For International Women’s Day, we’re reflecting on integral women throughout our history to present day responsible for significant advancements in rights for Canadians. We celebrate these women trailblazers from a variety of disciplines including science, politics, business and education. There are a great many more we could add to the list – too many to name. But this list of inspirational Canadians will get you started!
Last month students, teachers and communities wore pink in support of bullying prevention. This month, we are all sporting a new colour…purple. International Women's Day is a global holiday recognized annually on March 8th. It’s a day to celebrate the contributions and achievements of women. There are several ways to honour this special day including donating to a special cause or charity, attending IWD events, and wearing purple of course. In honour of International Women’s Day, we are sharing the stories of important Canadian women from our past and present to help shape our future.
Seven Historic Women Who Advocated Rights for Canadians
Jennie Trout of Stratford and Toronto, Ontario, 1841-1921 and Emily Stowe of Woodstock and Toronto, Ontario, 1831-1903
After years of rejection and difficulty, Jennie Trout and Emily Stowe became the first women ever admitted to the Toronto School of Medicine in 1871. Both were subjected to intense harassment, and neither were able to get their degree. Trout eventually transferred to the Women’s Medical College in Pennsylvania, where she received her M.D. in 1875. Later that year, she passed the examinations of the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Ontario, becoming the first woman licensed to practice medicine in Canada. She remained the first licensed female doctor in Canada until Emily Stowe received her licence in 1880, after 10 years of publicly practicing medicine without a license. In addition to being the first female physician to practice in Canada, Emily Stowe was also the first female principal of a public school in Upper Canada when taking on an administrator role in Brantford, Ontario. There are two public elementary schools in her name in Norwich Township and Courtice, Ontario.
You might remember Jennie Trout from a Canadian Heritage moment.
Carrie Derick of Eastern Townships in Quebec, 1862-1941
Carrie Derick began teaching at the young age of 15 — and eventually became the founder of McGill University's genetics department! Derick graduated at the top of her class from McGill in 1890 and then attended the University of Bonn in Germany. At Bonn, she completed the research for a PhD, but the university did not give doctorates to women, and so she was not awarded the degree. Derick was an advocate for equality, saying: "We have come to the time when women's capacity to do anything well ceases to surprise," she said. "It is taken as a matter of course."
McGill hired her as an assistant professor — making one-third the salary of her male peers. She faced continued discrimination, but her Evolution and Genetics course was the first of its kind in Canada. McGill made her the first female professor emeritus in Canada.
Emily Murphy of Innisfil, Ontario and Edmonton, Alberta, 1868 - 1933
A great many rights many people take for granted only came into being for women after the 1900s. This included things like voting and property rights. Less than 100 years ago, women in Canada (and the British empire at large) were not considered “persons" under the law. In 1929, the law finally recognized women as people with legal rights, and much of this is thanks to Emily Murphy and the rest of the “Famous Five.”
Emily Murphy was fortunate to receive a formal academic education and attended Bishop Strachan School in Toronto, Ontario. She was later appointed as a magistrate in 1916, the first woman magistrate in both Canada and the British Empire. But after her first case, the prisoner's lawyer appealed her conviction, saying that the judgement was invalid because women were not legally persons. Women couldn’t be appointed as senators either, so she recruited four other women's rights activists to take the question first to the Supreme Court of Canada, then to Britain's Privy Council. Unfortunately, she didn't live to become a senator, but in 2009, she and the rest of the Famous Five were given the title of Canada’s first honorary senators.
Hide Hyodo Shimizu of Vancouver British Columbia and Nepean, Ontario, 1908-1999
Hide Hyodo Shimizu was one of the first Canadian-born children of Japanese immigrants to receive a teacher's certificate. She was also an advocate for enfranchisement of Asian immigrants and their Canadian-born children during WWII, when the government took their rights away. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Shimizu recruited 120 Japanese-Canadians (many who were still students themselves) and trained them to teach in the internment camps. About 3,000 children were able to continue their studies because of her and these teachers. In 1982, Shimizu was awarded the Order of Canada, and she challenged Canadians to keep telling these difficult parts of their country's history: "I am a Christian woman, so I have forgiven, but it is very difficult to forget."
Viola Desmond of Halifax, Novia Scotia, 1914-1965
Viola Desmond’s story is one that we told last month during Black History Month, but it’s well worth mentioning again! Not only did she fight one of the most significant civil-rights cases of the mid 20th century, she’s also the new face of Canada’s $10 bill. Be sure to read up more about Viola here.
Buffy Sainte-Marie of Piapot Indian Reserve No. 75 in the Qu'Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, 1941-
Buffy Sainte-Marie is a Cree singer-songwriter, artist, educator, and activist. She began performing in the mid-1960s and became known as a gifted songwriter. You’ve likely heard her songs, as many have been covered by other famous performers including Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Neil Diamond, and Barbra Streisand and her protest song Universal Soldier was an anthem for the anti-Vietnam-war movement. But Sainte-Marie has also worked throughout her life to teach people about indigenous cultures and appeared many times on Sesame Street. She also started the Cradleboard Teaching Project aimed at improving the self-identity of Indigenous children by giving enriching and accurate information. Sainte-Marie has received many awards and honors, and she is still making music today; her most recent album, Power in the Blood, received the 2015 Polaris Prize. Our tutoring team recommends looking out for Elizabeth MacLeod’s biography Meet Buffy Sainte-Marie to be released this spring.
Five Canadian Authors Paving the Way for Change
We have a bonus list of Canadian contemporary authors who have written wonderful books and insightful memoirs helping to elevate women in our country and around the world. Do be sure to check them out!
Susan Allen of Mississauga, Ontario – One of Canada's Top 100 Most Powerful Women and winner of Catalyst Canada's Business Leader Champion Award. She’s a dedicated champion and inspiring trailblazer for women in accounting and business. Susan helped lead the change for improved hiring, retention and promotion of women at PwC Canada during her leadership. She recently wrote a memoir with all proceeds being donated to charity, including a scholarship for young women in STEM programs. Be sure to check out, Count Me In: A Trailblazer's Triumph in a World Not Built for Her.
Margaret Atwood of Ottawa and Toronto, Ontario – Recipient of over 55 awards both in Canada and internationally and one of the most-honored authors of fiction alive for her many books such as The Handmaid’s Tale.
Dr. Rumeet Billan of Oakville, Ontario - The CEO and owner of Women of Influence is on a continuous mission to profile and spotlight women leaders. She is known for leading the national research study on Tall Poppy Syndrome. On top of her many accomplishments she authored a children’s book - Who Do I Want To Become? - that we profiled in Teachers on Call's Hooked on Books.
Julie Cole of Burlington, Ontario – Julie Cole is a self-proclaimed recovered lawyer, mom of six, and co-founder of multimillion-dollar business Mabel's Labels. She is now a best-selling author as well with her debut title Like a Mother: Birthing Businesses, Babies and a Life Beyond Labels. If you want to learn her secrets, you will need to read the book!
Danielle Saputo of Peterborough, Ontario – A legacy coach and family advisor who has written I Am Enough, a book with an important message to quiet the negative voice so we can each find our voice and pave our path forward. Her role as a professional coach is captured in the pages as she inspires others with her personal story.
Happy International Women's Day to all the Canadians who are celebrating and making a difference in their local communities, country and around the world to ensure gender equality.
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