Notable women in Canadian history
By Dara Poizner
Posted on March 29, 2021
The contributions of women in any society are often overlooked in the history books. But even though they do not get as much recognition, Canada was shaped just as much by the actions of women as by men. Women have always been key to Canada’s history, as they continue to be key to Canada’s present and future.
This article discusses just a few of the many women whose stories are an important part of Canadian history. They all faced major challenges, often fighting for their rights and the rights of others. Some of them were born or lived parts of their lives outside of Canada—but like many people who have come to Canada from other countries, their contributions have had a lasting effect on Canadian society, culture, and government.
Laura Secord, War Heroine
Laura Secord (1775–1868), born Laura Ingersoll in Massachusetts, is famous for her actions during the War of 1812. Her father was American but moved to settle in Queenston in Upper Canada with his family. In 1797, Laura married James Secord, a Loyalist merchant. Loyalists were American colonists who supported the British during the American Revolution.
James served for the British military during the War of 1812. He was seriously hurt in battle, and Laura took care of him at home while he recovered. In June 1813, Queenston was still occupied by American troops, so the Secords had to let some American officers stay in their home. Laura found out that the Americans planned to attack Lieutenant James FitzGibbon’s British troops at Beaver Dams. With her husband still injured, Secord left home on her own, taking a long trek to warn FitzGibbon. She walked through difficult land to avoid the Americans and met a group of First Nations men who helped her find FitzGibbon’s headquarters. In total, she walked about 30 kilometres. On June 24 (two days after Secord arrived with the news), the British troops and their First Nations allies were prepared for the attack, and the Americans surrendered.
Secord’s story has become a Canadian legend. Some of the details are still unknown: for example, it is not clear exactly how she learned about the plan, or whether she arrived to warn FitzGibbon before the First Nations scouts, who had also heard about the attack. Still, she is seen as a national heroine for her efforts to help defend against the American forces and is an iconic figure in early Canadian history. Even though it has no relation to her, nowadays many Canadians enjoy the chocolate and candy company named after Laura Secord, founded 100 years after her trek.
Agnes Macphail, Member of Parliament
Agnes Macphail (1890–1954) was a politician and journalist, and the first woman elected to the Canadian House of Commons and the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. She was born in Grey County, Ont. to a farming family. Though she began her career as a schoolteacher, she became involved in politics while teaching in Sharon, Ont.
In 1921, during the first federal election in which women had the right to vote, Macphail was elected to Parliament as the representative of South-East Grey County. In 1929, she was the first woman nominated as a Canadian delegate to the League of Nations. Macphail was a Member of Parliament for almost 20 years, before she was defeated in the 1940 election. In 1944, she became a Member of Provincial Parliament in Ontario.
Despite the many people who resisted the idea of a powerful female politician, Macphail accomplished many things in her career. She was a voice for rural citizens and the working class. She worked to change terrible conditions in the prison system as well as reduce the use of the military. She fought for women’s rights and helped pass Ontario’s first equal pay legislation in 1951. As the first woman to hold these major roles in the Canadian government, Macphail has left an important and lasting impact.
Jennie Trout, Physician
Jennie Trout (1841–1921) was the first woman licensed to practice medicine in Canada. She was born in Scotland, and her family moved to Ontario when she was six years old. She started her career in teaching but was inspired to pursue medicine after doctors helped treat her chronic illnesses. In 1869, she and her husband Edward moved into the Toronto home of Emily Stowe, a female physician who had studied medicine in New York and was practicing in Canada without a license.
After fighting to be accepted, Trout and Stowe were the first women admitted to the Toronto School of Medicine in 1871, where they were treated poorly by male students and professors. Trout passed her qualifying courses in 1872, but no medical schools in Canada accepted female students at the time. She moved to America to study at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. She came back to Canada after graduating with her MD in 1875 and passed her exams with the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Ontario.
During her medical career, Trout opened a few clinics in Ontario that specialized in treating women and were mostly run by female staff members. She retired as a doctor in 1882 because the stress of her job was affecting her health. She dedicated her later career to promoting medical education for women in Canada. She was involved in the creation of the Women’s Medical College, a medical school in Kingston, Ont.
By becoming the first licensed female medical doctor in Canada and working throughout her later life to help other women work in the medical field, Trout contributed to the advancement of Canadian women in science.
The “Famous Five,” Activists
The “Famous Five” were a group of women’s rights activists who won the “Persons Case” (Edwards v. A.G. of Canada), which allowed women to be appointed to the Senate in Canada. Called the “Alberta Five” by the media at the time, the women were Emily Murphy (Canada’s first female judge), Henrietta Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, and Irene Parlby. Each of them had spent many years fighting for women’s rights, including the right to vote.
Section 24 of the British North America (BNA) Act of 1867 stated that “qualified persons” could be appointed to the Senate—but because of the way the Canadian government interpreted the word “persons,” women were excluded. In 1922, activists suggested Murphy for the Senate. She was denied by the government because the BNA Act “made no provision for women.”
In August 1927, Murphy invited the four other women to meet at her home in Edmonton. They organized a petition to the Supreme Court of Canada to reevaluate whether women could be appointed to the Senate. On April 24, 1928, the Supreme Court ruled that women were not “persons” under Section 24 of the BNA Act. However, the Five challenged the decision at the highest court of appeal at the time: The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, England. On October 18, 1929, the Privy Council reversed the Supreme Court decision, so that the word “persons” would also include women. This, in turn, allowed women to be Senators as well.
The “Famous Five” have a controversial legacy. They advanced women’s political rights in Canada, but their activism excluded women who were not white or middle-class. The group is also associated with the eugenics movement. Murphy and McClung in particular supported laws that forced many people who were considered to have “inferior” genes to be sterilized, so they could not have children. People with disabilities and Indigenous women were especially targeted by these laws.
Although it only benefited women with privilege at the time, the “Persons Case” was a landmark victory that gave women much more influence in Canadian government. Due to the work of the Five, women were legally recognized as “persons” and in the future, could not be denied rights based on a narrow interpretation of the law.
Viola Desmond, Business Owner and Activist
Viola Desmond (1914–1965) was a businesswoman and civil rights activist. She was born in Halifax, where her parents were involved in many organizations as active members of the Black community. She was inspired by their leadership and wanted to become an independent business woman. Desmond opened Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture. Later, she opened a successful beauty school to train and support employment for young Black women.
In 1946, Desmond was on her way to a business meeting when her car broke down, and she had to stop in the town of New Glasgow, N.S. while it was being repaired. She went to the Roseland Theatre to see a movie while she waited. The cashier didn’t want to sell her a ticket for a main floor seat and sold her a ticket for the balcony instead, which is where non-white customers were expected to sit. When she realized she was being refused for being Black, she decided to sit on the main floor anyway. Desmond was confronted by the theatre manager, who called the police when she did not leave her seat. She was arrested and held in a cell overnight.
In the morning, Desmond was taken to court and charged with a tax offense, even though she had tried to pay the one-cent tax to sit on the main floor. She was not given any legal information or representation and was fined $26. Even though the issue of race was not brought up in court, it was clear that this was the real reason for Desmond’s arrest and conviction. She received a lot of support from the Nova Scotia Black community to fight her conviction, but it was not reversed. After separating from her husband, she left her business and ultimately moved to New York City, where she died in 1965.
Desmond was already a community leader and entrepreneur when she made news for standing up against anti-Black racism. Although segregation did not legally end in Nova Scotia until 1954, Desmond’s experience and the community action that followed had a big impact on the fight for racial justice. Her story became much better-known decades after she died, thanks to her sister Wanda Robson. Desmond was given a pardon for her conviction and a formal apology by the government of Nova Scotia in 2010. In 2016, she was chosen to appear on the face of the $10 bill, making her the first woman to be featured by herself on a Canadian banknote.
Mary Two-Axe Earley, Activist
Mary Two-Axe Earley (1911–1996) was a Mohawk activist who fought for the legal rights of First Nations women and children. She was born on the Kahnawà:ke reserve in Quebec, and moved to Brooklyn, N.Y. when she was 18 to find work. There, she met and married Edward Earley, an Irish-American electrical engineer, and they had two children.
Two-Axe Earley helped change laws that discriminated against First Nations women, specifically the Indian Act, which was created in 1876 (see the article “Indigenous terms and how to use them” to learn more about language relating to Indigenous peoples in Canada). It has been changed many times since, but its goal was to force First Nations peoples to become more like Euro-Canadians by imposing many rules. The federal government uses the Act to manage status, a legal identity that applies to some Indigenous peoples in Canada. At the time, the Indian Act reflected the Victorian European idea that women were the property of their husbands, so status was determined by men: First Nations women would inherit status from their father, and then take their husband’s status if they got married. According to the Act, Status women who married a non-Status man would lose their status. These rules led to the oppression of Indigenous women both on and off reserves.
When Two-Axe Earley married, she lost her status. Legally, she could not live, own land, or be buried on the reserve where she grew up. At first, she was not too concerned. However, in 1966, a friend of hers—who had also lost status through marriage—died in her arms of a heart attack after being ordered to leave the Kahnawà:ke reservation and sell her house. Two-Axe Earley believed that the stress from being discriminated against contributed to her friend’s death, and she began to fight for the rights of First Nations women. When her husband died in 1969, she had to transfer ownership of her house to her daughter—who had gained status by marrying a Mohawk man—to return to Kahnawà:ke.
Two-Axe Earley started speaking and writing to create awareness about the mistreatment of women who were denied rights under the Indian Act. She founded the organization Equal Rights for Indian Women (later called Indian Rights for Indian Women). She petitioned the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, leading to a 1970 report recommending that the Act be changed, so it would not discriminate based on sex (the change was not accepted at the time). Two-Axe Earley faced challenges from many people, including the Kahnawà:ke band council. After the council used the Indian Act to try to evict her while she was attending the International Women’s Year conference in Mexico in 1975, she used the conference to gain publicity for the injustice, and the eviction notice was withdrawn.
On June 28, 1985, the Parliament of Canada passed Bill C-31. First Nations women who had lost their status through marriage would have it restored, and status was also given to children from those marriages. The following week, Two-Axe Earley became the first person to officially have her status restored at a ceremony in Toronto. She died on the Kahnawà:ke reservation in 1996. Because of the changes she had fought for during her lifetime, she could be buried on the reserve.
Two-Axe Earley’s decades of activism helped change Canadian laws that were oppressive to Indigenous women and children. She is recognized for her important contributions to the women’s movement in Canada.
To learn more about Two-Axe Earley’s life, check this video.
…and many more!
Collectively and individually, women have been responsible for important events and social change throughout Canadian history. Sometimes we need to make an extra effort to learn about the contributions of women in the past and present—it is worthwhile to get a more inclusive and honest perspective on Canadian society.