Canadian History of Women’s Rights

Date Timeline Event
1758 – 1866 With few exceptions in the colonies that would later form Canada, the vote is a privilege reserved for a limited segment of the population – mainly affluent men. Eligibility is based on property ownership. To be eligible, an individual has to own property or assets of a specified value or pay a certain amount in taxes or rent. Women are excluded.
1809 – 1849 Women with property in Québec have the right to vote from 1809 until 1849, when the word “male” is inserted into Québec’s franchise act.
1850 In Ontario, women with property, married or single, have the right to vote for school trustees.
1857 The British Matrimonial Causes Act , adopted in Canada, makes divorce possible for women on the grounds of adultery.
1859 Married women can own property in Canada, but they cannot sell it. Sale of the property requires the agreement of the woman and her husband.
1867 Dr. Emily Stowe (1831-1903) graduates in medicine from New York State University. Dr. Stowe, who later became a groundbreaking woman and suffragist, is not legally allowed to practice in Canada until 1880.
1867 – 1884 Canadian Confederation.

In all provinces, there are three basic conditions for becoming an elector:

1. being male

2. being 21 or older

3. being a British subject by birth or naturalization

1871 According to Manitoba’s Act Respecting Married Women, a woman is allowed to keep ownership of her property, but any wages she makes goes to her spouse. If he is judged cruel or insane, she is entitled to her wages and those of any dependent children.
1872 The Married Women’s Property Act of Ontario gives a married woman the right to her own wage earnings free from her husband’s control. In accordance with the Public Lands of the Dominion Statute, women without a husband who have dependent children may have homestead land.
1874 The Women’s Christian Temperance Union is founded in Owen Sound, Ontario.
1875 Grace Annie Lockhart (1855-1916) is the first woman to receive a university degree in Canada. (Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick).

Dr. Jennie Trout (1841-1921) returns from an American medical school with a degree. She is the first woman licensed to practice medicine in Canada.

1876 A British common law ruling states that “women are persons in matters of pains and penalties, but are not persons in matters of rights and privileges.”

Dr. Emily Howard Stowe and her daughter, Dr. Augusta Stowe-Gullen, found the Toronto Women’s Literary Club. The group is created for suffrage activities.

1882 The Toronto Labour Council supports the principle of equal pay for equal work. First major strike of women workers in Toronto. Women shoemakers strike for union recognition, uniform wages, and a wage advances.
1883 The Toronto Women’s Literary and Social Progress Club becomes the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association.

Sir John A. Macdonald introduces a bill into parliament that includes the granting of Dominion franchise to unmarried women and widows possessing the required property qualifications. The bill is not passed.

1884 The bill is reintroduced in 1884 and defeated. It makes woman suffrage a provincial issue. The first municipal franchise was granted to widows and spinsters in Ontario.

The Married Women’s Property Act gives married women in Ontario the same legal capacity as men, meaning that they can make legal agreements and buy property.

1885 The Dominion Franchise Act is established and remains in effect until 1898. An eligible voter is identified as a male person, including any person of Aboriginal descent but excluding any person of Asian descent.

A man can vote if he or his wife own property; she is responsible for the property tax.

In Alberta, unmarried women property owners gain the right to vote and hold office in school matters.

1886 Married women’s property legislation is passed in the Northwest Territories.
1887 Women in Manitoba gain the right to vote in municipal elections, but are not eligible for municipal office until 1917.
1889 The Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association is created from The Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association and campaigns for the vote for women.
1890 At this time, women in Iceland are allowed to vote. Margaret Benedictsson leads Canadian Icelandic women to start the first suffrage movement in the west.

Women ratepayers in Manitoba are able to vote and hold office at the school board level.

1890 – 1900 During the decade 1890-1900, bills for the provincial enfranchisement of women are introduced into the legislatures of Ontario, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and Quebec. They are all defeated.
1890s During this decade, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, and the North West Territories grant the municipal franchise to widows and spinsters.

Nova Scotia includes widows and spinsters and any married woman owning property, provided her husband is disqualified.

British Columbia and Manitoba extend the municipal franchise to all women ratepayers.

In all the provinces, women ratepayers are given the school vote.

In Ontario, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, British Columbia, Manitoba, and the North West Territories, women are eligible to become school trustees.

1893 The National Council of Women of Canada is founded. It works for social rights of women and children.
1894 The North West Territories allows unmarried women to vote in municipal elections, but not to hold office.
1894 – 1896 Petitions for the enfranchisement of women, from the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association, together with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, are presented to parliament in 1894 and 1896.
1897 Adelaide Hunter Hoodless and Erland Lee form the Women’s Institute.
1900 Teaching is the only profession open to women that leads to a pension. Under The Dominion Elections Act , the only people who can vote in a federal election are ones who have the legal right to vote in a provincial election. Minorities (including women) who are excluded from voting in provincial elections are therefore automatically excluded from voting in federal elections.

