Women & Confederation

It seems that all students of Canadian History are taught about the causes of Confederation and about the Fathers of Confederation. It’s a neat little package that helps educators get to the next “unit” and then issue report cards at the end of the term. I find that it’s almost a rite of passage – that is that we must learn this stuff before we are issued our passport, or something.


Taken from CBC.

But what if we looked at Confederation in a more critical light? What if we looked at it from a Chinese or First Nation perspective? What if we put ourselves in the position of women, or as feminist historians? Dr. Lorna Marsden, a former Senator, University president, and currently a sociologist at York University, has attempted to do just that. In her book Canadian Women & The Struggle for Equality, she focuses a great deal on how women were not being considered persons 150 years ago, and that this caused one of the most incredible social movements in modern history.

In Chapter II, Marsden refers to the “Great Flaws of Confederation.” What were these and why is it important to critically analyze them? Why is it important to look at history from all perspectives? Are we obliged to do so? Is it unethical not to do so? How does this relate to Zinn’s understanding of radical history? Let’s discuss!

Here is a review of her book from the Winnipeg Free Press by a former SJR parent, Brenlee Carrington, that might help us. I also find this topic intriguing, firstly because I consider myself  feminist, but also secondly because the CBC is currently running a series entitled The Mommy Myth. Have a look. How does looking at the role of women in history help us deconstruct some of the barriers they face today?


27 thoughts on “Women & Confederation

  1. I believe that the major flaw of Confederation is the gender inequality that is still seen today. In general, throughout history women are not given many rights, in fact: “a married woman would have to get her husband’s signature for most property or major financial transactions” (Marsden). Though we say in Canada that men and women have equal rights, this is not true and this is an example of why we should critically analyse history; that is to explain and list the events that affect our future (or present). By answering these questions, we are performing Zinn’s radical history. We are no longer regurgitating facts, instead, we are thinking in a deeper level; by analysing these events in our history we are able to gain new knowledge and understand ourselves better as people.

  2. Marsden argues that there were two ‘Great Flaws of Confederation’ that have since hampered the social progress of women and women’s rights. The first flaw was obvious; the discussions and movements that set confederation in motion completely “omitted the rights or recognition of women” (Marsden). Marsden adds to this idea by claiming that the rights of women could have actually been enfranchised by the British North America Act “had the will existed to do so” (Marsden); but unfortunately, by the time citizens could muster any support in favour of so, “it was too late” (Marsden). The second of the “Great Flaws of Confederation’ with respects to women was something that Marsden described as “another pragmatic solution to the question of whose laws and customs would prevail in civil society”. This second flaw emerged form the fact that the laws (in this case, laws impacting daily life) among the provinces and territories of Canada were not uniform; in fact, they were largely different from each other in many aspects and this amounted to what was essentially a large ‘mess of laws’ that would take time and effort to organize. Thus, to probably circumvent this consuming job, the Fathers of Confederation granted individual provinces and territories the power to control “most laws that affect family, life, children, property, labour and working conditions, education and health” (Marsden). As a result of this decision, the provinces and territories retained their “deep-seated convictions and practices” (Marsden) over said laws; this negatively affected women as the provinces generally favoured men and marginalized women. In fact, the results of this agreement were that “women were ignored in public life” and “suppressed in private life” (Marsden).
    The importance in critically analyzing Marsden’s ‘Great Flaws of Confederation’ stem from the fact that it is a different, and radical perspective on a history. Ultimately, the goal of history is to seek the absolute truth, and this can only be achieved by analyzing multiple historical perspectives. Thus, If Marsden’s ‘radical’ perspective is correct (which can only be determined by critical analyzation), we will be able to account for the current social predicament for women in Canada today, and explain why this gender inequality exists. The reason why society should be interested in these answers are two fold: to prevent a historical repetition on different groups of people, and to find effective solutions in solving these problems.
    Thus I believe that yes, it would be unethical to not critically analyze Marsden’s arguments, or else society would be turning a blind eye to the adversity of women and thereby condoning the occurrence of similar events. But in terms of whether we should feel obliged to do so; the answer would be yes, but only if you feel obliged to being ethical.

