I am pleased to rise as the Ontario NDP women’s issues critic on behalf of my caucus and my leader, Andrea Horwath, to mark 100 years of women’s suffrage in Ontario.
It was in 1917, after 50 years of activism and organizing by women and male allies, that Ontario women over the age of 21 who were born or naturalized British subjects secured the right to vote. This made Ontario the fifth province to grant middle-class women the right to vote, but it was not until the 1940s that racialized women in Ontario were enfranchised, and not until 1954 before voting rights were given to indigenous women.
Achieving the right to cast a ballot was the essential first step in recognizing women’s rights to full participation in public life. It took another 26 years before the first women MPPs, Agnes Macphail and Rae Luckock, were elected to the Ontario Legislature and 30 years after that before Ontario’s first woman cabinet minister, Margaret Birch, took her seat around the cabinet table.
I am proud of another historic first that has been achieved by the Ontario NDP: the first parliamentary caucus in Canada to have more than 50% women. Each of these firsts, by those who demanded the right to vote and those who fought for the right to run for office, paved the way for all of the women MPPs who sit in this Legislature today across party lines.
It is hard for us to believe now that a century ago, when women’s suffrage was being debated at Queen’s Park, opponents argued that enfranchising women was an affront to God, saying that if God wanted to give women the right to vote, he would have made them men. Others thought that voting would diminish women’s natural demure nature, taking them away from the fireside, causing them to neglect the babies and spoil the dinners. Adversaries to women’s suffrage also argued that allowing women to vote was pointless, since women would only vote the way their husbands told them to. Finally, there was concern that giving women the right to vote would result in women taking men’s alcohol away, which was ironic since it turned out that women voters became some of the strongest advocates for the end of prohibition.
We are fortunate that reason and justice prevailed in Ontario 100 years ago, despite the fact that many opponents to women’s vote remained vocal for decades. These opponents to women’s equality have not gone away. Instead, their complaints have found new power in the media and online, with hateful, misogynist comments about women politicians in Ontario and across Canada. We must work harder than ever to safeguard the gains that women have made and commit to doubling our efforts to achieve gender equality in this province.
If we are serious about women’s economic empowerment and about ensuring that women in Ontario have equal access to opportunities, recognition and fair compensation, we must address the structural oppression that women continue to experience in their daily lives. Yesterday was Equal Pay Day. We talked about the fact that, 30 years ago, the Pay Equity Act was passed, but the gender wage gap has barely budged.
The time for action on this matter is now. We need adequate enforcement of pay equity laws. We need pay transparency legislation. We need increased access to collective bargaining for women. We need a $15-an-hour minimum wage. We need paid leave for domestic and sexual violence. We need affordable housing and we need access to affordable, quality, non-profit child care.
These are initiatives that have been brought forward by me and my colleagues in the NDP caucus, and I call on Liberals and Conservatives to support them. Without these conditions, women’s true and full equality will never be achieved.
Women’s suffrage 100 years ago marked a turning point in human rights history in Ontario. It helped redefine gender roles and has had a profound impact, putting issues of social justice, fairness and equality squarely on the public agenda. But while there is no question about the progress that has been made, there is still much to do to advance women’s interests to ensure a fair, just and healthy society that enables everyone to contribute to their full potential and participate fully in political life.
I hope that today in this Legislature, as we welcome remarkable young women and representatives of Girls Government from across the province, we will come together and commit to creating a province where women do not hesitate before entering the public realm.