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CoolWomen timeline

by Pat Staton | February 19, 2002


One cool woman’s take on some of the achievements of women in Canada.


Among dozens of creation myths, one commands attention. According to a Nootka legend, Copper Woman created the first man by mixing “tears, saliva, sand and magic spells in a shell.” She named her unattractive creation “Snot Boy.”


The first European woman to journey to the new world was Gudridr, a member of the Viking expedition to Vinland (L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland). Excavations at the site uncovered a spindle whorl made of soapstone, and a bone needle. Which just goes to show that even journeying to the new world doesn’t get you out of housework.


Helene Boulle accompanied her husband Samuel de Champlain to Canada. Helene was a wealthy woman, much younger than her husband and her dowry had been used to outfit an earlier expedition. Helene did not stay long, evidently she found life in the colony less than appealing, preferring to return to live in the Ursuline convent she had endowed in France.


Marie Guyart (Marie de l’Incarnation) founded the convent of the Ursulines at Quebec. She wrote more than 13,000 letters to friends and officials in France. Her letters form a history of the colonial period of French-Canadian society. Imagine if Marie had access to e-mail!


Thanadelthur, known as the Slave Woman, travelled across the barrens on a mission to make peace between the Cree and Chipewyan people and to encourage the Chipewyans to come to the Hudson Bay trading post at York Factory. Women have been trying to make peace ever since.


The Constitutional Act in Quebec set property qualifications for voting and did not specifically deny the vote to women who held sufficient property. Unfortunately the oversight was soon “corrected” in this and other jurisdictions and it took women more than 200 years to win back the vote.


Disguised as a man, Mary Fubbester started work as a clerk in a Hudson Bay Company fur trade post somewhere in Rupert’s Land. She was forced to quit her job in 1807 when she gave birth to a child. Apparently her disguise hadn’t fooled everybody.


In June, 1813, Laura Secord walked 20 miles through swamp, brush, farm land and enemy lines to warn the British of an impending attack by the Americans at Queenston, Ontario. Her act of loyalty was finally recognized 47 years later when she was 85 years old. The Prince of Wales rewarded her with £100 in gold. Of course there are all those boxes of chocolates.


THE COOK NOT MAD, the earliest known Canadian cook-book was published in Kingston, Ontario. It gave directions for preparing new foods in common use such as rye flour, corn, pumpkin, squirrel and venison. Also in 1831, the first woman physician to practice in Canada, Dr. Emily Howard Stowe was born near Brantford, Ontario. A teacher, she later became the first woman principal in Canada. After training at a U.S. medical school she opened an office in Toronto in 1864. She travelled to the US to meet with women’s groups and lectured in Ontario on the lack of women’s rights. In her spare time she founded the Toronto Women’s Literary Society. The name disguised its real purpose, which was to obtain equal rights for women’s political movement.


Rose Fortune was one of Nova Scotia’s outstanding personalities in the mid-nineteenth century. She started the “Cartage Company of Annapolis Royal” running a wheelbarrow service between the dock and the hotels. She became the self-appointed policewoman of the town, always appearing in a man’s coat and hat worn over her dress and white cap. One of Rose’s descendants, Daurene Lewis became mayor of Annapolis Royal.


Harriet Tubman, conductor on the Underground Railroad (the escape route to Canada), came north to St. Catharines, Ontario. Born in Maryland around 1823, this courageous woman made 19 trips back to the American south, to help people who had been enslaved to escape to freedom. In 1865, she returned to the United States where she became a nurse, a scout, and a spy in the Union army during the American Civil War. Harriet was an over-achiever – one of the first superwomen! She lived to be 90 years of age.

In the same year, Mary Ann Shadd formed the Anti-Slavery Society in Toronto, and in 1853 became the first Black woman to publish a newspaper in North America (The Provincial Freeman).


The Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s first Canadian branch was founded in Owen Sound, Ontario. Besides fighting for the prohibition of alcohol, which they believed lay at the root of all social evils, WCTU actively lobbied for women’s suffrage and mothers’ allowances.


