Nurturing, Resourceful, Strong, Perseverance, Capable, Well-Rounded, Independent, Indispensable, Hopeful, Fun-Loving, Assertive, Caring, Capable, Awesome, Responsible, Loving, Determined, Kind, Caring, Stronger Emotionally, Competent, Conscientious, Adaptable, Enlightened, Intelligent, Flexible, Smart, Committed, Strong, Beautiful.
These are some of the words our visitors used to describe women during our celebration of 100 years of women's suffrage event. Thirty people came out to spend the evening engaging with women's national, provincial and local stories.
Our museum's Curator, Lois Fenton, asked me to create a public history evening so that I could gain experience in public programming. I worked hard all summer, with help from Lois and our volunteer Joan McIntosh, preparing a presentation and temporary exhibit. I spent much of the fall advertising for the event by writing newspaper articles, handing out posters to local businesses and doing a radio ad. I was very excited about the topic we chose because I thought this would be a great way to celebrate local women who live in a male-dominated environment. Also, as any archivist, museum worker or historian knows, collections often focus on male experiences. This event was not only a great way to highlight women's achievements but it acted as a stimulus for collecting their stories. It was a very successful event so I thought that I would share what was put together.
The signs below greeted guests as they walked toward our event space in the back of the museum. They were used to engage visitors and to get them to think about the progress women have made over the last 100 years.
I decided to focus my presentation around the larger provincial and national narrative. I focused my discussion on the women's suffrage movement and on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. These stories gave context so that the exhibit could be better appreciated. After my presentation, we asked our guests to spend time viewing (with their wine and cheese) the exhibit space that featured local women's stories and achievements.
What was Women's Suffrage?
The women's suffrage movement was a decades-long struggle intended to address fundamental societal issues of equality and injustice felt by women- and this included the right to vote.
Many credit Dr. Emily Howard Stowe with initiating the woman's suffrage movement in Canada. In the 1860s Stowe supported her invalid husband and three children. She scrimped and saved until she had enough money to enter the medical profession. The only problem was that women were not granted acceptance into Canadian medical schools. Undeterred from her goal, she entered the Women's New York Medical School. Doctors who were accredited in the United States needed to take further medical courses in Canada in order to obtain their Canadian license. Even with her degree, the University of Toronto refused her entry to their program. It was not until 1871 that Stowe and Jenny Trout were admitted. This was a momentous occasion as they were the first two women to attend lectures at the Toronto School of Medicine.
Click here to view a Heritage Moment Clip featuring Emily Howard Stowe and Jennie Trout. (Poor Dr. McFarland never saw what was coming!)
Throughout the rest of her life Stowe would be an advocate of Woman's Suffrage, creating groups like the Toronto Woman's Suffrage Association and the Dominion Women's Enfranchisement Association.
The suffrage movement was not just an Ontario endeavour; there were many women across the country advocating for similar goals of equality, basic human rights, and the right to vote. In fact, Manitoba was the first province to allow women the right vote in January of 1916, with many provinces and territories soon following in example. Women in Ontario were allowed to vote in 1917. Quebec was the last province to follow suit with women given the right to vote in 1940. All women were given the right to vote in federal elections in 1919.
However, these successes did not mean that all women could enjoy this new privileged. In fact, Asian men and women could not vote until after the Second World War. Likewise, Aboriginal men and women did not receive the right to vote until 1960. This was because they were seen as wards of the crown under the Indian Act, and were thus excluded from voting, except in rare cases.
Below are several of our museums labels featuring women from the time of suffrage, photographs courtesy of the Atikokan Centennial Museum.
How were Men and Women Viewed at this time?
To understand the suffrage movement better, we should look out how men and women were historically viewed. Men were seen to be of the public sphere: they were rational, motivated by reason, political, strong, and the breadwinner. Women were seen as quite the opposite being of the private sphere and being irrational, motivated by emotions, weak, and domestic. To offer an example, throughout history women were healers. They were early pharmacists; midwives; and doctors without degrees- healing family and community members alike. However, in the 19th century there was a rise in medical science that placed the specially trained medic ahead of the self-taught healer. Women were refused access to teaching institutions, much like what happened to Emily Stowe. Essentially, women were now refused technologies in the field that they had contributed to for hundreds of years. This is because the medical profession moved to the public sphere, somewhere inaccessible to women. Actions like these fuelled the suffrage movement, leading women to take agency in hopes of changing their social position and status.
Why was the Suffrage Movement Important?
During this time women were stepping into the public sphere to advocate for basic rights; pushing the envelop allowing for future generations to make a choice between the private and public sphere. Gaining suffrage did not just mean that women could vote- but they could step inside of a world that traditionally belonged to men.
Royal Commission on the Status of Women
Fast Forward fifty years to 1967. Women now had the right to vote. More and more women had jobs outside of the home. A greater number of women were becoming educated. Progress had been made, but there was still a long way to go. Sensing the gender gap, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson decided to establish a Royal Commission on the Status of Women. This was a direct response to a months-long campaign by a coalition of 32 women's groups led in Ontario. Tensions were high, and these groups threatened a march of two million strong on Parliament.
The mandate of this Commission was to inquire into a report on the Status of Women in Canada, and to make specific recommendations to the federal government to ensure equality. 468 briefs were reviewed; 1000 letters read, all confirming the widespread problems faced by women in Canadian society. Some of these issues included: equal pay; establishment of maternity leave; a national child care policy; birth control and abortion rights; family law reform; education; and women's access to managerial positions. There was a large section that also addressed issues specific to Aboriginal women. This movement is considered the second wave of feminism, with women's suffrage being the first.
All 167 recommendations made by the Commission were based on the core principle that equality between men and women was possible, desirable and ethically necessary. The findings led to the creation of the Minister responsible for the Status of Women in 1971. By 1980, most of the report's recommendations had been partially or fully implemented.
Below find a sample from our exhibit that features women from the time of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.
Why was this significant?
The Commission helped unite women to a great extent, by giving them a voice in shaping gender-responsive policies. Not only did it shine a light on the problems faced by women, it also led to important social victories like an equal minimum wage and maternity leave. That is not to say that this commission fixed the equality problem. Presently, women still face challenges in society. However, the gap is slowly shrinking, with help of initiatives like women's suffrage and the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.
What was life like for Atikokan Women?
The story of women in Atikokan was born when Mary Rawn and her husband Tom founded the town in 1899. Many women, like Mary, were faced with battling the wilderness for survival. Over the years, Atikokan developed and thrived largely due to the extraction of resources in the surrounding area, at the time requiring male strength to conquer. Men put the town on the map; women made Atikokan what it is today. As the population grew, and women were stepping further into the public sphere, many positive changes began to take shape. For instance, many clubs, like the Women's Institute, did immeasurable things for the community. We also begin to see women stepping up to the entrepreneurial plate, and now women own most businesses in town. There are also many examples of women entering male dominated industries and professions, like rangering and mining to name a few.
A display featuring Janice Matichuk's hard earned awards - the Award of Valour, the Governor General Award for providing assistance to others in a selfless manner, the Award of Merit and the Ministry of Natural Resources PRIDE Service Award, among her other outstanding achievements. Janice worked as a Park Ranger for Quetico Provincial Park, a very male dominated profession, in which she excelled. All objects are on loan.
Lois, Joan and I spent three days setting up the exhibit space. We split the display areas into three sections: women at the time of suffrage, women at the time of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women and a display featuring the contemporary story of Janice Matichuk as a Park Ranger at Quetico Provincial Park. The lists and labels we created for the display were not comprehensive, there were women that we missed. For instance, we did not include Aboriginal or Metis women in the displays. This is not because we do not consider their experiences as part of the narrative. It is because, unfortunately, we do not have any archival records in our collections that share their stories. Thus, this exhibit became a stimulus to enter a wider discussion of women's experiences within our community. During the event we handed out forms asking visitors to record stories about themselves or other women from the community. By filling out these forms they helped add to our collection, which will allow us to craft a more encompassing future narrative.
Quiz on the Status of Women
I created a quiz that was administered to guests as they entered the event space. The purpose of this quiz was to either challenge or reinforce visitor's perceptions of women. We took up the answers together at the end of my presentation. The quiz was an eye opener; I was surprised by some of the findings when I put it together.
I asked our guests not to change their answers when we took up the quiz because I wanted to quantify their responses. Our guests answered the majority of the questions correctly. However, there were a few that stumped them. For instance, 69% thought that women held 1% or less of the top corporate positions. 69% also believed that women did not mostly work in traditional female roles. This quiz was a powerful exercise that not only had visitors actively participating in the event, but it also challenged what they thought they knew about women. See how you fare on the quiz. Find the answers below.
The information used to create this quiz came from Women at a Glance: Statistical Highlights, 2012. The answer stating that 8.5% of women hold top corporate jobs came from a 2015 CBC article.
This event had a great response from the local population. A woman from the Metis Council approached Lois and I after the presentation because she liked what was said about wanting to include Aboriginal and Metis stories in the collection. She said that she will bring this up at their next meeting. We also had more men show up than was originally expected. A father brought his two young daughters, and many husbands came with their wives. I was pleased with this, because I believe that women's stories and experiences should be acknowledged by both sexes in order for positive societal changes to occur. The evening was a success and we were pleased with how it came together.
 Cleverdon, Catherine. The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974), 19-27; Library and Archives Canada. "Dr. Emily Howard Stowe." collectionscanada.gc.ca/physicians/03002-2500-e.html, accessed August 4, 2016
 Historica Canada, "Women's Suffrage in Canada" http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/suffrage/ (accessed August, 2016)
 Coburn, Judy. "I See and am Silent": A Short History of Nursing in Ontario," In Women at Work, 1850-1930, edited by Janice Acton, Penny Goldsmith and Bonnie Shepard. (Canadian Women's Educational Press, 1974), 127-155.
 Historica Canada. The Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/royal-commission-on-the-status-of-women-in-canada/ (accessed August, 2016)