  3. I agree with Wilson in terms of the fact that the most prominent flaw of confederation is the gender inequality which was present at the time, and is still present today. As Carrington says, Canada is the “most woman-friendly G20 country”, and yet still women “don’t have pay equity and still face discrimination.” Clearly, women still aren’t treated as equals in the world today. By analyzing the history of Confederation, we can see why this is the case. According to Marsden, in 1867 women were treated as second-class citizens who could only achieve “a higher moral status… through motherhood” (Marsden). As she says, when Confederation occurred women were treated as second-class citizens and that mindset has carried through to the present day. Clearly, it is only through analyzing the history of Confederation that we can begin to understand and therefore deconstruct the barriers which women face today.

  4. It’s hard to imagine that women even existed at that time because we never hear magnificent things about them. Aside from a small handful of significant women we hear about, the ratio of what we hear about men to women is extremely un balanced. With politics women were just background figures and it seems to carry on in the present day. Today, women still face harsh responses from male politicians and we can trace that harsh reality back to the past when women seemed invisable. I suppose women influenced confederation through their husbands as in the movie we watched during class. “Behind every successful man there is a more successful woman”-Groucho Marx

    • Aryana’s comment really hit me as the hard truth. If someone who knew nothing of our society would read about our history they would ask about women in it’s begin because they were never mentioned. They weren’t seen as people or citizen’s but a man’s property, and that has changed, but more change is still need until equality is achieved

      • I strongly agree with you, Michael. Women aren’t toys either, I’ve heard several stories on social media. Men and Women, strong or weak, short or tall, we’re the same. We’re all human beings, we all need our needs and support. Men aren’t money bags, Women ain’t Toys.

  5. Marsden refers to the two major flaws of Confederation as “the complete omission of rights or recognition of women” and “the division of powers between the federal and provincial government that complicated much of daily life”. She writes about these flaws because they present Confederation in a new light. The importance of exposing little-known events and doing a radical history is that you are no longer simply learning the facts; you are making an argument. When most people hear about Confederation, they think of Canada coming together in happiness and celebration. Even today, we celebrate Canada Day with large shows and fireworks. But was Confederation really that joyous? Only through radical histories can we examine the real effect of Confederation. As Marsden points out, women took no part in Confederation and their equality wasn’t even considered. In addition, many cultural minorities like the First Nations, the Chinese and the Scottish were just as insignificant in the process of creating Canada. So, when we take a step back and look at Confederation through the lens’ of minorities, it is clear that Confederation wasn’t all that great for many people living in Canada. The white men who created Canada didn’t consult the majority of population and essentially treated them as second-class citizens. These ideologies can still be seen today. Even though women have come a long way since Confederation, many are still seen as inferior to men. Most CEOs and prime ministers continue to be men, and women still make less money on average than their male counterparts. Learning radical histories is the only way for people to understand the roots of these problems and analyze what society can do to improve.

    • You bring up some good questions and points Sara. A view on an issue will change depending on what ‘lens’ you choose to look through. And really to get the full and true picture you have to look through them all. This process would be working through history instead of just covering the basics to get through the curriculum. – Celine

  6. The two main flaws of confederation were; 1. The lack of any guaranteed rights for women, and 2. The division of political powers between both the federal and provincial governments. I think the reason it’s important to analyze these critically is the same reason we should analyze everything critically – we have to look in depth at things and be skeptical because that’s what leads to the best understanding of any given scenario. In trying to get the best possible understanding we too need to look at as many perspectives as possible. Multiple viewpoints help us get closer to the objective truth for which we are searching: things like radical histories tell us about forgotten perspectives and further our understanding. As historians I think we have an incentive to look at multiple perspectives but we don’t have an obligation. You can form a “good” history without looking at every history, just the likelihood of that happening is far lower. However, I think it’s unwise and perhaps against the ethics of history to intentionally ignore certain perspectives. With regards to the last question, I think it’s important to look at the past to understand why those barriers came to be, when we have that information I think it’s easier to breakdown those barriers.

