Women's Movements in Canada

Canadian women have participated in many social movements, both on their own, and allied with men.

Approximately 1000 Idle No More protesters in Windsor Ontario on January 16, 2013.
Image:The Canadian Press/Geoff Robins.\r\n
Demonstrators take part in a protest against Quebec's proposed Values Charter in Montreal on Saturday Sept. 14, 2013. Image: The Canadian Press/Ryan Remiorz.\r\n
Toronto s Black Community takes action in solidarity with Ferguson protesters
TORONTO, ONTARIO/CANADA - 25th Tuesday November 2014 : Hundreds of demonstrators gather outside the U.S. Consulate, holding candlelight vigil in Toronto,Canada.nToronto's Black community and its allies are outraged over the St. Louis County Grand Jury's decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the shooting death of an unarmed Black teenager, Mike Brown.
Voice of Women for Vietnamese Children meeting, circa 1970
Mary Two-Axe Earley
Mary Two-Axe Earley receiving the Governor General's Persons Case Award for contributing to equality for women and girls in Canada, 17 October 1979.

Canadian women have participated in many social movements, both on their own, and allied with men. Feminism, or the belief that women have been historically disadvantaged and this ought to change, inspires much engagement and action. Feminists draw on various political traditions: liberals put their faith in incremental change within the existing (capitalist) system, radicals emphasize the overthrow of patriarchy, and socialists target capitalism as the source of inequality. At various times, individuals have drawn on one and all of these perspectives for inspiration in achieving equality.

Huntington Copper Mine
Women workers sorting copper ore in Bolton, Québec, 1867 (courtesy McCord Museum).
Ukrainians
Ukrainian women cutting logs at Athabasca, Alta, 1930 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-19134).
Mary Ann Shadd Cary, c. 1845-55.
Jennie Trout, physician
Trout was the first woman licensed to practise medicine in Canada (courtesy Federation of Medical Women of Canada).

While the metaphor of “feminist waves” has been used to designate activist periods — commonly suffragists as the first wave (see Women’s Suffrage), the protesters of the 1960s and 1970s as the second, with third and fourth waves emerging in the late 20th and early 21st centuries — the metaphor puts too much stress on discontinuity. Canadian women’s movements are better seen as evolving, overlapping and multi-focused.

Voice of Women for Vietnamese Children meeting, circa 1970
National Council of Women
At Rideau Hall, Ottawa, Ontario, October 1898.
Political Equality League Presents Petition, 1915
Presentation of petition by the Political Equality League for the enfranchisement of women, 23 December 1915. Clockwise from top left: A.V. Thomas, F.J. Dixon, Amelia Burritt, Dr. Mary Crawford (courtesy Archives of Manitoba, Events 173/3, N9905).
Ukrainians
Ukrainian women cutting logs at Athabasca, Alta, 1930 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-19134).

In the late 20th century, Canadian and international scholars developed the terms intersectionality and standpoint to understand such diversity. Activists have variously prioritized identities rooted in class, race and ethnicity, sexuality, age and ability, as well as sex and gender. In other words, women are always more than their gender and sex. Other collectivities also give their lives meaning and shape their politics. Yet, for all their diverse movements, women in Canada have often believed they shared special qualities that needed representation in public life.

The history of women’s movements in Canada is the subject of three survey entries: Early Women’s Movements in Canada: 1867–1960, Women’s Movements in Canada: 1960–85, and Women’s Movements in Canada: 1985–Present.

Read More // Women in Canada

Further Reading

  • Penni Mitchell, About Canada: Women’s Rights (2015)

  • Ruth Roach Pierson, Marjorie Griffin Cohen, et al., Canadian Women’s Issues: Volume I: Strong Voices (1993) and Volume II: Bold Visions (1995)

  • Wendy Robbins, Meg Luxton, Margrit Eichler and Francine Descarries, eds., Minds of Our Own: Inventing Feminist Scholarship and Women’s Studies in Canada and Québec, 1966–76 (2008)

  • Joan Sangster, “Creating popular histories: re-interpreting ‘second wave’ Canadian feminism,” Dialect Anthropology 39 (2015)

  • Manon Tremblay, and Rejean Pelletier, “Feminist Women in Canadian Politics: A Group Ideologically Divided?” Atlantis vol. 28, no. 1 (2003)

  • Manon Tremblay, ed., Queer Mobilizations: Social Movement Activism and Canadian Public Policy (2015)

  • Denyse Baillargeon, A Brief History of Women in Quebec (2014)

  • Constance Backhouse and D.H. Flaherty, eds., Challenging Times. The Women's Movement in Canada and the United States (1992)