Canadian Women’s History

Before 1899:

Long before colonization: Aboriginal women had a voice in the decision-making process of their communities.  The Iroquois and the Mohawk, for example, were a matrilineal society, where property rights, inheritance, voting rights and even the arrangements of marriages were held and passed on through the elder women of the community.

1500’s:  Prior to the development of the capitalist labour market, the working-class was engaged in producing most of what it needed to consume.  In this structure the role of women was central to economic organization.  One of the few paid occupations available to women was that of domestic servant.

1750:  The textile industry was established in Quebec.  Women have always been a significant proportion of workers in the textile industry.

1791:  The Constitutional Act allowed all persons with property to vote. 

1849:  All Canadian women, regardless of race, religion or property rights, were banned from voting in all elections. 

1850:  The essential structure of a capitalist market (i.e. employers hire workers on a short term basis) existed.  Employers needed a surplus pool of labour so they used women, as well as immigrants, children and displaced land workers to draw on.

1858: Firstchild care centres are organized in Québec by the Grey Nuns.

1860’s:  Factory production based on machinery and unskilled labour (rather than production by skilled craft workers) became the more common organization of work.

1862:  MountAllisonUniversityin New Brunswickwas the first university to allow female students.

1863:  Unions formed the first Central Labour body – the Hamilton Trades Assembly, which lasted until 1875. 

1870:  The first woman was employed in the federal public service as deputy matron in Kingston Penitentiary.  In 1886 only 24 women held permanent status in the federal public service. 

1871:  More than 50% of the light manufacturing workforce (shoemaking, printing, tobacco) were women and children.

1872:  Ontariopassed legislation permitting women to earn wages free of their husband’s control.  To appeal for the workers’ votes, the Conservative government legalized unions (but not the actions of unions).

1877:  Emily Stowe established the Women’s Literacy Club, primarily a consciousness-raising group which was a forerunner of women’s suffrage organizations.

1880’s:  Women and children became direct economic competitors of men which resulted in a rallying cry of economic self-interest from men steeped in sexism and racism.  The tactics enjoyed considerable success.

1881:  The first Canadian Assembly of Knights of Labour was formed in Hamilton.  The Knights organized skilled and unskilled workers – male and female, and were the forerunner of the industrial Unions.

1882:  The Toronto Trades and Labour Council supported equal pay for equal work.  Leona Barry, General Investigator of Women’s Work for the Knights of Labour, came to Torontoto investigate the working conditions of women and to help organize them.

1882:  Women shoemakers in Torontowent on strike against 5 factories, supported by male unionists.

1884:  The Ontario Factories Act was passed, with specific sections relating to female employees including restriction of 60 hours/week; efficient sanitary conditions; seats for sales clerks; minimum working age of 14 years; and women prohibited from working in and around mines.

1886:  The Hope Assembly Knights of Labour was the first local with an entirely female membership.

1891:  41% of women in the labour force were employed as domestics.  The most common occupations for women were all traditional homemaker type jobs – servants, dressmakers, seamstresses, etc.

1897:  Clara Brett Martin is the first women to practice law in Canadaand in the British Empire. 


1900:   Teaching was the only career open to women in Canadathat led to a pension.

1901:  Women made up 13.4% of the total (paid) labour force.  The marriage “bar” was in operation – women were legally required to resign upon marriage. 

1904:  Montrealbookbinders and male unionists led a strike to force employers to fire women.

1909:  The Trades and Labour Congress (TLC) supported women’s suffrage through the Women’s Labour League, made up of husbands and daughters of union members.  The League encouraged working women to join or form unions.

1909: The Criminal Code is amended to make illegal the “kidnapping of women”.

1911:  The CLC supports equal pay for equal work.

1912: For the first time, a woman is hired as a professor at a Canadian university.

1914-1918:  World War I – There was no significant increase in the number of women employed but there was a temporary influx and change in occupations away from domestic service.  Attitudes toward single women working outside the home became more favourable.  Women were employed in manufacturing on a mass scale for the first time, making munitions.

1916:  Women won the right to vote in provincial elections in Alberta, Manitobaand Saskatchewan.  This was followed by BC and Ontario(1917), Nova Scotia(1918), New Brunswick(1919), Prince Edward Island(1922), Newfoundland(1925) and Quebec(1940).

1916: Emily Murphy becomes this first woman judge in Canada.

1917: Albertabecomes the first province to set a minimum wage for women.

