Why should we observe Person’s Day?
What is its significance for us now- 80 years later?
October 18, 1929, women were deemed persons under the law. The decision of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England to overrule the Canadian Supreme Court and declare women “persons” according to the British North America Act (our Constitution at the time), was without doubt a major victory for women and an important step on the path to equality. But it was not the end of the journey by any means. Asians were not allowed to vote until 1948, Inuit until 1950, and status Indians until 1960. Quebec was the last province to give women the provincial vote, in 1940.
Later known as the Famous Five, the five women activists in Alberta who were responsible for the landmark decision of October 18th, had fought long and hard for women’s rights. They believed that women would bring a different perspective to the political arena and they were right. They fought for and won legislation and measures in the areas of social assistance for widows and immigrants, protection for children, property rights for women in marriage, vocational training for impoverished working women, prison reform. Each of them was instrumental in establishing one or more women’s institutions that carried on the work of service and equality, some that continue up to the present day: the National Council of Women; the Federation of Women’s Institutes; the Victoria Order of Nurses: the Working Girls Association (a forerunner of the YWCA of Montreal), United Farm Women of Alberta.
The work of equality is not done, however, and women’s voices are needed more than ever in the fight for social justice and equity. Women still lag men in earning power, they still carry an unequal burden of care for children and the elderly and disabled, are still 4 times more likely to experience violence than men, are still underrepresented at all levels of government and in positions of power in our society. In a little over a month, on December 6, we will mark another key anniversary in women’s history in Canada- the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre when 14 young women were gunned down for the simple reason they were women presuming to move in a man’s world.
Hamilton wants to be the “best place to raise a child…” But we have failed to acknowledge that behind every poor child is a poor mother- often a single mother. Until we tackle women’s poverty we will not see a measurable improvement in child poverty. In the words of the old union hymn Bread and a Roses “The rising of the women means the rising of the race.”
80 years later, the work of the “famous five” to have women take their rightful place alongside men in society continues. The challenges of the issue are further complicated by poverty and racism which compound the sexism in society, by perpetuating inequality between and among women from different socio-economic and ethno-racial backgrounds. Being a woman in our society puts you at a disadvantage; being a poor woman, a woman of colour, and especially being an aboriginal woman, puts you at much higher risk.
This year to mark the 80th Anniversary of Person’s Day, the Zonta Clubs of Hamilton and the YWCA have joined forces to mark the historic occasion and also to raise awareness of the work that remains to be done, especially in regards to the situation for Aboriginal women. We are hosting a special Person’s Day Breakfast on Monday October 19 at Liuna Station and have invited Dr. Dawn Martin-Hill of the Indigenous Studies Program at McMaster University to speak about the situation for aboriginal women. Achieving equality means more than passing a law. Until all of us are equal, none of us is equal.
Catherine M. Pead, CEO