Thirteen Outstanding Women

A look at a few of the many “firsts” for Canadian women.

 Written by Nelle Oosterom

January 25, 2012

No list of Canadian women’s accomplishments could ever be definitive; we limited ourselves to thirteen moments honouring “firsts.” (Editor’s note: In 2016, we celebrated the centennial of Canadian women’s suffrage with a look at Thirty Great Women.)

1875

Jennie Trout is the first woman to earn an M.D.

The medical field of the 19th century was dominated by men while women struggled for the right to practice. Encouraged by her husband, Jennie braved the pressures of entering a male discipline and pursued a medical career along with her friend Emily Stowe. They were the only women in lecture halls filled by jeering male students. Jennie eventually earned her M.D. in the United States on March 11th, 1875. Subsequently, she returned to Canada and passed an examination before the College of Physicians and Surgeons. After retiring, Jennie continued to build a place for women in the medical field. Her campaigning culminated in the opening of the Women’s Medical College at Kingston on October 2, 1883.

1914–1945

Women serve as nurses in the Army, Navy and Air Force Medical Corps throughout the World Wars. On the homefront, women work at jobs normally reserved for men while they are absent.

1916

Thanks to the work of activists like Nellie McClung, Manitoba becomes first province to give women the vote.

McClung was a feminist activist and fantastic public speaker known for her role in women’s suffrage. In 1914, a group of women led by McClung petitioned Manitoba’s parliament, requesting for the right to vote. They were declined by the Premier, Sir Rodmand Roblin. McClung used Roblin’s arrogant refusal speech as inspiration for “The Women’s Parliament”. In the staged, mock parliament, men petitioned a female government for rights while the latter used Roblin’s logic to turn them down. The humorous play successfully brought attention to McClung’s causes. When T.C. Norris replaced Roblin as Premier, the former was presented with 40,000 signatures supporting the women’s vote. A bill was subsequently introduced and passed unanimously in 1916, making Manitoba the first province to give women the vote.

1921

Agnes Macphail is the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons.

Macphail was raised by farmers and was acutely aware of the issues they faced. She was elected to represent them in 1921 — the first woman elected to the federal government. No token female politician, her career in both federal and provincial politics was productive. Macphail fought tirelessly against a barrage of gender discrimination through which she had to constantly prove herself worthy. Even with this added pressure, Macphail championed issues such as worker’s rights, prison reform, seniors’ pension, and gender equity, making great headway in many areas.

1928

First Olympic team including women participates in the Games.

The first of Canada’s Olympic teams to include women participated in the track and field events at the Games in 1928. Women such as Bobbie Rosenfeld, Ethel Smith and Ethel Catherwood’s great performances made Amsterdam one of the best year for female, Canadian Olympians to date. Rosenfeld and Smith won silver and bronze medals respectively in the 100 meter race and, along with Myrtle Cook and Jane Bell, set a world record and won gold medals at the 4x100 meter relay race.

1929

The Famous Five, including Nellie McClung, appeal to the British Privy council to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision on the legal definition of a “person”. It is determined that the word “person” does indeed include persons of the female gender.

1937

The Montreal Dressmakers’ Strike is organized by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. The strike constitutes an important step forward in attaining workers’ rights in Jewish Montreal.

1947

After receiving several literary prizes throughout her career, Gabrielle Roy is first woman to become a member of the Royal Society of Canada.

1951

Charlotte Whitton is elected Mayor of Ottawa. She is the first female mayor of a major metropolitan area in Canada.

1972

Muriel McQueen Fergusson is the first woman to be appointed Speaker in the Senate.

1989

Audrey McLaughlin is the first female party leader in Canada. She was at the front of Canada’s New Democratic Party from 1989–1995.

1992

Roberta Bondar, the first Canadian female astronaut, is launched into space. 

Roberta Bondar, who is known for her extensive knowledge in various fields such as neurology, incredible intelligence and speaking skills, earned herself the chance to become the first neurologist and female astronaut to be launched into space in 1992 aboard the shuttle Discovery. She has since received many honours, including the Order of Canada, and was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

2010

Angela James is first Canadian woman to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. 

Hockey star Angela James, who is often affectionately referred to as the “Wayne Gretzky of women’s hockey” was the first Canadian woman to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2010. Along with American Cammi Granato, James was part of the first women to take part in the induction ceremony in Toronto. She is known for her multiple wins at international levels, including her receipt of four gold medals at the world championships throughout the 1990s as well as her important role in promoting women’s hockey. Her plaque in the Hall of Fame describes her as a “Pioneer of the women’s game”.

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