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Fascinating account of gender rights struggle

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This meticulously written, reasoned and researched work is a fascinating account of this history of Canadian women's rights.

Toronto author and academic Lorna Marsden is expert in her analysis of women's struggles to achieve equality in this country. Currently a sociology professor at York University, she's a past president of both York and Wilfrid Laurier Universities, a former senator and a past president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.

A recent poll by the TrustLaw women's legal database called Canada the most woman-friendly G20 country, based on the opinions of 370 gender experts internationally.

However, experts say Canada still has a long way to go, and Marsden's book substantiates these concerns.

Canadian women still don't have pay equity and still face discrimination in many areas.

Marsden, a member of the Order of Canada, starts with the question: "Why were women ignored in the first Constitution Act of 1867?"

One of the reasons, she states, is that "most Canadians of any walk of life considered women to be secondary to men in every way."

Those who disagreed with that viewpoint believed that it was only "through motherhood that women achieved a higher moral status."

In practice, though, this theory denied women any "significant participation in other aspects of society."

In April 1985, Marsden observes, everything changed for Canadian women when the equality rights sections of the Canadian Constitution Act of 1982 came into force.

She writes: "At this point, the concepts and aspirations associated with gender equality became an active part of one of our most important institutions -- our Constitution."

With an informative set of explanatory footnotes and a comprehensive index, Marsden fills in the history of the Canadian woman's evolution. She has a knack for making empirical data accessible.

She recalls that as recently as the 1960s, "a married woman would have to get her husband's signature for most property or major financial transactions."

She also points out that men and women have worked together to improve conditions for women in Canada.

Marsden credits now Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella's groundbreaking 1984 report, Equality in Employment, for "describing what equality would mean in a manner that allowed legislators, lawyers and others working in the field to use the ideas in establishing laws, programs, sanctions and study guides."

Manitoba has its own place in Canadian history for being the first province to give women the right to vote and to hold elected office. This happened in 1916.

Marsden credits the entry of women into the study of law as leading to an important improvement in women's equality.

She calls it social change created "by a significant mass of knowledgeable people in a professional network with available resources.

She also credits the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund as an important organization that supports cases brought under the equality provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Marsden's book is an authoritative account of the great strides made by story of Canadian women in the past 150 years.

 

Brenlee Carrington, a Winnipeg lawyer and mediator, is the Law Society of Manitoba's equity ombudswoman.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 21, 2012 J7

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