Read the 30 Women Who Ruled Canadian History
To mark the a century since the first women won the vote in Canada, the magazine Canada's History recruited a panel of prominent Canadians to compile a list of great Canadian women from the past. The list is inspiring, rich with familiar names and some new ones. Now, we've created a Great Canadian Women Reading List to go along with it. Not all these women have books of their own (aspiring biographers, take note!), so in these cases we've found articles and other materials to highlight their amazing lives and contributions.
Happy International Women's Day.
Doris Anderson (1921–2007)
READ: Rebel Daughter, by Doris Anderson
During her twenty years as the editor of Chatelaine magazine, Doris Anderson blazed a trail for Canadian women. Long before Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was published, Anderson was writing about abortion, child care, custody arrangements, and pay equity. Her editorials laid the foundation for the feminist movement in Canada. In Rebel Daughter, we are introduced to the life of this fascinating and influential woman. We learn of her turbulent early years in Depression-era Alberta and her sometimes frustrating efforts to establish herself as a professional journalist in Toronto in the 1940s. We are given a behind-the-scenes look at her often stormy years with Maclean Hunter and at her decades-long editorship of Chatelaine. We experience her struggles as head of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women and her fight to have one simple statement enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms: that men and women are equal under the law. Hard-hitting, moving, controversial, and inspirational, Rebel Daughter is the no-holds-barred story of an exceptional Canadian woman.
Kenojuak Ashevak (1927–2013)
WATCH: Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak, by John Feeney at the NFB
This documentary shows how an Inuit artist's drawings are transferred to stone, printed and sold. Kenojuak Ashevak became the first woman involved with the printmaking co-operative in Cape Dorset. This film was nominated for the 1963 Documentary Short Subject Oscar.
Emily Carr (1871–1945)
READ: Emily Carr, by Maria Tippett
This classic of Canadian art biography, which won the Governor General's Award for Non-fiction, is a remarkable portrait of one of Canada's greatest artists.
Emily Carr's life was filled with tension, between the conventions of society and her own originality, between her relationships with others and her often lonely struggle to overcome obstacles, between happiness and despair. Acclaimed writer and historian Maria Tippett has captured the essence of this complex life, weaving a narrative that is at once sympathetic and penetrating.
Mary Shadd Cary (1823–1893)
READ: A Plea for Emigration, by Mary Shadd Cary
Originally published in 1852, Mary A. Shadd's A Plea for Emigration; or, Notes of Canada West appears here for the first time in print since the 1850s. Many emigrant guides have been accorded classic status in the realm of early Canadian literature, among them Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush and Catherine Parr Trail's The Canadian Settler's Guide. Shadd's document sheds new, intriguing light on Canadian history and African-Canadian realities in the nineteenth century.
Thérèse Casgrain (1896–1981)
READ: A Woman in a Man's World, by Thérèse Casgrain
Canada's foremost feminist reflects upon her early life and upon her involvement, as a witness and active participant, in fifty years of significant social and political events in Canada.
Ga’axstal’as, Jane Constance Cook (1870–1951)
READ: Standing Up with Ga'axsta'las: Jane Constance Cook and the Politics of Memory, Church, and Custom, by Leslie A. Robertson and the Kwagu’l Gixsam Clan
Standing Up with Ga'axsta'las tells the remarkable story of Jane Constance Cook (1870-1951), a controversial Kwakwaka'wakw leader and activist who lived during a period of enormous colonial upheaval. Working collaboratively, Robertson and Cook's descendants draw on oral histories and textual records to create a nuanced portrait of a high-ranked woman, a cultural mediator, devout Christian, and Aboriginal rights activist who criticized potlatch practices for surprising reasons. This powerful meditation on memory and cultural renewal documents how the Kwagu'l Gixsam have revived their long-dormant clan in the hopes of forging a positive cultural identity for future generations through feasting and potlatching.
Viola Desmond (1914–1965)
In Nova Scotia, in 1946, an usher in a movie theatre told Viola Desmond to move from her main floor seat up to the balcony. She refused to budge. Viola knew she was being asked to move because she was black. After all, she was the only black person downstairs. All the other black people were up in the balcony. In no time at all, the police arrived and took Viola to jail. The next day she was charged and fined, but she vowed to continue her struggle against such unfair rules. She refused to accept that being black meant she couldn't sit where she wanted.
Viola's determination gave strength and inspiration to her community at the time. She is an unsung hero of the North American struggle against injustice and racial discrimination whose story deserves to be widely known.