The Married Women’s Property Act gives married women in Manitoba the same legal capacity as men. Previously, a woman living in Manitoba lost most of her legal rights respecting property when she married. All her property, for example, became legally vested in her husband. The Married Women’s Property Act allows a wife to own her own property separately from her husband and to control her own wages and profits. She is also jointly responsible for the support of their children.

1903 The Married Women’s Property Act gives married women in Prince Edward Island the same legal capacity (legal right in matters of property) as men.
1907 The Manitoba Municipal Act is amended so that women are excluded as voters in municipal elections, although they had been granted this right previously. Public protest forces the act to be amended again.

The Married Women’s Property Act gives married women in Saskatchewan the same legal capacity (legal right in matters of property) as men.

1910 Alberta grants the municipal franchise to widows and spinsters, but not to married women. The Manitoba Women’s Institute is formed in Morris, Manitoba.
1911 The Saskatchewan Deserted Wives’ Maintenance Act requires husbands to pay support if they deserted their wives or forced them to leave.
1912 The Manitoba Illegitimate Children’s Act allows an unwed mother to bring court action to require the child’s father to pay child support and expenses.

Carie Derick is the first woman in Canada to become a full professor at McGill University in Montreal.

The Manitoba Political Equality League is founded in Winnipeg by a group of women including Nellie McClung.

Montreal Suffrage Association is formed.

1914 Alice Jamieson is appointed judge of the juvenile court in Calgary in 1914. She becomes the first woman in Canada and in the British Empire appointed to a court.

On January 28, Nellie McClung and other members of the Manitoba Political Equality League stage a mock “Women’s Parliament” in Winnipeg’s Walker Theatre to debate the question of whether men should be allowed to vote. The mock parliament uses humour to point out the unfairness of denying women the vote.

1916 Women in Manitoba are the first in Canada to gain the right to vote and run for office in Provincial Elections when the Manitoba Legislative Assembly Manitoba passes an act to amend the Manitoba Election Act, S.M. 1917 c. 28 (January 28). Saskatchewan passes An Act to Amend the Saskatchewan Election Act , and women in Saskatchewan gain the right to vote. (March 14)

Alberta passes The Equal Suffrage Statutory Law Amendment Act S.A. 1916 c.5 and women gain the right to vote. (April 17)

Emily Murphy, Edmonton, is the first woman appointed as a magistrate in the British Empire.

1917 Emily Murphy faces opposition from some lawyers who stated that she was not a person under the law and should not sit as a judge. She begins a long struggle to have women legally defined as persons. Women gain the right to vote and run for office in British Columbia provincial elections. They also gain the right to vote in Ontario and Alberta. (April 4)

Alberta women Louise McKinney and Roberta MacAdams become the first women elected to a provincial legislature. McKinney was sworn in first and as a result is often referred to as the first woman elected to a provincial legislature.

Alberta becomes the first province to adopt a minimum wage law for women.

British Columbia becomes the first province to give mothers the same legal rights as fathers regarding their children.

On September 20, The Military Voters Act extends the federal vote, until the end of the war, to women in the services and to those women who had close relatives in the armed services of Canada or Great Britain. Nurses in the armed forces are also given the vote.

The Dower Act is passed in Alberta providing that a homestead in which a wife has a life interest cannot be disposed of without her consent.

1918 Women gain the right to vote and run for office in provincial elections in Nova Scotia. (April 26)Women gain the right to vote in federal elections (24 May) through An Act to Confer Electoral Franchise Upon Women .

Eligibility:

  • age 21 or older
  • not alien-born
  • meet property requirements in provinces where they exist

The Federal Electoral law is amended and women can now stand for the House of Commons.

1919 Women gain the right to vote and run for office in New Brunswick provincial elections. (April 17)
1920 The Federal electoral law is amended. The Dominion Elections Act recognizes that every eligible Canadian over 21, male or female, can vote in federal elections. This does not, however, include Aboriginal peoples, Inuit or anyone barred from a provincial voters’ list, including Asians and Hindus.
1921 The first federal election in which in which women are eligible to vote and hold office women is held. Just four women candidates run. Only Agnes MacPhail wins as an independent from Ontario. She serves for 19 years. During the time she was in the House of Commons, she was joined by only one other woman, Martha Black from the Yukon (1935-1940).

Nellie McClung is elected as a Liberal member in the Alberta Legislature.

Mary Ellen Smith is appointed a cabinet minister in British Columbia She is the first female provincial cabinet minister and the first in the British Empire.

Irene Parlby is appointed Minister without Portfolio in the United Farmer’s government, becoming the first woman in Alberta and the second woman in the British Empire to serve as a cabinet minister.

Women are forced to resign from the Canada Civil Service when they get married.

In British Columbia, the first maternity leave legislation is passed (six weeks leave).

1922 Women in PEI gain the right to vote in provincial elections. (May 3)

Alberta passes the Married Women’s Property Act , which gives married women in Alberta the same legal capacity as men. This means that the women who chose to marry no longer have to forfeit the rights to their properties.

1925 The federal divorce law is changed allowing women for the first time to obtain a divorce on the same grounds as men.