  7. Although I do agree that Woman’s rights were undoubtedly overlooked in Canadian Confederation, I do not agree that it is the most prominent or the greatest flaw in modern Canadian politics. Many of Canada’s leading politicians today are female and the representation of woman in politics is growing considerably. In fact, according to Election Canada (2011) over 81% of ridings have woman candidates, which is a vast increase to the 77% of ridings from only 7 years previous. I do not argue with Marsden on the fact that woman have struggled in Canada to achieve equality amongst genders. I do believe, however, that as a society we are becoming increasingly aware of our inequality of rights between sexes, races and sexualities and through out the next few generations we will become a nation of very few discriminations and biases. Woman struggle today with inequity, as argued by Marsden, however I do not believe they will for long.

    • I think you avoid the problem by saying, because of the next generation being aware of inequality Canada will become a better nation. You may or may not be right. I agree that many of Canada’s leading politicians are women, but do they have a significant influence on Canadian affairs? If the representation of woman is so great, why do woman still get payed less than men? There are many feminists in todays society, yet nothing changes. Woman have been suppressed by male dominance since the beginning of time, so for society it seems unnatural to think differently. This is why different perspectives is so important. So, we can get away from the old and into the new frame of mind. Being aware is not enough. And hopefully we can see a woman run the country apart from just being a candidate.

    • I agree with Caelan when he says that women’s rights used to be more of a problem than they are now. I do also believe that women are slowly getting recognized more and more in the work environment. Although life for males and females are still not equal or “fair” I think that it has gotten better than it once was.

  8. Marsden states that the two main flaws in Confederation were “the complete omission of rights or recognition of women” and a “pragmatic solution to the question of whose laws and customs would prevail in civil society”. It is critically important to analyze and understand these points because it shines a light on what is usually, so to speak, pushed under the rug when it generally comes to discussing Confederation. More often than not, Confederation is told from the sole point of view of the white male Fathers of Confederation and the affect and concern of minorities, such as women, First Nations, etc., about this topic seem frequently unexamined. It is crucial to examine history from all perspectives because the “Fathers of Confederation” realistically represent a fraction of the population of Canada at that time, but who held the all the power in society. Without looking at history from the perspective of women, and other minorities, many integral opinions about and contributions to Confederation are overlooked. I think we absolutely have an obligation as Canadians to investigate all the perspectives of Confederation because in modern Canada, the minority groups during Confederation are just as much a part of society as the white male. Ignoring these views and perspectives would essentially be ignoring the voices of the majority of Canada and as citizens of this country we have a moral obligation to ensure everyone’s historical stories have been heard. Examining these issues gives us an insight into the some of the struggles women are still facing today. There is still considerable societal pressure on women to choose between their career and having a family and as a group still struggle to maintain equality between the sexes in society and the workplace. Looking at women’s historical perspective may give us an insight as to where these issues find their roots.

  9. Learning the involvement and significance of women in major past events gives reason for people today to balance out the rights given to men and women. I agree with Sara as she states that when we look at the process of Confederation through the eyes of minority groups we notice that it was not all that great for many people in Canada. As we discussed in class the other day it is important to look at different points of views to help us get closer to the truth. Looking at Confederation through the point of mostly white men either English or French will only give us a fraction of what the entire story really is. As Aryana quoted, “Behind every successful man there is a more successful woman” (Groucho Marx). If this statement is even in the slightest way correct, then we should add a new series of bills in our currency with all the women which were behind the successful men that are already on the bills! On a more serious note, if people can take time in researching the views of other minorities during such a time, it should only be that much more glamorous to see what women have done to create the country we have today. I am doing my extraordinary presentation on Lester B. Pearson on Monday and even in his case, his wife Maryon was considered a big supporter in what Mr. Pearson did and motivated him to do even more. Currently the President of the USA is backed by his wife and helps him every step of the way. What if in 100 years from now we took all the events that have happened in this decade and erase everything that has to do with women and other minorities; although it is hard to distinguish a minority in today’s Canada. The result would be similar to the knowledge we have of Confederation.

  10. Howard Zinn uses “Black History” courses in universities to prove that history can be used as a tool to change society’s views. Just like CBC’s “the Mommy Myth” (Mr. Henderson should win an Emmy for that cheese grating), people’s beliefs tend to be based on what they are exposed to in day to day life. By studying history, we can understand new ideas and gain new perspectives which can shatter these outdated “myths.” Marsden identifies that confederation did not properly guarantee women’s rights and made an ineffective division between provincial and federal powers. From a large-scale perspective, confederation was not very long ago. In this relatively short period of time, I believe that women’s rights have represented one of the largest ongoing social movements. From a short-term perspective, one could argue that women’s rights have been undermined for far too long and need further and more drastic change. Both perspectives are based in truth and should be considered when society moves further towards true equality. By studying many viewpoints, people can establish a well-informed opinion on the issue at hand and come to an ethical solution.