Lady Aberdeeen, wife of the Governor General of Canada formed the National Council of Women of Canada. The Council brought together representatives from different women’s groups across the country, providing a network for women to communicate their concerns and ideas. Women are still communicating their concerns.


In a bid for fame and fortune, Annie Taylor climbed into a padded barrel with her “good luck” cat and became the first person to go over Niagara Falls. Annie survived the trip, but the cat did not, apparently taking all its luck with it – Annie died penniless.


Adelaide Hoodless, advocate of health and sanitation measures to reduce infant mortality, pioneer of domestic science courses in school, founder of Macdonald Institute for the training of domestic science teachers and inspiration for the founding of the Women’s Institute movement, died in the midst of giving a lecture at St. Margaret’s College. She was 51. Thanks to Adelaide, thousands of women know how to make white sauce and potholders.


Maud Leonora Menten, Ph.D. collaborated with Dr. Leonor Michaelis to develop the Michaelis-Menten equation, a basic biochemical concept, fundamental to enzyme research. A gifted linguist and artist, she was also an enthusiastic mountain climber. Hardly anyone has ever heard of Maud.


On January 28, 1914, the day after Premier Roblin stated his opposition to votes for women, Nellie McClung and the Political Equality League staged a mock “Women’s Parliament” in the Walker Theatre in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The women played the parts of the members of parliament, with Nellie as the premier. They debated the pros and cons of granting men the vote, exposing the sanctimonious and contradictory arguments used by male politicians to deny female suffrage. Receiving a deputation of vote-seeking men pushing a wheelbarrow full of petitions, Nellie congratulated them on their “splendid appearance,” but told them “man is made for something higher and better than voting.” The evening was such a success, it was repeated twice to sold-out audiences. The proceeds from the ticket sales financed the rest of the Manitoba “Votes for Women” campaign. And they say feminists have no sense of humour.


The Great War: Women’s contributions to the war effort, particularly by filling the jobs of men who enlisted, gave them access to many new fields of employment. Their efforts also helped most women win provincial and federal enfranchisement, although victory was gradual and not complete until 1960 when Native women finally won the vote. At war’s end though, women would be expected to return to their homes. Many women however, would not be so easily relegated to their former sphere.


Between 1915 and 1940 the famous Edmonton Grads Basketball Team played 522 games in Canada, USA and Europe winning 502 of them. Composed of students and graduates of McDougal High School, the team was active until the 1960s. During their time, women’s basketball was not considered a “real” Olympic sport but the Grads won all 28 exhibition games they played at four Olympic Games.


Agnes Macphail – first woman elected to the House of Commons. Macphail, a champion of justice issues, including women’s rights, during her long political career became a role model for the women who followed her in politics. Macphail was an exciting orator and one of the most popular lecturers in North America. She is credited with being one of the most important figures in the reform of the penal system and was the key parliamentarian fighting for world government, disarmament and the end of militarism. Agnes is one of our most quotable foremothers.


Jennie Dill became the original “power walker” when she walked, with her husband Frank, 3,650 miles from Halifax to Vancouver between February 1 and June 14. On the way Jennie shot a timber wolf that attacked Frank. Jennie said, “The hike taught me a great lesson – what men have done, women can more than do.” Right on, Jennie!


The first time Canada’s Olympic team included women, the six-member team racked up impressive victories in track events in Amsterdam. The team – Florence Bell, Ethel Catherwood, Myrtle Cook, Alexandrine Gibb, Fannie (Bobbie) Rosenfeld and Ethel Smith – became known as The “Matchless Six.”


October 18, 1929. The Persons Case. Five women from Alberta (Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby and Henrietta Muir Edwards) appealed the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision that women were not qualified persons within the meaning of the British North America Act, to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of the House of Lords in England, at that time Canada’s final court of appeal. The Privy Council confirmed women as “persons” before the law, opening up many opportunities for full participation as citizens, including judgeships and the Senate. Emily Murphy and her supporters had confidently expected that she would be named to the Senate but Emily was not a supporter of the majority party; politics prevailed and in 1930 Cairine Wilson, founder of the Ottawa Women’s Liberal Club, became the first woman appointed to the Canadian Senate. Not the first instance of this kind of injustice, and not the last. Wilson, wearing a “powder blue lace afternoon dress with long sleeves and matching shoes” delivered her first speech in the Senate on February 25, paying tribute to Judge Emily Murphy and the other four appellants who had taken the Persons Case to the Privy Council.


