When I was in law school, I made a cue card to memorize the three main points that the 1929 case of Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General), also known as the “Persons Day” case, represented : the power of judicial activism, that the Constitution was a “living tree” and most of all, that this was the case which established that women were to be considered “persons” under the British North America Act.
The actual legal ruling was that women were deemed “qualified persons” for potential appointment to the Senate. Led by the group of women known as the Famous Five, this case (and the story behind their struggle) was a significant moment in shifting the norms on what women’s engagement in both politics and public life could look like.
And so traditionally, Oct.18 celebrates their achievement and highlights other similarly outstanding Canadian women.
Both important endeavours and something we can always do more of – but there’s also another important element to Person’s Day to consider, one that is especially relevant today.
The events and outcomes of Person’s Day should serve as a reminder of the power of challenging the accepted cultural frameworks that surround us.
When the Persons Day case began, women had already been given the federal vote with the passing of the 1918 Women’s Franchise Act and by 1919 they could also be elected to the House of Commons on the same terms as men.
Emily Murphy, who was one of the five Alberta women who spearheaded this case, was actually a judge.
I raise these points, since the legal backdrop to the case was more advanced than we might realize but the lived reality was still that women were seen as second-class citizens.
One of the impetuses behind the Person’s Day challenge was that Murphy found that from her first day on the job all her legal rulings were challenged on the grounds that she was not a actually a “person” under Canadian law.
Today, this idea of challenging the social frameworks which are holding us back are especially relevant to our collective national conversation on careers, success, women and children.
As with the Persons Day scenario, the perception that motherhood is a barrier to career success goes far beyond individual careers or women and the impact this framework has affects all of us.
Currently, children are seen as a career obstacle for women to try and navigate and there is a shared presumption that, barring a few super star outliers like Sheryl Sandberg, most women won’t succeed.
It’s a framework that is damaging to our children (who wants to be seen as a career barrier for your mother?). It undermines the efforts of companies trying to implement change within their organizations; you can enact policies but to have them actually be effective, it’s the hallway culture that needs to change. Finally, this presumption has hindered larger social and political change.
More than 70 per cent of women in Canada are working mothers but we still lack a cohesive childcare plan, the school day is still not structured for dual working parents – both of these are the systemic outcomes of the belief that women’s career success is somehow secondary.
Persons Day is great opportunity to reflect on how far we have come, how privileged we are in this country and as well, to celebrate critical thinking and to consider what other changes could happen if we challenged what are currently considered accepted cultural norms around motherhood, careers and children.
This piece originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.
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