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October – Women’s History Month

When you think of great Canadian women, who comes to mind? What women’s stories from our past do you wish everyone knew about? There are so many to choose from, but what’s striking about these heroines is both how long they’ve been shaking off sexism and misogyny to achieve greatness, and how recent some of their stories are.

For instance, women only officially became persons under Canadian law in 1929, thanks to the actions of the Famous Five: Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy, Henrietta Edwards and Louise McKinney. (It’s important to remember that history is complicated and people aren’t perfect. Several of these activists also believed in eugenics — the sterilization of those deemed unfit to be parents — which was considered a progressive belief at the time.) Sobering, isn’t it, to think that women have been legal persons in this country for less than a century?

Pull out your wallet and you’ll probably see Viola Desmond on the ten-dollar bill. She’s the beauty parlour owner of Black descent who insisted on sitting in the whites-only section of a movie theatre in New Glasgow, N.S., in 1946. That’s open segregation in a Canadian city within living memory.

Mary Two-Axe Earley fought for Indigenous women like her, who lost all rights to their status under the Indian Act if they married a non-Indigenous man. Her activism finally resulted in changes to end that discriminatory part of the act, which took effect in 1985. For many of us, that feels like yesterday.

Then there are the pioneering women who stood up to oppressive gender roles centuries ago as they worked to make our country better for all Canadians. There’s Maude Abbott, who was refused entry to McGill’s medical school in 1890 because she was a woman, but went on to become a leading heart expert. There’s Gonwatsijayenni (Molly Brant), the Mohawk diplomat who connected the Six Nations and white settler communities in the 1700s. There’s Sister Marguerite Bourgeoys, teacher and co-founder of Montreal who arrived in New France in 1653.

To learn more, these two books by Merna Forster — a Governor General’s award winner for her work in promoting Canadian women in our history — are a great place to start: 100 Canadian Heroines and 100 More Canadian Heroines.

But history isn’t far away and long ago. Who are some local heroines you admire? Medical personnel, businesswomen, heads of charitable organizations, teachers, religious leaders, volunteers, political representatives — there are so many women still writing the Canadian story. We celebrate them this month and all year long.

By Nancy Payne