Review in Candian Woman Studies/Les Cahiers de la Femme

If history is the study of the past as it relates to human beings, the About Canada: Women’s Rights brings 150 years of that past vividly to life through the names and stories of the countless women whose courage and hard work helped shape Canada into the country of essential, if not always actual, equality, justice and caring it is today. Using secondary sources, Penni Mitchell, editor of Winnipeg-based Herizons magazine, succeeds admirably in her objective to shine a spotlight on “just some of the women who climbed on soapboxes and defied the limitation of their gender” to bring about change. Beginning in the mid-1800s and following through to 1999 (with a nod to First Nation and colonial era women before those dates), Mitchell tells the stories of the many firsts by women. New France (today’s Québec) had no shortage of such firsts: It saw the first hospital in 1645, the first school for girls in 1676, and the first recorded public protest by women in 1757 against the governor’s proposed reduction in public rations of bread and meat. The first female principal in Canada was Emily Stowe of Ontario; in 1867, she became the first woman to practice medicine in Canada, after having had to train in the U.S. because she was denied entry to the U of T’s medical school on the basis of her sex. In 1921, Agnes Macphail became the first woman elected as a member of parliament. The list of women with impact – first or otherwise – goes on: You’ll read about familiar names, including Nellie McClung, Madeleine Parent, Muriel Duckworth, and Judy Rebick, to name just four. But you’ll also read about women you’ve likely never heard of , including Thanadelthur, a young Dene woman in 1713 who was an instrumental negotiator in the fur trade in northern Manitoba; Agathe de Saint-Père, a successful businesswoman in early 1700s Quebec; Mary Ann Shadd, active in the Underground Railway in the early 1800s, a proponent of integration, an author and a newspaper publisher; Margaret Bulkley, who assumed a male identity and practiced as a surgeon in the mid-1800s; Elsie Gregory MacGill, North America’s first female aeronautical engineer (1927); and many more. The individual women’s stories are fascinating, and when woven together they tell the larger story of social change effected through collective action. Women worked together in clubs, institutes, councils, action committees, funds, and leagues. For example, women gathered in the guise of ‘literary’ clubs to organize politically; the National Council of Women was founded in 1893 to fight for equal wages and public health services; in the early 1900s university women’s clubs advocated for equal pay and suffrage; in 1904, the Canadian Women’s Press club brought together women reformers who were earning their living as published writers. Fast forward over the decades to the late 20th century and you’ll learn about the work of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (CARAL), the Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), the DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN), Le front de libération des femmes du Québec, and others. Read the book linearly from start to end to experience the sense of evolving rights over the decades – and the work that remains to be done to achieve genuine equality. Or read it backwards by skipping from the index to the pages of particular interest to you. Either way, Mitchell’s writing will pull you in. The end notes organized by chapter offer full references for the sources she used; in so doing, they provide the reader wanting more than this slim volume – it is just 206 pages – can offer. Mitchell’s book is like a well presented and inspiring survey course in women’s history: It dips the reader’s toe into the vast collective of women who, individually and together, faced hardship, isolation and ridicule and yet kept working to improve women’s lives by increasing the scope of their rights. About Canada: Women’s Rights is a must-read as either introduction to, or reminder of, the vital contributions women have made to Canada through the end of the 20th century. - Amanda Le Rougetel

— Canadian Woman Studies/Les Cahiers de la Femme



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