The African Canadian community in Nova Scotia is one of Canada's oldest and most established black communities. Despite their history and contributions to the province the people in this community have a long experience of racially based injustice. Like Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks, who many years later, in 1955, refused to give up their bus seats in Alabama, Desmond's act of refusal awakened people to the unacceptable nature of racism and began and process of bringing an end to racial segregation in Canada.
Mary Two–Axe Earley (1911–1996)
READ: "Mary Two-Axe Earley: Footprints", by Wayne Brown, Aboriginal Multimedia Society
Mary Two-Axe Earley, a Mohawk from Kahnawake, Quebec, changed the lives of thousands of Aboriginal women and their children. She undertook a long and tenacious equal rights campaign on behalf of Aboriginal women who lost their Indian status under the law, and the rights and benefits to which this status entitled them, when they married non-Indians. In 1985, largely because of Two-Axe Earley’s efforts, Parliament passed legislation amending the Indian Act to eliminate the discrimination that penalized Status Indians who were women (while permitting men to marry whom they chose without sanctions), and to provide a reinstatement process. Once reinstated, the women could reclaim their rights under the Act. Among other things, this opened the door to much better health and education services for them and their children.
Marcelle Ferron (1924–2001)
READ: "Celebrating Women's Achievements: Marcelle Ferron," Library and Archives Canada
Delving into the cultural universe of Marcelle Ferron gives one a sudden feeling for the artist. Marcelle Ferron broke the ground for women painters in Quebec. Daring, headstrong and devoted to her art and her work, she faced and overcame many obstacles. Through her work as a glass maker, she contributed to research in the applied arts in the field of architecture in Quebec. Her life as a painter and her political and social views have rendered her a permanent fixture of our cultural landscape.
Hannah (Annie) Gale (1876–1970)
READ: Alderman Mrs. Annie Gale, by Judith Lishman
First alderwoman in the British Empire. When Annie Gale and her husband William immigrated to Calgary from England in 1912 she was appalled by the high costs of housing and food. Determined to change things, she helped to establish a local consumers’ league. A strong advocate for workers and women, she helped to organize the Women’s Ratepayers’ Association and it was this group of women who asked her to run for city council in 1917. Gale won a seat to become the first woman elected to municipal office in the British Empire. She also broke new ground when, while in office, she occasionally served as acting mayor. Gale’s non-partisan approach inspired other reformers, including Nellie McClung. (Description taken from Canada's History)
Anne Hébert (1916–2000)
READ: Anne Hébert: Essays on her Works, by Lee Skallerup (Editor)
Anne Hébert made Quebec literature internationally known. Her poems, stories and novels brought the passion and mysteries of rural Quebec to wider audiences and forced English Canada to translate the French literature of North America. We can never forget the stories in Le Torrent or the poems in Le Tombeau des rois. We meet our sisters and brothers face-to-face on every page. These essays are a tribute to Hébert's literary grace and power as an author.
See also Anne Hébert's 49th Shelf Author Page
Adelaide Hoodless (1857–1910)
READ: Adelaide Hoodless: Domestic Crusader, by Cheryl MacDonald
Adelaide Hunter Hoodless, lifelong crusader for the recognition of the domestic sciences (cooking, sewing, childcare and housework) and an early proponent of home economics in Canada, was considered one of the radical new woman of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She helped turn the Canadian YWCA into a national organization. She founded the Women’s Institute, assisted in the founding of the Victorian Order of Nurses and represented Canada on numerous International Councils of Women, as well as establishing the first school for the training of domestic science teachers in Canada and putting together the first Canadian domestic science textbook, popularly known as the Little Red Book.
Pauline Johnson (1861–1913)
READ: Pauline, by Betty Keller
Brought up in a strict and sheltered household, the daughter of a Mohawk chief and a non-native woman, Pauline Johnson struggled to make an independent life for herself.
She found it as a poet and performer whose dramatic recitals skirted the boundaries of what was acceptable to "respectable" Canadian society. Her performances took her from the backwoods of British Columbia's gold country to the drawing rooms of England. Onstage she assumed the role of an Indian princess, while in her personal life she observed Victorian moral strictures, all the while falling regularly and desperately into unrequited love.
Pauline is the fascinating story of a charismatic woman whose struggles with culture and identity still engage us today.
Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie (1867–1945)
READ: Marie Gérin-Lajoie: Conquérante de la Liberté, by Anne-Marie Sicotte
For half a century, Marie Gérin-Lajoie deployed indefatigable ardor to fight prejudice toward women, who were then considered by many as impressionable beings with weak nerves and limited intellectual faculties. This biography highlights the exceptional destiny of this pioneer of the struggle for the right to vote and the right to education for women of French Canada. Tirelessly, she denounced the situation through activism. Outraged to be, just because of her sex, a second class citizen prohibited from not only a range of occupations, but also from exercising the right to vote, she set up union groups for various categories of workers and founded a federation of women's associations that transformed the isolated women into a powerful collective voice. It thus opened the great breach through which the next generation of feminists (including her own daughter, sister Marie Gérin-Lajoie, and activists Idola Saint-Jean and Thérèse Casgrain) has obtained significant victories. In this sense, she paved the way for the explosion of the Quebec feminist movement in the 1960s. (This biography is in French.)
Margaret Laurence (1926–1987)
READ: The Life of Margaret Laurence, by James King
The magnificent and long-awaited biography of the beloved writer who gave us the Manawaka novels, including The Diviners and The Stone Angel.
Agnes Macphail (1890–1954)
READ: Agnes Macphail: Champion of the Underdog, by Rachel Wyatt
Agnes Macphail, first woman elected to the House of Commons in Canada, fought for the rights of farmers, for prison reform, for social programs, for peace. She worked all her life for women's equality, and by her own example she inspired other women.
Julia Verlyn LaMarsh (1924–1980)
READ: Memoirs of a Bird in a Gilded Cage, by Julia (Judy) LaMarsh
Julia Verlyn LaMarsh, "Judy," lawyer, politician, broadcaster, novelist. Liberal MP for Niagara Falls 1960-68, Judy LaMarsh was a controversial member of Prime Minister Pearson Cabinet and was responsible for some of that government's more innovative legislation. Under her aegis as minister of national health and welfare (now Health Canada) 1963-65, the Canada Pension Plan was implemented and Canada's "medicare" system designed. As secretary of state 1965-68, she brought in the Broadcasting Act, presided over the Centennial Year celebrations, and established the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada.
Nellie McClung (1873–1951)
READ: Nellie McClung: The Complete Autobiography, edited by Veronica Strong-Boag and Michelle Lynn Ross
Nellie Letitia McClung (1873-1951) is recognized as a key figure in Canadian history as well as Canadian literature. Her two-volume autobiography provides a remarkable and very readable account of a truly extraordinary life. McClung is best known for her involvement in the 1929 "Person's Case," in which the British Privy Council ruled in favour of an appeal by the "Famous Five" against the judgement of the Supreme Court of Canada that women did not qualify legally as persons. McClung had, however, been a high profile figure, as a suffragist, politician, and writer, in Canadian politics and literature for many years and remained so well into the 1940s. Her autobiography provides unique insight into Canadian public affairs in the first half of the twentieth century. Equally interesting are McClung's accounts of her early days as a child, teacher, young wife and mother. With her fine eye for detail, she makes the Canada of her time come vividly alive for readers.
See also, Hyena in Petticoats, by Willow Dawson, a graphic biography for younger readers.
Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874–1942)
READ: Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings, by Mary Henley Rubio
Mary Henley Rubio has spent over two decades researching Montgomery’s life, and has put together a comprehensive and penetrating picture of this Canadian literary icon, all set in rich social context. Extensive interviews with people who knew Montgomery – her son, maids, friends, relatives, all now deceased – are only part of the material gathered in a journey to understand Montgomery that took Rubio to Poland and the highlands of Scotland.
From Montgomery’s apparently idyllic childhood in Prince Edward Island to her passion-filled adolescence and young adulthood, to her legal fights as world-famous author, to her shattering experiences with motherhood and as wife to a deeply troubled man, this fascinating, intimate narrative of her life will engage and delight.
Angelina Napolitano (1882–1932)
WATCH: Looking for Angelina, 2005 film
Looking for Angelina was a 2005 Canadian drama film based on the murder case involving Angelina Napolitano. Napolitano allegedly murdered her husband with an axe and was sentenced to be executed.
In 2003, independent film director Sergio Navarretta began researching Angelina’s life for a documentary, but expanded the project into a feature film “once we realized how dramatic the facts were.” The film, Looking for Angelina, was shot in two weeks in 2004 at Sault Ste. Marie.The writers, Alessandra Piccione and Frank Canino, took inspiration from Canino’s play The Angelina Project.
The film was released in both English and Italian. Looking For Angelina won three awards: A Special Recognition at the Cimameriche Film Festival and Best Feature (Drama) and Quitus Award of Distinction at the Quitus Film Festival in Montreal.
See also: Looking for Angelina: A Learning Guide on Family Violence, which was released in conjunction with the film.
