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My life as a woman in Canada

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By Dr. Barbara Landau

Women in Canada have only recently come close to equal treatment. We were not allowed to vote until WW1 (1914-18) and Quebec only granted women the vote in 1940. Even with the vote, women did not have rights separate from their husbands. Until 1929, women were not considered “persons” under our Constitution for the purpose of serving in the Senate.

I will share a sample of my experiences that hopefully young women today will find unthinkable.

I am both a psychologist and a lawyer. In the early 1960s when I told the Deans of both the Psychology Department and the Law School that I was planning to apply, their response was: “Why would we want to waste a graduate school position on a woman – you will just get married, have babies and stay home?” or “Why do you want to go to Law School – you would be the only woman?” or “Even if we accepted you – no one would give you a job – except possibly to make coffee in the back room.”

When I applied for my first job as a psychologist in a hospital, I proudly brought my graduate school transcripts. The smile on my face froze as the chief psychiatrist showed no interest in my marks and instead asked “What kind of birth control are you on?” In my next job as Chief Psychologist at the Family Court my boss said “Surely you don’t expect the same salary as a man – after all you have a man to support you.” And the Chief Judge welcomed me with “I am delighted they finally hired someone with nice legs.” These experiences were demoralizing and my hope is the next generation will not face these obstacles.

In Canada, we pride ourselves on our advances in gender equality. We tend to gloat when comparing our status in North America with other “less advanced” cultures. While I welcome the advances, they are still very recent. Today the barriers are not so transparent, but trust me the glass ceiling is still very much in place!

Ontario Advisory Council on the Status of Women – a catalyst for change

While I was at the Family Court, in 1973, I was appointed to the first Ontario Advisory Council on the Status of Women. It was a lifetime highlight. We were fearless – full of constructive feminist rage – the best kind – we felt WORTHY of EQUAL TREATMENT!! We believed that everyone benefits when women have equal rights to education, health care and job opportunities. Here are a few examples of the important issues we tackled:

Family law: In the 1970s when couples separated, each spouse got the property he or she paid for. In most families, women bought the groceries and men bought the larger items. When they separated, women got the leftovers in the fridge and men got the home, cottage, pension, business – and the fridge. Marriage was NOT seen as a social and economic partnership and women did not have a right to an equal division of family or business property. 

Status of Women changes – Within a few years we had a system whereby all property accumulated during the marriage was shared equally at separation.

Criminal law: Men in a provincial prison got to attend college and university on the only bus available and male inmates got to earn money for part-time community work. Female inmates in a nearby prison got to attend hairstyling and make-up classes inside the institution – and could not earn money or apply for welfare until two weeks after they left jail – so how did they earn first and last month’s rent? Your guess – often with the same skills that got them arrested.

Status of Women changes – The system changed so that women could apply for welfare two weeks before being released. Also, the prison found a way to share the bus so women could participate in post secondary education.

Banking: There were no women on the boards of any banks. When we asked the CEO of one of the banks about this, he answered, “Why would we need a woman on the Board – we have already chosen the colour of the drapes?” We wrote an editorial in the newspaper inviting women to remove their money from that bank.

Status of Women changes – Within 10 days they had appointed a woman to the board – and other banks quickly followed.

Also, women couldn’t get a credit card in their own name, so I decided to apply as a test case. The bank where I applied called my husband – “Did you know that your wife applied for HER OWN credit card?

Status of Women changes – My husband empathized with the banker – and then said, “My best advice is – give her the credit card – you have no idea what trouble you will face if you don’t.”

Maternity leave and day care: Women who had maternity leave in their contracts, could take off nine weeks BEFORE giving birth and seven weeks AFTER. I asked the Minister of Community and Social Services why women had to leave BEFORE giving birth and how many spaces there were for seven-week-old babies? I said, “Imagine if men had to leave the workforce every time they gained 20 pounds!” Also, I pointed out that there were only 20 spaces in Toronto for infants so that women could not actually return to work.

The result – We got the rules changed so that the timing became more flexible, maternity leave became “family leave” and day care spaces were expanded – although there are still far too few spaces to ensure women can return to work.

There are many more examples of issues we addressed on behalf of equality rights for women, but the key point is that the protections for women are very recent and the job is not complete.

Our strategies for making changes and lobbying government:

  • We invited CEOs, government officials and the press to our public meetings.
  • We met with women affected by inequalities behind the scenes, listened without judgment and advocated for their needs. For example, I went to a women’s prison and met with inmates without staff present to determine their priorities.
  • We organized large conferences to draw attention to women’s inequality and create recommendations for law reform.

Fortunately, the situation has changed for the better. In my lifetime I have seen huge changes in the laws that provide greater equality for women. Today the situation is not perfect. We need to be continually vigilant to protect the rights and freedoms we have painfully won in Canada. As women we need to use our influence to build bridges of trust and goodwill, rather than sharpening divisions and distrust within and between our racial, cultural and religious groups. We need to work together and motivate the next generation. Knowledge of our past is crucial to protecting and shaping our future.

Landau, Dr. Barbara, “My life as a woman in Canada,” Living Rights Project, Ontario Human Rights Commission, October 2012. Online: Ontario Human Rights Commission

Dr. Barbara Landau is currently Co-Chair of the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims. In 2012, she received the Women’s Intercultural Network Award in memory of Dr. Vera P. Singh and a Diamond Jubilee Award for community service.