International Women’s Day is one of the few celebrations observed in Canada that is the product of dissident or reform movements. Its origins go back to 1909 when the American Socialist Party held an event honouring the 1908 garment worker’s strike in New York, where women protested against gruelling working conditions in the city’s factories. The following year there was a women’s conference in Copenhagen and from a motion by two German socialist women, International Women’s Day was declared.
The end of the year: a time when people reflect on the most significant developments in their field, and, honestly, on myriad unrelated occurrences and happenings as well. Where are we going and what have we done? This year, I think the conversation about literature in Canada belongs to Canada’s female readers and writers for a few key reasons.
Agnes Macphail began her career as a country schoolteacher. Interested in agricultural problems, she became a member and active spokesperson for the United Farmers of Ontario. Her move into politics stemmed from her desire to represent the farmers of her region. In 1919 women gained the right to run for Parliament, and Macphail was elected in 1921, the first federal election in which women had the vote.
“This application to the Law Society of Upper Canada is refused. The governing statute regulating this body, not having been drafted under the advanced views of the day and specifically referring to the admission of persons, does not permit the interpretation of ‘persons’ to include women.” This was the spirit of the reply to Clara Brett Martin’s application to study law in 1891.
Despite the rejection, Martin persisted. Optimistically, or perhaps naively, she appealed to what she considered the “broad spirit of liberality and fairness” characteristic of the legal profession. With the support of such influential people as Dr. Emily Stowe and Sir Oliver Mowat, Martin’s appeal led to the passage of a provincial act allowing women to become solicitors. She became a law student in 1893 and placed first in the examinations to become a solicitor.
The names of women are conspicuously absent from the lists of famous Canadian medical pioneers. During the 19th Century, while male physicians and surgeons were exploring new treatments and innovative medical procedures, Canadian women were struggling for the mere right to practice medicine. For them, acceptance into a medical school was a major achievement. The two women most responsible for breaking down the barriers and advancing medical training for women in Canada were Emily Stowe and Jennie Kidd Trout.