Look How Far We’ve Come: International Women’s Day Marks 100th Anniversary
By Charlotte Bumstead
Looking back over the last century, we have come a long way in the fight for equality and justice. Many powerful Canadian women have led the path to making profound changes in redefining the position of women in society. Today, it is difficult for some to even imagine a world where women could not vote, or could not possess any significant sum of money in the bank; a world where women did not receive pay equity on the job; where they did not obtain the same property, marital and inheritance laws as men. It is difficult to imagine how corporations and governments could operate without female representation to guide the way.
The fight is not over. Long-time women’s and children’s rights activist Beverley Smith finds herself caught in a position similar to that of the Famous Five’s Nellie McClung, in Canada’s first movement of feminism. It was only in recent months when Smith, 61, discovered this connection. “I did not know her of course. She was born in 1873 in Ontario, and I was born in Calgary shortly after she died,” Smith says. “She ran for government, so did I, but she won once and I never did. She wrote and spoke in public at great length about women’s rights, fighting the obstacles of the 1910s, and with vigour. I did my parallel, I guess, in letters to the editor, petitions, meetings with politicians, submissions to federal committees and rallies. She headed several women’s rights groups. I headed one parents’ rights group: Kids First Parent Association of Canada. She was a writer. I also write and edit a monthly newsletter on the Net. She was a mother of five, I [am] a mother of four, and we had somehow deep down gut feelings in common.”
But there was an even stronger and somewhat eerie connection between Smith and McClung. “The problem is I discovered the same hurdles 60 years later. I have now fought them for 30 years myself. Sadly, we have not come a long way in one key area: recognition of the care role in the home, the ‘mom’ role, if you will.”
Smith’s fight for the moms began when she had her first children in ’75 and ’76. She noticed she was being excluded from receiving the same tax benefits as other mothers, because she was staying home with her kids while others were using daycare. “I was struck by the issues. I mean, women are still treated as second class,” says Smith. “If they’re married, they’re supposed to be some sort of servant to the husband—even in tax law.”
Smith began to take action. She started writing letters of formal complaint to members of Parliament, to the government, as well as to newspapers and radio stations. Then one day she heard on the radio someone had made a complaint to the United Nations. “I thought, ‘I could do that,’” Smith says. So she did; and her complaint was accepted.
Soon she was receiving faxes from people all around the world. “People [were] agreeing with me,” says Smith. “It’s an international problem; the degrading of women in the home.” This was in 1997. The UN forwarded the complaint back to Canada, expecting a reply. A year passed with no answer. Eventually, an anonymous sender granted Smith access to government documentation discussing her complaint. All charges were denied.
Smith still believes her appeal was semi-successful. “I feel the UN agreed with me,” she says. “In 1999 [the UN] admitted there were legal systems discriminating and a high incidence of women and children in poverty. However, the UN doesn’t have the ability to make a country change its law.”
From there, the doors were being slammed repeatedly in Smith’s face. It was a struggle to set up meetings with public figures, or to access information in regards to her appeal. Over the next 10 years, she did manage to meet with both Paul Martin and Stephen Harper in the time before either was elected Prime Minister. But her requests received only broken promises.
It wasn’t only men who disagreed with Smith’s efforts, either. “Some of the people who disagreed with me were women,” she says. “I couldn’t believe that—don’t you realize I’m trying to help you?”
McClung too, came across female opposition in her day; to which she responded, “Women who put a low value on themselves make life hard for all women.”
She believes the issue of the caregiver is the last hurdle in women’s fight for equality. “It can’t help but be noticed, because not only have we got a lack of babies and someone needs to start to value having babies or the economy’s going to collapse; but we have so many elderly people who need care, that the care-giving issue is coming onto the agenda,” Smith says.
She remains optimistic and hopes others will feel the same. “I think it’s important to celebrate the progress women have made, because we have made an awful lot,” she says. “People are scared of the power of women and so we have to keep insisting that we are heard.”