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Life in 1900

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Human Rights in Canada: An Historical Perspective

Women's Rights

January 1, 1900

The weaker sex but the more virtuous one; that's how women are seen as the 20th century dawns.

Canadian society recognizes the role of women as important, especially when it comes to education and family, but secondary to the role of men. Women are believed to need protection.

The laws of the country reflect this.

Although women can vote in municipal elections in 4 provinces, they cannot vote anywhere in Canada federally or provincially, and cannot run for office.

With the exception of British Columbia, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Ontario, in most provinces, when a woman marries she loses her right to hold property. All her wealth and goods pass to her husband. A married woman can't make legal contracts or go into business on her own. The reforms that changed that in the provinces mentioned above are as recent as two years ago.

Divorce laws make it difficult, if not often impossible, to escape an abusive marriage. Women who claim to have been sexually assaulted are given little support by the courts.

Women work, but they hold lower paying jobs, such as domestic servants. A woman's average income is likely to be about half of a man's. Until 1880, no woman had practiced medicine in Canada. In 1897, Clara Brett Martin became the first woman lawyer in Canada despite intense opposition from members of the profession.

Thanks to the intervention of the Grey Nuns who, as early as 1893, opened free "shelters" to care for children, Francophone women in Montreal can work outside of the home more readily than their Anglophone compatriots, who lack access to similar "childcare" services.

So what can women do? Volunteer! They organize numerous charities, political and social groups, and lead the fight against alcohol use. They fight for the vote and tackle issues like child welfare, prostitution, and Canada's ethnic and cultural purity. To avoid subservience to men, they form separate groups, like the Women's Christian Temperance Movement, Women's Institutes and Local Councils of Women.

Women make up about 13% of the work force in Canada. 40% of these are employed in domestic service.

By 1900, women have won the right to vote municipally in the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia
Ontario and Prince Edward Island but not in provincial and federal elections?

Women make up more than 80% of the Catholic teaching personnel in Quebec. They are paid two to three times less than male teachers and do not have access to the same training; moreover, lay teachers suffer the competition of the nuns, who hold 35% of the elementary school positions and are not required to undergo an admissions examination

The nursing profession is monopolized by nuns. Girls had been admitted as students at the Notre-Dame hospital in Montréal only three years earlier.

A French-speaking woman in Quebec who wishes to exercise her talents is best advised to join a religious community. They have a virtual stranglehold on education, nursing, and charitable works (orphanages, childcare, hospices, etc.). They employ hundreds of people and manage substantial funds.

Like Mother, Like Daughter

In 1883, Dr. Augusta Stowe Gullen became the first woman to graduate from a Canadian medical school. She was the daughter of Emily Howard Stowe, who in 1880 was the first woman to practice medicine in Canada, after graduating from an American medical school.

A Working Woman's Life (1889)
Average hours worked per week 54
Average number of days worked/year 359
Average income 216.71
Cost of clothing 67.31
Cost of room and board 126.28
Total cost of living 214.28
Surplus 2.43

Source Canadian Encyclopaedia