Nahnebahwequay, Catherine Sutton (1824–1870?)
READ: "standing-upright woman," by Candy Spencer at Feminist Juice
Christian missionary and spokesperson for Ojibwa people. Nahnebahwequay, also known as Catherine Sutton, took issue with the Indian Department in 1857, which prevented First Nations people from purchasing their own ceded land. She travelled to England to present the case to the colonial secretary and the British Crown. A group of Quakers in New York funded her voyage and provided her with a letter of introduction. She was introduced to Queen Victoria on June 19, 1860. The intervention of the British government allowed her and her husband, William, to buy back their land, but nothing was done for other First Nations families. Upon returning to Canada, she continued to argue for the rights of indigenous people. Photo: Copyright Grey Roots Museum, Owen Sound. (Description taken from Canada's History)
Madeleine Parent (1918–2012)
READ: Madeleine Parent, Activist, edited by Andrée Lévesque
Madeleine Parent's political activism has been a source of inspiration since her involvement in the textile strikes of the 1940s and 1950s. In this collection, Andree Levesque's team of writers brings to life Parent's battles as a feminist and a trade unionist, shedding light on the historical context of her work and her impact on Canadian history. Ten articles and a special portfolio of photographs explore the political struggles of this passionate Canadian artist. Born in 1918 in Montreal, Parent played a key role in the textile strikes in Quebec and in establishing Canadian unions. She has also been a champion of women's rights, active in campaigns for pay equity, for the right to abortion and for the rights of immigrant and Native women. An iconic figure in the history of Canadian political struggle, Parent has a fearless and continuing commitment to social and economic justice that continues to inspire.
Gabrielle Roy (1909–1983)
READ: Gabrielle Roy: Creation and Memory, by Linda Clemente and Bill Clemente
Introducing readers to the complex, driven, and sensitive woman from the small town of Saint-Boniface, Manitoba, who won the hearts and minds of readers everywhere with her first novel, Bonheur d'Occasion (The Tin Flute), this book draws upon considerable resources to explore the aspects of Roy's life that account for the scope of her writing. It also examines in detail the roots of some of the major themes that inform her works—from Canada's rich and endangered multicultural heritage, to the ambivalent roles of progress and politics. This illustrated biography highlights three pivotal phases in Gabrielle Roy's life: her early years growing up and then teaching in Manitoba; her two-year stay in France and England in the late 1930s; and her return from Europe to live in Quebec. It was in this last period that Roy honed her craft and then, as she traveled across the country, learned about the Canada she came to describe in ways that altered the course of literary history.
Charlotte Small (1785–1857)
READ: Woman of the Paddle Song, by Elizabeth Clutton-Brock
Explorer David Thompson’s wife and interpreter. Charlotte Small was born at Île-à-la-Crosse, a fur trade post in what is now northern Saskatchewan. She was the daughter of a Cree woman and a white trader with the North West Company. Raised among her mother’s people, her knowledge of both English and Cree made her a valuable companion to Thompson. Married at age thirteen to twenty-nine-year-old Thompson, Small would go on to accompany the explorer as he mapped much of western Canada, covering as much as 20,000 kilometres. Thompson acknowledged that his “lovely wife,” with her knowledge of Cree, “gives me a great advantage.” Their strong and affectionate partnership lasted 58 years and they raised 13 children. (Description from Canada's History. Women of the Paddle Song fictionalizes Small's story based on her writings.)
Eileen Tallman Sufrin (1941–1985)
READ: The Eaton Drive: The Campaign to Organize Canada's Largest Department Store 1948 to 1952, by Eileen Sufrin
The Eaton Drive is an epic story, recorded with compassion by Eileen Tallman Sufrin, who headed the drive. Not only were hundreds of trade union officials involved, but literally thousands if individuals who carried the mundane load of leaflet distribution at all hours through all kinds of weather for four years. For the general reader, this volume is a readable slice of the social as well as the trade union, history of the day. But for trade unionists and working people in general, it is both an inspiration and an organizational handbook depicting both the nature and the proportions of the challenge facing them”
Kateri Tekakwitha (1656–1680)
The daughter of a Algonquin mother and an Iroquois father, Catherine/Kateri Tekakwitha (1656–1680) has become known over the centuries as a Catholic convert so holy that, almost immediately upon her death, she became the object of a cult. Today she is revered as a patron saint by Native Americans and the patroness of ecology and the environment by Catholics more generally, the first Native North American proposed for sainthood.