The acquittal of Dorothea Palmer on charges of unlawfully advertising birth control methods. Although not the first attempt to provide information on family planning (a clinic was opened in Hamilton, Ontario in 1932 by Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw,) the trial was a landmark in the ongoing fight by women to control their reproductive capacity. The criminal law with respect to birth control information and advertising was not changed until 1969.


Appointment of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in February. In January a headline in the Globe and Mail newspaper read: “Women threaten march of two million if Royal Commission (on the Status of Women) isn’t granted. Laura Sabia had promised to bring women to Ottawa if the Commission was not appointed. The commission travelled across Canada for four years, listening to women’s concerns. Its 1970 landmark report established the first benchmarks of equality for Canadian women. The report contained 167 recommendations to help eliminate gender inequality. Recommendations included paid maternity leave, fair employment practices and changes to the Indian Act so aboriginal women did not lose their status when they married non-status men. The report inspired the creation of a number of women’s groups that worked to implement these changes including the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. It will not be a surprise to learn that all 167 recommendations have not been implemented.


Passage of a comprehensive divorce law by the federal government; all provincial enactments were repealed. Divorce became more readily available. Broadening the grounds for divorce enabled many women who had been abused or abandoned to file for divorce. Issues of custody and support were also included in the law.


Rosemary Brown became the first Black woman to be elected to a provincial legislature (British Columbia).


Murdoch v. Murdoch. Irene Murdoch left her husband in 1968 after a violent assault. In a legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, Murdoch claimed she was entitled to one-half interest in the farm properties owned in her husbands name because of her contribution of money and labour. The Supreme Court did not agree, upholding the lower court award of $200/month alimony, and saying that Murdoch had done only what was expected of a farm wife and was not entitled to a share of the property. A public outcry followed the decision, resulting in a series of major changes in legislation.


A National Conference of Women and the Constitution was held in the West Block of the parliament Buildings in Ottawa February 14–15. An Ad Hoc Committee of Ottawa and Toronto women organized the conference. 1,300 women paid their way from all parts of the country to attend this historic meeting. There was consensus among the participants that the governments proposed Charter of Rights didn’t guarantee women equal rights with men. Women from every part of Canada sent a clear message that all women’s rights had to be well protected in the Constitution.


Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 15 provides that individuals are equal before and under the law and cannot be discriminated against on the basis of “race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.” A few months before section 15 came into effect, in April 1985, The Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) was formed. One of the primary objectives of the group is to achieve equality for women before and under the law, “by means of litigation using the guarantees of the Charter.” LEAF devotes its resources to the direct sponsorship of cases, and education and lobbying.

Madame Justice Bertha Wilson became the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada, followed by Claire L’Heureux-Dube (1987), Beverley McLachlin (1989) and Louise Arbour (1999).


The United Nations World Conference on Women held in Nairobi in July was crucial in ensuring that the momentum generated by the Decade of Women continued. Canadian women played a leading role in the adoption by the UN of the Nairobi Conference Report: Forward-Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women. Also in 1985, The Disabled Women’s Network was organized nationally. DAWN took a leading stand against Depo-Provera, a birth-control method considered unsafe for use by women with disabilities.


Kim Campbell became the first female Prime Minister of Canada.


Dr. Roberta Bondar became the first female Canadian astronaut in space.


Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. 187 Nations negotiated the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. The Platform for Action names 12 critical areas of concern – poverty, education, health care, violence, militarization, economic structures, politics and resources, power and decision-making, mechanisms to promote women’s advancement, human rights, media, environment and the girl child.


CoolWomen, Canada’s largest women’s history website, was launched. CoolWomen told the stories of historical and contemporary girls and women in Canada, with over 45,000 hits on the Internet each month. The idea began through 13 women brain-storming at a kitchen table, and evolved from a physical museum building, to a museum mobile, and eventually into a website. Once again, women making history, this time on line/across time.


Beverley McLachlin appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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