On September 25th 2020, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the US Supreme Court, passed away after a battle with cancer. RBG, as she was popularly known, was a fierce advocate for women’s rights. Over the course of her 6-decade-long legal career, she was a catalyst for progress, driving transformative policy changes. Her immense contributions include adjusting the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to include women and influencing the Fair Pay Act that protects against pay discrimination.
RBG is famous for uttering words that would inspire women and girls around the world: “Women belong in all the places decisions are being made.” As we celebrate Gender Equality Week in Canada, these words still resonate. In honour of her monumental contributions advocating for working women, here are some Canadian women who, like RBG, impacted the world of work for the better.
Mary Ann Shadd (1823 - 1983)
the first Black woman to publish a newspaper in North America, civil rights activist
Mary Ann shattered more than her fair share of glass ceilings. She was the first Black woman in North American to publish a newspaper, the first female publisher in Canada, the first black woman to graduate from Howard University, and the first black woman to vote in an election. Needless to say, she paved the way for many women and people of colour. A devoted advocate for universal education, women’s rights, black emancipation, Mary Ann became, at age 60, the second black woman to earn a law degree in the United States.
Nellie McClung (1873–1951)
politician and social activist instrumental in securing women’s right to vote
“Never retract, never explain, never apologize — get the thing done and let them howl!” Nellie McClung’s words and actions changed the landscape of North America. It’s thanks to her that, in 1916, Manitoba became the first Canadian province to grant women the right to vote. Nellie leveraged her playful personality and powerful oration skills to speak out against injustice and dismantle sexist laws. An active feminist, novelist, journalist, and suffragist, Nellie also fought for medical care for children, women’s property rights, workplace safety, and many other social causes that have shaped Canada.
Doris Anderson (1921 - 2007)
Chatelaine editor and steadfast feminist activist
Doris Anderson was the editor of Canadian women’s magazine Chatelaine from 1957 to 1977. In an era when women’s magazines were expected to cover little more than homemaking and domestic issues, Anderson kicked down boundaries, greenlighting trailblazing social and political content that covered divisive subjects affecting women such as abortion, child abuse, divorce laws and equal pay for women. She was instrumental in the creation of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, was president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, and an Officer of the Order of Canada. She also had a hand in the inclusion of women’s equality rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Justice Bertha Wilson (1923-2007)
the first woman appointed to The Supreme Court of Canada
The first woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada, Bertha was appointed to the high court by Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1982. She was known for her record protecting human rights. Notable decisions include rulings on abortion law, domestic abuse, statutory rape and mandatory retirement. During her 9 years serving on Canada’s highest court, she was a steadfast voice for gender equality, helping her colleagues understand that neutral laws often put women and minorities at a disadvantage. She ushered in changes to Canadian law that still stand today, such as setting precedents on interpretations of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Margaret Atwood (1939-)
Canadian author of works including The Handmaid’s tale and The Edible Woman
Margaret Atwood is one of Canada’s most celebrated authors. Renowned for feminist writings including 1969’s The Edible Woman and 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale, her boundary-breaking work challenges notions of femininity and patriarchal power structures. Though she has said she doesn’t consider her work to be feminist, her novels contain themes of empowerment and realistic female characters that have been celebrated by generations of women. Most recently, the flowing scarlet robes and white bonnets from The Handmaid’s Tale have been adopted by the feminist movement as a sign of resistance.
Roberta Bondar (1945-)
astronaut and the first Canadian woman in space
Roberta Bondar is best known as the first Canadian woman to go to space, aboard the 1992 Discovery shuttle. Bondar holds an impressive array of degrees in neuroscience and medicine, and has been an inspiring figure for women in STEM. After completing her trailblazing 8-day space mission, Bondar remained a key figure at NASA, as the head of space medicine. As a pioneer in space medicine and one of Canada’s most notable female scientists, she’s proven that not even the sky's the limit for Canadian women.
Chrystia Freeland (1968)
current deputy Prime Minister of Canada and Minister of Finance
Former journalist, Rhodes Scholar, current Deputy Prime Minister, and Canada’s first female Minister of Finance, Chrystia Freeland has proven she’s a force to be reckoned with. As Justin Trudeau’s right hand woman, she’s broken down stereotypes about women in politics, playing a crucial role in political negotiations, decision-making, and ideation, while upholding human-rights, feminist values, and multiculturalism. In 2018, she impressed Canadians with her cool and collected approach to tense trade negotiations with the Trump administration. Her recent accomplishments include signing Canada to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, negotiating a new North American free trade deal, and spearheading the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act.
creator of The REDress Project highlighting missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls
Jaime Black is a Metis artist best known for creating The REDress project, to bring attention to Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. First created in 2010, The REDress Project is an art installation that features red dresses hanging in various public spaces around Canada. According to Black, she chose the colour red after conversations with an indigenous friend, who told her red is the only colour the spirits can see. "So it’s really a calling back of the spirits of these women and allowing them a chance to be among us and have their voices heard through their family members and community."