1918:  Canadian women (but not Aboriginal and Asian women) won the right to vote in federal elections.

1919:  In Winnipeg on May 15, a general strike commenced as 24,000 organized and unorganized workers join striking metal trades workers trying to achieve a wage increase and a nine-hour day, among other things.  The strikers were soon joined by thousands of workers in B.C., Albertaand Ontario, and returning soldiers who demanded an immediate settlement to the strike.  The state reacted by organizing a militia, ordering postal workers, police officers and firefighters back to work (or else!), and amending the Immigration Act to allow immediate deportation of the strike leaders.  The strike ended June 26th.  The participation of women, whose husbands, fathers and sons were on strike, was essential to the organization and maintenance of the General Strike. 

1919:  Women obtain the right to hold office in Canadian Parliament.

1921:  Women made up 15.4% of the paid labour force; 21% of women in the labour force worked as domestics.  B.C. passed legislation granting women 6 weeks maternity leave; the next Canadian jurisdiction to pass maternity leave was New Brunswickin 1964.

1921:  Agnes Campbell MacPhail was the first woman elected to the House of Commons.

1921:Nellie Mclung is elected to the Albertalegislature, where she works for pensions, family allowance and birth control.  

1925: The federal Divorce Act is modified to entitle women and men to divorce for the same reasons.  Previous to this, women had to prove “bestiality” on the part of their husbands. 

1929:  The British Privy Council overturned a Supreme Court of Canada decision and deemed women to be “persons” (and therefore eligible for appointment to the senate.)

1931:  Women made up 17% of the workforce.  During the depression, female workers who were protected by legislated minimum wages were replaced by boys.  However, most female workers were not eligible for relief (a form of social assistance).

1932:  The Nova Scotiaand Ontario Executive Committees of the CLC called for government to dismiss married women whose husbands were employed.

1932: Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw establishes the first family planning clinic in Canada, in violation of the legislation of the day.

1939 – 1945:  World War II.  To encourage women to join the labour force, child care centres and tax incentives were provided (they disappeared at the end of the war).  Although many jobs previously done by men were now done by women, any modification to equipment or organization of work was used as an argument to say that work was no longer the same, therefore not equal, thus pay differentials continued.

1940: Women obtain the right to vote in Québec.

1941:  Women made up 19.9% of the workforce.

1941: Québec allows women to practice law.  

1943: Women enter the paid labour force in massive numbers in jobs traditionally held by men.

1947: Canadian women who marry non-Canadian men no longer lose their citizenship.  

1948: The United Nations National Assemble adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”


1951: Ontarioadopts the country’s first pay equity legislation.

1952: Women in Manitobaare the first to be entitled to be a jury member.

1955:  Restrictions on married women holding federal civil service jobs were finally abolished.

1955: Women from Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobagoand other Caribbeancountries are recruited as domestics and received immigrant status.

1956:  Legislation was enacted guaranteeing equal pay for equal work within federal jurisdiction.

1959:  All provinces except Quebecand Newfoundlandhad equal pay for equal work legislation.

1960’s:The start of the Women’s Liberation Movement.  It consisted largely of white, well educated women who fought for reforms such as paid maternity leave, rape crisis centres, and changes to abortion laws.

1960:  Aboriginal women won the right to vote in federal elections (a right which had been granted to many other Canadian women in 1918) without having to abandon their Indian status.

1964:  Married women allowed to be jury members.

1964:  Women entitled to open a bank account without obtaining their husband’s signature.

1967: The Royal Commission on the Status of Women – chaired by Florence Bird- is created. 

1969: Social assistance introduced.

1969:  The CriminalCode is amended to legalize the distribution of information on methods of contraception and their prescription as well as sexual acts between two consenting members of the same sex.

1969:  The notion of “head of the family” is removed from the Québec Civil Code.

1970’s:  Two thirds of welfare recipients were women; women earned 57 cents to every dollar earned by men.

1970:   Jeannette Vivian Corbiere Lavell began a 15 year struggle to change the Indian Act to restore status and band membership rights to Aboriginal women who had lost those rights through marriage to non-Aboriginal men; the Indian Act was finally amended in 1985.

1970: The Canadian Psychiatric Association removes homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.

1970: Release of the Report from the Royal Commission on the Status of Women which reveals disturbing findings on the discrimination faced by women.

1971: Manitobano longer fires women municipal employees who marry.

1971: Québec allows women to be jurors.  The Federal government modifies the Canada Labour Code to prohibit discrimination based on sex and to provide for seventeen weeks of maternity leave.

1971: Maternity benefits added to Unemployment Insurance.

1972: Rosemary Brown becomes the black woman elected as a Member of Parliament.    

1972: Launch of “The Other Woman” a feminist and lesbian magazine.

1972: Before this date, persons with disabilities in Albertawere routinely sterilized.   

1974: Studio D of t e National Film Board is launched.  First studio to focus on films about women.


1975:  Women earn 60 cents for every dollar earned by men.

1975: United Nationsdeclares the International Year of Women.

1975:  The Federal government modifies eleven pieces of legislation to bring them into conformity with equality principles by adding equal rights between men and women with respect to the federal pensions.

1977:  The Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA) was passed, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, and ensuring equal pay for work of equal value.

1978:  The Canada Labour Code was amended to eliminate pregnancy as a basis for lay-off or dismissal.

1978:Airline flight attendants gain the right to work after marriage and after they reach the age of 32. 

1980:  Clerical workers (PSAC) for the federal government went on strike for better provisions for time off for the care and nurturing of pre-school-age children, adoption leave and paid maternity leave. 

1980: In Nova Scotia, Alexa McDonough becomes the first woman to lead a provincial political party.

1982: The Canadian Charter of Rights is enacted.

1983: Rape laws are modified in order to include sexual aggression and to make illegal the rape of a wife by her husband.

1983:   The CHRA was amended to prohibit sexual harassment and to ban discrimination on the basis of pregnancy and family or marital status.

1984:  The Canadian Constitution was amended to affirm that Aboriginal and treaty rights are guaranteed equally to both men and women.

1985: Aboriginal women no longer lose their status of Registered Indian when they marry a non- Aboriginal.  However these rights are not extended to their children.

1986:  The federal Employment Equity Act was introduced, aimed at redressing historic and systemic discrimination of “target group” populations.  It applies to Crown Corporations and federally regulated business.

1987:  In the case of Bonnie Robichaud (PSAC member) against the Federal Government, the Supreme Court of Canada found that “employers are responsible for maintaining a harassment free work environment”.

1988:  Ethel Blondin-Andrew was the first Aboriginal woman elected to the House of Commons.

1988: The Supreme Court of Canada invalidates the Criminal Code sections with deal with abortion.

1989: Audrey McLaughlin, a Member of Parliament for the Yukon, is the first woman elected as Party Leader of a federal party.   

1989: Fourteen young students at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, are killed because their killer accuses them of being feminists. 

1990 – ;

1990:  In 1990 male managers earned an average salary of $48,137 while women managers earned an average salary of $27,707; men in teaching earned an average of $38,663 while women in teaching earned an average of $24,767;  men in sales earned an average of $27,825 while women in sales earned an average of $13,405;

1991:  The Federal Government declares December 6th as the National day of Commemoration to End Violence Against Women.

1993: Canadian RefugeeGuidelines are modified to cover women who are persecuted because of their gender.   

1995:  Women made up almost half the labour force.

1995:  Gender-based analysis of legislation and policies was adopted by the federal government.

1995:  The Fédération des femmes du Québec organized the Women’s March Against Poverty; this was followed by the Women’s March of Canada in 1996 and the World Women’s March in 2000.

1995:  Sunera Thobani was the first woman of colour to become President of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC). 

1995: Bill C-72 prohibits the invocation of intoxication as a defence for violent crimes including sexual assault.

1996:  The Canadian Human Rights Act is modified to include sexual orientation.

1997: Québec launches 5$ per day childcare.   

1997: The Federal Government launches a third initiative to end family violence.

1998: Official recognition of mid-wifery in Québec. 

1999: The Federal Court of Appeal validates the pay equity rights of 200,000 public sector workers and their union – the PSAC.

2000:  52% of victims of violent crimes are women.

2000: Women’s World March Against Violence and Poverty.

2004:  Women make up slightly more than 50% of Canada’s population but only 21% of the House of Commons.

2005: Canada is the fourth Country to legalize same-sex marriage.

2007:For the first time, the Québec cabinet is comprised of an equal number of men and women.

2008: The Canadian Prime Minister extends a formal apology to Aboriginal students of Residential Schools.

2009: Sharon McIver wins her battle to force changes to the Indian Act so that grandchildren of Aboriginal women who marry non-Aboriginal may be granted Indian Status.

2009: For the first time, there are more women in the labour market than men.