Women gain the vote in Newfoundland. (April 13)

1927 – 1928 In August, Emily Murphy, invites four women, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards and Louise Crummy McKinney, to her house to consider petitioning the Supreme Court for a decision on the question of whether woman are persons according to the British North America Act of (1867). The Department of Justice recommends to Prime Minister King that the best question to present to the Supreme Court is, “Does the word “persons” in Section 24, of the British North America Act, 1867, include female persons?” (Edwards v. AG for Canada – The “Persons” Case). The arguments are presented on March 14, 1928 (Murphy’s 60th birthday).
1928 Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act is enacted. Similar laws are enacted in other provinces. In Edwards v. AG for Canada (The “Persons” Case) , the Supreme Court of Canada decides that a woman is not a “qualified person” and therefore cannot be appointed to the Senate of Canada.
1929 The Famous Five, as Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards and Louise Crummy McKinney have become known, take their case to The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England (Canada’s final Court of Appeal at the time) which overturns the decision of the Canadian Supreme Court’s “Persons” case and recognizes Canadian women as persons under the law. As a result, women are “eligible to be summoned to and become members of the Senate of Canada” (October 18).
1930 Montreal’s Cairine Reay Wilson becomes the first woman appointed to the Senate.
1940 Women in Quebec gain the right to vote through The Act Granting to Women the Right to Vote and to be Eligible as Candidates . Québec becomes the last existing province to make it legal for women, excluding those from a racial minority already banned from voting in other provinces to vote and run for office.
1948 The Federal Elections Act is changed so that race is no longer a ground for exclusion from voting in federal elections.
1951 Two new laws are passed in Ontario: The Fair Employment Practices Act and the Female Employee’s Fair Remuneration Act . The Fair Employment Practices Act targets discrimination in hiring practices and the work place by establishing fines as well as a procedure for complaints. The Female Employee’s Fair Remuneration Act addresses the common practice in some work places of paying women less than their male colleagues – the act seeks to provide women with equal pay for work of equal value.
1952 Equal pay legislation is passed in Saskatchewan.
1953 Canada passes The Fair Employment Practices Act . The federal government passes the Canada Fair Employment Practices Act in order to combat discrimination within the civil service. The Act applies to the federal government and all sectors within its jurisdiction, such as inter provincial transportation and telecommunications. Equal pay legislation is passed in British Columbia, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia.
1954 The federal government declares a fair wages policy.
1956 The federal government passes The Female Employees Equal Pay Act. The government creates a policy wherein women are entitled to be paid the same wage as men for similar work. In other words, The Female Employees Equal Pay Act makes discrimination in wages on account of sex against the law. Equal pay legislation is passed in Nova Scotia and Manitoba. Fair employment legislation is enacted in New Brunswick, British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

Doukabours are given the right to vote in federal elections.

1957 Equal pay legislation is passed in Alberta.

Ellen Fairclough becomes the first woman in Canada to be appointed to the federal cabinet when Prime Minister John Diefenbaker names her Secretary of State.

1960 Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples, including Aboriginal women, are finally granted a ‘no-strings-attached’ right to vote.

Beginning in 1960, Aboriginal Canadians were no longer required to give up their treaty rights and renounce their status under the Indian Act in order to qualify for the vote. The Canadian Bill of Rights receives Royal Assent.

1962 Ontario enacts The Human Rights Code. It prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, creed, colour, nationality, ancestry or place of origin – but not sex.
1964 Bill 16 is passed in Quebec’s National Assembly giving married women the same rights as their husbands.
1967 Prime Minister Lester Pearson establishes a Royal Commission on the Status of Women.
1970 The Royal Commission on the Status of Women recommends changes to the military to create equal conditions for all.
1974 The first female RCMP recruits begin training at Regina.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada is established.

1975 Quebec passes a Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. It includes political rights, fundamental freedoms, anti-discriminatory provisions, and equal pay provisions.
1981 The federal government creates the cabinet portfolio of Minister Responsible for the Status of Women.
1982 The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is enacted as part of the Constitution Act.
1986 The Federal Government passes the Employment Equity Act . It applies to federally regulated employees but not to the federal public service. Essentially, employment equity requires employers to identify and eliminate unnecessary barriers that limit the employment opportunities of historically disadvantaged groups such as visible minorities, women, and Aboriginal persons.
1987 Systemic discrimination in the hiring of women is found to be unlawful. A public interest lobby group supporting women’s rights complains to the Canadian Human Rights Commission that CNR is guilty of systemic discrimination. A tribunal discovers that CNR has made no real effort to hire women and orders the CNR to start an employment equity program. CNR refuses and appeals its case to the Supreme Court of Canada. The CNR loses the case. Citing s.41(2)(a) of the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Supreme Court rules that the commission had the right to impose an employment equity program to break CNR’s continuing cycle of systemic discrimination that included exclusionary hiring and promotion policies as well as the harassment of female employees.
1989 The Supreme Court of Canada decides that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination.