Why Do We Celebrate Women’s History in October?
By Elena Kingsbury, Senior Educator
Did you know that until October 18, 1929, women were not legally considered “people” in Canada, and consequently did not have the right to hold public office in the House of Commons or the Senate? The historic decision to recognize the personhood of (some) women in 1929 meant that they could no longer be excluded from public and political life in Canada.
This decision was the result of the tireless efforts of a group of exceptional women activists from Alberta, known today as the “Famous Five,” consisting of Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby, and Henrietta Muir Edwards. Heavily involved in social and political reform movements of their time, these women came together in 1927 to challenge the interpretation of the word “persons” in the British North America (BNA) Act, enacted in 1867. After their claim was initially rejected by the Supreme Court of Canada, they took their case to the highest court of Appeal, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, England, where they proved successful.
This landmark decision advanced gender equality in Canada in an important way. With time, we have also come to recognize that this progress was incomplete and informed by the racism and Eurocentrism of its time, attitudes sometimes reflected in the works of the “Famous Five” themselves. Today, many recognize the legacy of these early feminist activists is complex, tarnished by their associations with the eugenics movement; specifically, their support of laws that led to the forced sterilization of thousands of people, a disproportionate number of whom were Indigenous women.
In the early 20th century, women of non-white backgrounds often faced racial barriers to voting. Black Canadians of either gender did not gain the right to vote until 1917, when Black servicemen and their spouses were enfranchised during the First World War. In the case of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit women, barriers to voting rights were not totally dismantled until 1960.
This October, as we celebrate the women who have impacted Canadian history, let us also reflect on the intersection of race, class, and gender in shaping their stories. By doing so, we can better understand how our multifaceted identities inform our collective reality and work towards a more equitable future for all Canadians.
1. Who is the most influential/inspiring woman you know? Explain.
2. This year’s theme, Through Her Lens: Celebrating the Diversity of Women, emphasizes the importance of recognizing the achievements and contributions of women from diverse backgrounds. It focuses on the unique perspectives, experiences, and challenges faced by Indigenous women; women from 2SLGBTQI+ communities; and newcomer, racialized, and migrant women. Can you think of anyone you want to celebrate who might fit into one of these categories? What is their story?
3. What do you think the word “intersectionality” means? As a class, discuss the word (expect limited familiarity with the term and as a prompt to illustrate the concept, draw two lines intersecting: one labeled “race,” one labeled “gender”). Either provide or have students research the definition following the initial discussion. Ask students to consider why we should talk about intersectionality when it comes to Women’s Heritage Month.
4. How do you think social media/online cultural trends impact women today? How do they impact men?
Activity #1: Spotlight on Women of Impact
The government of Canada has created meaningful online resources for Canadians to learn more about Women’s History Month. Women of Impact in Canada is an online gallery dedicated to women's achievements, featuring profiles of courageous women who have broken boundaries in politics, the arts and sciences, and many other fields. Divided into five key categories (STEM, Arts, Politics, Human Rights, Trailblazers), the gallery contains the biographies of 170 exceptional women from Canada’s past and present. The website also contains an interactive map that allows you to visualize the geographic representation of the women featured, as well as timelines, and a detailed Educators Guide.
Ask students to select a Woman of Impact to present to the rest of the class by creating an informative and creative poster to display in your classroom “gallery.” Alternative ideas could include having students give a short PowerPoint presentation or write a speech about their selected figure. They could even create a short video clip. Regardless of format, ask your students to include information that answers the following questions:
1. Who was the woman? (Include her name, important parts of her background/identity that helped shape her path in life, year she was born, etc.)
2. What was her contribution to Canada/the world? (Identify which category her work belongs to, what she achieved).
3. What obstacles did she face on her journey?
4. How did she overcome the obstacles?
5. Why should we learn about this woman today? Why is her work significant? How did she change the world?
6. Any other interesting facts/details that you think should be included?
We also encourage you to use the interactive map during this exercise, perhaps by having students focus on a geographic region of the country outside of their own. You could ask students to select a biography of a woman from one of the northern territories, for example.
Activity #2: Oral History Interview
Ask students to engage with their community by becoming local historians. Their task is to identify a local woman who has contributed to their community in some way and interview that person, recording them with audio/video if possible. This could be a family member, someone from the community (volunteer, a coach, etc.), or a woman working in a field you admire (a doctor or engineer, for example). When possible, have the interview subject share documents relating to her story (photos, certificates, anything else that may be relevant).
Make sure students include the following information to include in your classroom oral history database:
1. Date of interview
2. Location of interview
3. Name of interview subject
4. Date and location of birth for interview subject
5. Job title of interview subject
6. Reason you chose to interview your person
7. Point form description of what topics are covered in the interview
8. Copies of photos/documents when possible