Tekakwitha was born at a time of cataclysmic change, as Native Americans of the northeast experienced the effects of European contact and colonization. A convert to Catholicism in the 1670s, she embarked on a physically and mentally grueling program of self-denial, aiming to capture the spiritual power of the newcomers from across the sea. Her story intersects with that of Claude Chauchetiere, a French Jesuit of mystical tendencies who came to America hoping to rescue savages from sin and paganism. But it was Claude himself who needed help to face down his own despair. He became convinced that Tekakwitha was a genuine saint and that conviction gave meaning to his life.
Though she lived until just 24, Tekakwitha's severe penances and vivid visions were so pronounced that Chauchetiere wrote an elegiac hagiography shortly after her death. With this richly crafted study, Allan Greer has written a dual biography of Tekakwitha and Chauchetiere, unpacking their cultures in Native America and in France. He examines the missionary and conversion activities of the Jesuits in Canada, and explains the Indian religious practices that interweave with converts' Catholic practices. He also relates how Tekakwitha's legend spread through the hagiographies and to areas of the United States, Canada, Europe, and Mexico in the centuries since her death. The book also explores issues of body and soul, illness and healing, sexuality and celibacy, as revealed in the lives of a man and a woman, from profoundly different worlds, who met centuries ago in the remote Mohawk village of Kahnawake.
READ: The Peacemaker, by David Alexander Robertson and Wai Tien (graphic novel for young readers)
When Cole's teacher catches him drawing rather than listening in class, he gives Cole a special assignment: an oral presentation on an important Aboriginal figure. Cole will do almost anything to avoid speaking in public—even feigning illness. But when he hears the story of the remarkable woman known as Thanadelthur—peacemaker between the Cree and the Dene and interpreter for the governor of Fort York—he is so inspired by her bravery, he overcomes his own fears. "Tales from Big Spirit" is a unique six-book graphic novel series that delves into the stories of six great Indigenous heroes from Canadian history—some already well known and others who deserve to be.
Marie-Madeleine Jarret de Verchères (1678–1747)
READ: Madeleine Takes Command, by Ethel C. Brill
Madeleine Verchere's story is based on a true account of colonial French Canada of the 1690's. Harassed by Iroquois, the Verchere family's fort must keep a continual guard. Fourteen-year-old Madeleine is left alone with two younger brothers and few others when the Indians attack. We follow the brave and determined stratagems of Madeleine and her small circle. Madeleine's youthful leadership, especially of her brothers, will win the reader's admiration.
Justice Bertha Wilson (1923–2007)
READ: Judging Bertha Wilson: Law as Large as Life, by Ellen Anderson
Madame Justice Bertha Wilson, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada, is an enormously influential and controversial figure in Canadian legal and political history. This engaging, authorized, intellectual biography draws on interviews conducted under the auspices of the Osgoode Society for Legal History, held in Scotland and Canada with Madame Justice Wilson, as well as with her friends, relatives, and colleagues. The biography traces Wilson's story from her birth in Scotland in 1923 to the present. Wilson's contributions to the areas of human rights law and equality jurisprudence are many and well-known. Lesser known are her early days in Scotland and her work as a minister's wife or her post-judicial work on gender equality for the Canadian Bar Association and her contributions to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
Through a scrupulous survey of Wilson's judgements, memos, and academic writings (many as yet unpublished), Ellen Anderson shows how Wilson's life and the law were seamlessly integrated in her persistent commitment to a stance of principled contextuality. This stance has had an enduring effect on the evolution of Canadian law and cultural history.
Supported with the warmth and generosity of Wilson's numerous personal anecdotes, this work illuminates the life of a woman who has left an extraordinary mark on Canada's legal landscape.
Jane Wisdom (1884–1975)
READ: Wisdom, Justice and Charity: Canadian Social Welfare Through the Life of Jane Wisdom, by Suzanne Morton
One of Canada’s first social workers, Jane B. Wisdom had an active career in social welfare that spanned almost the first half of the twentieth century. Competent, thoughtful, and trusted, she had a knack for being in important places at pivotal moments. Wisdom’s transnational career took her from Saint John to Montreal, New York City, Halifax, and Glace Bay, as well as into almost every field of social work. Her story offers a remarkable opportunity to uncover what life was like for front-line social workers in the profession’s early years.
In Wisdom, Justice, and Charity, historian Suzanne Morton uses Wisdom’s professional life to explore how the welfare state was built from the ground up by thousands of pragmatic and action-oriented social workers. Wisdom’s career illustrates the impact of professionalization, gender, and changing notions of the state—not just on those in the emergent profession of social work but also on those in need. Her life and career stand as a potent allegory for the limits and possibilities of individual action.