Review in Prairie Books NOW

Today’s women in Canada – and society in general – owe much to the activist women of the past. About Canada: Women’s Rights documents the feminist struggle, from gender roles in First Nations societies before the colonization of Canada by European settlers, through to women’s demands for the right to vote, attend university, and divorce, to the fight for child protection laws, wage equality, and better working conditions. Author Penni Mitchell was inspired by what she says is the largely unknown history of women in Canada. “Many people have heard of Nellie McLung or Laura Secord, but not a lot of people know that the first female newspaper publisher in Canada was Mary Ann Shadd, a Black woman who came to Canada from the US to aid the settlement of former slaves in the Windsor area. This was in 1850 or so. And she was also a supporter of female suffrage – very much ahead of her time!” says Mitchell. In fact, women have been instrumental in the area of social justice for more than 100 years. But history is biased and women’s contributions are usually forgotten. “So Tommy Douglas is reverentially called the Father of Medicare, but what about Annie Gale of Calgary who was lobbying for municipal hospitals in 1915?” asks Mitchell. Many women were involved in key moments in our history, but they don’t often get the credit because their stories aren’t what are taught in classrooms. “And why is that? It’s unfair, it’s inaccurate, and it’s a national disgrace,” says Mitchell, who has been the managing editor of Herizons, a feminist magazine, for 22 years. Working on the book was a side project for the past three years, fuelled by inspiration. “I was inspired over and over again as I read about these women’s lives,” she says. Lives like that of Emily Howard Stowe, the first female physician to practise in Canada, who also started the first women’s organization devoted to women’s equality in Canada, the Toronto Women’s Literary Society, in 1876, and helped set up the first women’s medical college in Canada. And with gender quality still an issue in contemporary society, About Canada: Women’s Rights provides enough background for readers to understand that the struggles faced today are in many ways similar to those that have already been faced by women. “I think that every generation of girls and women faces unique hurdles in terms of gender and equality, but all of those obstacles have the same purpose: to make girls and women feel less than. Right now, the sexual objectification of girls in the media seems way more intense in some ways than it was 30 years ago. So girls and women have ‘rights’ – thanks to the work of feminists – but this means people dismiss feminism as passé. Yet girls and women are still judged based on their attractiveness, their sexual desirability,” Mitchell explains. “This idea that women must meet impossible gendered, sexist standards in order to be taken seriously, to matter, has to be taken down in order for equality to have any social currency. Every generation of women must fight double standards in order to inch us further forward.”

— Paula E. Kirman for Prairie Books NOW

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