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Manitoba women led in equality fight

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Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press files
Dr. Henry Morgentaler, with lawyer Greg Brodsky, is taken from the Corydon Avenue clinic by police in 1985.

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Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press files Dr. Henry Morgentaler, with lawyer Greg Brodsky, is taken from the Corydon Avenue clinic by police in 1985.

The greatest success of the first wave of the century-old women's movement came in the fight to obtain the vote for women, first in Manitoba and then across Canada.

The second wave blossomed after the United Nations established International Women's Year in 1975. Women's liberation, or "women's lib" as it was dismissively called, had two fundamental principles: Women needed to have economic power equal to men and they needed to be able to control their own bodies, which in real terms meant to be able to decide if and when to have children and, when needed, to obtain abortions.

A decision was upheld by the Supreme Court in the mid-1970s that denied shared ownership of a family farm to Irene Murdock, who divorced her husband after 25 years. Although she laboured side by side with him, often running the farm on her own, the court stated that was what was expected of a farm wife. The decision outraged Canadian women and served as the catalyst to develop the Manitoba Family Law Coalition to push for changes in women's rights in marriage, and in the event of a divorce.

As many as 50 women's organizations and female-dominated professional groups joined forces to demand change from the Schreyer government. Like Nellie McClung's strategy on suffrage, amusing skits were given to make the case, meetings were held and strategy was developed. The coalition became a model in Canada. Thousands of postcards bombarded legislators, MLAs were lobbied and presentations made to cabinet and legislative committees.

Privately, individual MLAs were told that if they did not move on the issue, women would not support them in the next election. Finally, they passed the most progressive family law legislation in Canada.

But after the NDP was defeated, the Lyon government repealed the legislation, and outraged women had to regroup. There were only two female MLAs, but key party women, both NDP and Conservative, shared their heart-felt experiences of being deserted and left without any assets and with small children. And the law changed again: In the event of divorce women are entitled to half of the property accumulated during the life of the marriage.

When the NDP returned to power in 1980, Mary Beth Dolin, minister of labour and the status of women, introduced legislation requiring the division of all pension assets in the event of divorce. Over the next several years, the repercussions of these changes were felt in thousands of divorces and probably were responsible for the largest movement of money in Manitoba's history from the most well off (men) to the least well off (women).

Legislation to legalize abortion was a fundamental demand of women. Feminists believed it to be essentially a private matter between a woman and her doctor. Until 1968, abortion was illegal, but provided covertly throughout Canada. In the '70s, women had to convince a committee of doctors that their mental or physical health was in grave danger if they continued with the pregnancy. Although the pro-choice movement was national, even international, a number of factors put Manitoba at the forefront.

In 1983, Dr. Henry Morgentaler, believing the NDP government to be sympathetic, opened a clinic in Winnipeg and began to perform abortions for a fee. The NDP was conflicted on the issue because most party activists were part of the abortion movement. Although the five elected NDP women were known to be pro-choice, the male-dominated cabinet was not. With Roland Penner as attorney general, the clinic was raided while medical procedures were taking place. Doctors, nurses and volunteers were arrested and, in a shocking move, a nurse was charged. The women's movement felt betrayed by the NDP. Vocal demonstrations were held and large numbers of feminists left the party and turned their money and energy elsewhere.

Morgentaler had been charged before but no jury in Canada would find him guilty and in the only time in our history, an appeal court overturned a jury decision and sent him to jail. Several months later the Supreme Court overruled the lower court, and released Morgentaler. In 1988, then-justice minister Kim Campbell initiated new, less restrictive abortion laws, which passed the House of Commons. The legislation then went to the Senate where Progressive Conservative senators Mira Spivak and Janis Johnson, from Manitoba, and Pat Carney, from B.C., organized. For the first time since 1941, the Senate delivered a tied vote: A tie is a loss. Canada has had no abortion legislation now and no political party is interested in relaunching the emotionally charged debate.

The final step in Manitoba came when key party women met with then-premier Gary Doer, who reluctantly bent to the demand for a freestanding clinic. Morgentaler was threatening another lawsuit, the caucus was being encouraged by the newly elected Chris Melnick, and the women's movement would not quit. A community-based clinic under the direction of Women's Health Clinic was approved and funded. Today, as many as a third of all abortions in Manitoba are performed outside of a hospital.

Over the last 40 years, Manitoba women have won important changes in areas fundamental to their lives, and gained admiration throughout Canada for their tenacity and commitment. Although progress has been made in many areas, gaining equality of economic resources in a marriage and the right to control their own reproductive lives has been critical to other advances.


Linda Taylor is a Winnipeg freelance writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 6, 2014 A13

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