By JASLEEN KAUR KALRA
Before Oct. 18, 1929, women were not persons, as no one really paid attention to the fact the word woman includes man.
The battle began in 1916 with Emily Murphy’s first day as a judge. Lawyers had challenged her rulings because she was not a “person” under Canadian law. However, by 1927 the women gathered support across Canada. They petitioned the Supreme Court, and on Friday, Oct. 18, it was officially declared a woman could be considered a person.
The historic victory was due to the efforts of the Famous Five — Murphy, Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards.
Before this, everyone followed the patriarchy system — a social system in which the father is the head of the family and men have authority over women and children.
Patriarchy is a system of male dominance created to control women, private property and war.
The famous and interesting argument in support of it is based on the word “person”, which means “per son” or “son of”. As no female could be the “son of” anyone, the lawyers argued, it was impossible for women to be “persons” legally.
Wendee Kubik, a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Brock University, in St. Catharines, says, “Probably why I am a woman studies professor is because I see inequality between women and men, and I want to help raise awareness so [that in] the next generation there is more equality.”
“As the woman myself, I am very privileged. I feel privilege because I am living in Canada. … I had never thought that I would become a professor, that I had this opportunity throughout my lifetime to be where I am now.”
However, Kubik says there are still many places where women aren’t allowed to think.
“We see, when a couple becomes parents, it is the woman’s job to look after the baby,” says Kubik. “We have women in many areas, and you can see all their talent. Everyone should be considered equally.”
Kubik says for her the word person means human being. She says the Famous Five did “amazing work”, which they were criticized for, but they did make a difference.
Margot Francis, associate professor in Women’s and Gender Studies/Sociology at Brock University, says women in Canada still earn roughly 72 cents to every dollar earned by men — all the while taking care of the majority of childcare, eldercare and housework.
While there have been real advances in law and more diverse representations of women in media, other changes have come more slowly, Francis says.
After winning an identity as people, women are still striving for absolute equality. Francis says the inequality is so normalized in the economic and household arrangements of most families that it is viewed as self-chosen rather than the result of complex economic and social systems. The end result sees most women working double or triple time compared to men, Francis says.
She adds that the Persons Case decision was “a spurious argument made by lawyers who wanted, at all costs, to prevent women from being considered equal humans in law.”
“Basing a legal decision on who is considered human and, therefore, to be granted the dignity of equal rights in law, on the analysis of language, which is constantly in flux, and reflects the prejudices of its day, is simply a way to keep marginalized groups down – with no legal recourse to challenge that situation,” Francis says.
Mehak Mighda (name changed), originally from India but now living in Canada, says, “I congratulate Canada and especially the women of Canada for celebrating the 84th anniversary of Persons Day and also October is considered as Women’s History month. I am very happy and I am proud to be a woman. I do things the way I want; no one is there to stop me from anything. My parents support me a lot.”
While discussing the education system of India’s villages, she says women are still prohibited from getting an education. She is only considered capable of cleaning a home, taking care of her baby and cooking food for her husband, who could come home with another woman while the wife, considered a housekeeper, will cook and serve hot food to her husband and the other woman.
Mighda says today, Indian courts are flooded with cases of crimes against women, including rape, assault and death. Women have also been divorced when they have been unable to bear a male child.
Meena Sikander is a former student of Georgian College in Barrie, Ont. Sikander belonged to Punrasar village in Bikaner, Rajasthan before moving to Canada two years ago. She says that at the age of 12 or 13, when she used to look at herself and who she is as a woman, she was “very amazed and proud.”
Sikander, now 20 years old, says society in India is still largely male-dominated and looks down upon women. The birth of a female child is often regarded as a disaster, and female foeticide is common in parts of India.
“We all know that birth of a male child is celebrated, [and the demand of a] dowry is another disgusting practice. It is hard to say, but it’s the truth.”
“In my village, parents don’t trust their daughter, but they do trust a son.”
Sikander says if a girl makes a true statement and it’s questioned by someone else, her parents would trust another person rather than trusting their own daughter. They will stop her from returning to school, and worried about the effect on their honour, they will start planning to get her married no matter what her age is.
Everyone knows a few years ago women were not allowed to read and write; all rights and decisions were given to men. The husband was the master of the house.
After the victory of the Famous Five on June 11, 1938, former Prime Minister Mackenzie King revealed a sign honouring the activists and their work. Murphy did not survive to see it.