remained the most common paid occupation of women, but for the first time in the century the percentage of women working as domestics fell below 20%. Women were entering universities in large numbers and, by 1930, 23% of all undergraduates and 35% of all graduate students were female. The Great Depression reversed this trend and in the 1930s many women were forced back into domestic service. Federal employment figures show that even in the garment industry, a longtime employer of women, they were being laid off at a higher rate than men.

Canada entered WWII with a high level of unemployment, but by 1942 the government was facing a labour shortage. With the help of 21 national women's organizations, a federal National Selective Service program was launched to recruit women into the industrial labour force. The program first sought to register only single women for employment, but continuing labour shortages forced it to recruit childless married women and finally married women with children. As an enabling measure, federal-provincial child-care agreements were drawn up, eventually leading to the establishment of 28 day nurseries in Ontario and 5 in Québec. Large numbers of married women joined the paid work force for the first time, and by 1945, 33.2% of all women were employed (see Canadian Women's Army Corps).

1945 to the Present

After WWII women were expected and, in the case of federal government employees, required to relinquish their jobs to returning servicemen. The day nurseries were closed, many women returned to the home, often to have children, and by 1946 the rate of women's participation in the labour force had dropped to Depression levels. The patterns of married employment had been established, however, and married women began entering the labour force in such numbers that by the 1960s they made up one-third of the labour force and represented 55% of the labour-force growth. Despite their numbers, the earnings of working women continued to be significantly lower than those of men: in 1961 earnings of women employed full-time, year-round, were 59% of the earnings of men in the same categories; when part-time workers were added, women's wages dropped to 54% of men's.

This phenomenon could be partially attributed to limitations in federal legislation governing equal pay and to a lack of enforcement of its provisions because women were paid less than men on the average even when they did the same work. Full-time female clerical workers earned 74% of the wage of male clerical workers in 1961. The situation was more clearly attributable to the different occupational structures for men and women: men were more likely to work in unionized occupations, to be employed in highly paid professions, and they held 89.7% of all proprietorial and managerial positions. Women remained locked into "female" occupations, predominantly clerical. Over 20% of the female labour force still worked in personal service jobs as maids and babysitters, and those women in professions tended to be dieticians and librarians rather than doctors and lawyers.

Women in the 1960s remained under-represented in political institutions, faced the quota system in some universities, and were generally subject to a range of discriminatory policies and legislation in both the public and private sectors. By the end of the decade the burgeoning Women's Movement voiced protest in the form of women's centres, consciousness-raising groups and rape crisis centres.

As a response to the issue of equality for women, a Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada was established in 1967. In 1970 the commission presented its report, making 167 recommendations on such matters as employment, educational opportunities and family law. The publication of the report, the continued proliferation of women's organizations, and the establishment of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women as a lobby group ensured that the political visibility of women's issues continued into the 1970s.

Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada

The federal government responded by creating new offices and procedures to deal with women's rights: a portfolio for the status of women in the federal Cabinet (1971); an Office of the Co-ordinator of the Status of Women to monitor the progress of all federal ministries in implementing the RCSW's recommendations (1971); an Office of Equal Opportunities in the Public Service Commission (1972); and an Advisory Council on the Status of Women (1973). Certain federal statutes were amended to remove sections that were discriminatory to women - in particular, the Canada Labour Code (1971); sections of the Criminal Code pertaining to jury duty (1972); the Public Service Superannuation Act (1975); a Federal Omnibus Bill on the Status of Women containing amendments to 11 statutes (1975); the Citizenship Act (1975); and an Omnibus Bill to amend the Labour Code (1978).

In 1978 the Canadian Human Rights Act came into effect prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex (among other things) in the case of employees under federal jurisdiction. The Act contains provisions to ensure "equal pay for work of equal value," specifying that "value" should be determined with reference to skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions. A Woman's Program was established within the Secretary of State and began to make money available for special projects of women's centres, rape crisis centres, women's research programs and professional associations, and transition houses for physically abused women.

By the mid-1980s women in Canada still did not have equality. Although women were 45% of the work force, full-time female employees earned 72% of that earned by men. Sixty percent of workers earning less than $10 000 a year were women.

Women's gains were in higher-paying professional occupations, such as dentists and doctors at 26% (1993), and middle administrative jobs at 42% (1993) up from 18% (1982). But women still earned considerably less than men at every level regardless of age or education. Only one in 5 workers earning more than $100 000 were women (1989).

In 25% of families women earned more than their husbands, more than double the number in 1970. In one out of 5 couples the woman was the breadwinner, up from one in 50 in 1967, but her salary averaged out at 30% less than that of her unemployed husband (1995).

In 1991, 68% of mothers with children under 6 were in the labour force, up from 52% in 1981. Only 10% of children whose mothers worked full-time were in subsidized licensed day care (1991). Even in dual earner families women spent an average of 14 hours a day on paid and unpaid work. For the first time in the history of Canada, unwaged work, performed mostly by women in the home, was counted in the census.

One in 4 four women worked part-time, generally in low paid, nonunionized, service-oriented jobs without benefits (1993). Because many women with small children drop out while their children are small and then opt for part-time work, they and their children often end up living in poverty. Sixty percent of single mothers live below the poverty level.

Although the rate of poverty in Canada among single mothers was the second highest among comparable industrial countries such as France, German and Sweden, except for the US, which was higher, the idea of "workfare" for welfare mothers was introduced in the mid-1990s in BC, Alberta and Ontario. Even for working mothers, maternity leave and day care were far less generous in Canada than in most comparable industrial countries, with the exception of the US.

Family allowance , which began in 1945, was de-indexed in the 1990s and phased out completely in 1992, leaving Canada as the only modern industrial nation without either a tax concession or universal family allowance, or both, for children. (For example, France's family allowance was 6 times more generous than Canada's.)

In the 1970s every province passed Family Law Reform acts which ensured that assets accumulated during marriage, including pensions, would be split on divorce. In the 1980s equality pay laws were passed federally and provincially, but most of them have been ineffective and weakly enforced.

Still, 3 out of 4 women over the age of 65 who live alone live below the poverty level. One in 8 Canadian women were battered by the men they lived with and one in 3 females sexually molested before the age of 16.

Women's groups fought hard to ensure that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the Canadian Constitution of 1982 enshrined equality for both sexes, and it has been effective in striking down discriminatory laws, particularly Canada's abortion law in 1988. But many controversial issues affecting the status of women - abortion, pornography, equal pay and pensions - remain unsolved. In 1997 the United Nations ranked Canada first in the world as a desirable country in which to live; however, Canada dropped to seventh when gender equality was factored into the equation.

See also History of Childhood; Family; Housework; Social History.

National Action Committee on the Status of Women

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