  11. “Most Canadians of any walk of life considered women to be secondary to men in every way.” Lorna Marsden makes this statement in her book, Canadian Women and the Struggle for Equality, in which she explores the generally overlooked historical significance of women in Canada since 1867. In many historical accounts today, we see a focus on a certain type of person: white, well-off men. While this group of people did do many things to help Canada along its journey, we see a substantial lack of historical figures that fall under other sexes or ethnicities. Is this because they did not have an impact on Canada’s history? I don’t believe that is true. I think it is somewhat easier to take the traditional standpoint of males and look at history through that lens, but people are less willing to asses situations from, say, an Indigenous person or a woman’s point of view. For example, Marsden makes the point that women entered confederation with a “lack of citizenship rights,” as they “neither participated directly in nor were mentioned…in the debates that led to the BNA Act” (30). We can see what connotations that this would have had for women at the time, and the lingering significance that it has today. Just as looking to the past of the Indigenous people or Quebec helped us understand their situation today and the problems that they face, so too will looking back at the role that women played in our history.

  12. I completely agree with many of the people above in the fact that a very significant law of confederation was how different men and women were treated. Obviously gender inequality was a big issue at the time, where as women were viewed as not even close to equal to men. If you look at gender inequality today, there is still some of that in which exists, however it is no where close to how it was hundreds of years ago, or even decades ago. I do believe that women still are not treated as equals to men, and only time will change that. As the years go by, more and more people will begin to realize that this needs to change and both men and women she be treated equally. Marsden said that at the time when Canada was made a country in 1867, women were treated very poorly, and they would be constantly disrespected and mistreated. Women were the marginalized people in society at the time, and while this has somewhat changed today, men and women are still not equal and this needs to change.

  13. I agree with Arieyanna, she definitely has a good point. It is hard to even collect a fair perspective of a women living during the time of confederation as they were not represented in history at all. Women were never given a voice in politics and never would they ever be seen participating in a discussion in parliament. The rights of women have been consistently ignored throughout history. This is a common theme. All throughout the existence of human beings on earth women have been inferior to men. Men are viewed as superior in physical and mental capabilities. I as a woman believe this is true. But just because women are biologically inferior does not mean they cannot accomplish extraordinary things. Comparing the circumstances in Canada to the rest of the world, women’s rights can barely be called an issue in our country. Women always will be lesser than men, but at least in Canada women are considered human beings. During confederation everyone’s opinion that was not a Europea,n wealthy male was irrelevant. That’s just how the world was, and that is the kind of world that shaped the free country that we live in today.

  14. “The Fathers of Confederation.” The title itself signifies the emphasis towards the perspective of males over that of females. The British were people who conquered others and was at one point of time, the most powerful nation on the planet. The British colonized Canada and countless other colonies around the globe. This taste for conquering and yearn for power was not just a physical attribute, it was seen in their treatment of foreign peoples, and most predominantly in their treatment of women. Marsden states that the major flaw in Confederation was the “complete omission of rights or recognition of women.” I completely agree with her and believe many women at the time would have been more than willing to give their insight on the issues of Confederation if they were given the opportunity to do so. The fact that a “women’s status was never questioned in debates” and the idea of women having their own “minority or class that became part of the public debate many years later” is extremely infuriating. The reason why it is important to analyze these flaws of Confederation is so that we ourselves can view history from different perspectives, and in this particular case from analyzing confederation from a woman’s point of view. I feel that it is so important to look at history from different perspectives since there were more more than just rich white males during the time period that Confederation took place, however since the press, and newspapers, and history that we gather from the past were mostly created by the rich British men that is the only perspective that we our taught and the only perspective that we are most familiar with. Therefore, it becomes much harder to look at history from the view of another person, especially if that person was not powerful at the time. Howard Zinn himself stated that looking at history from a different perspective can be beneficial “by widening our view to include the silent voices of the past, so that we look behind the silence of the present” I couldn’t have agreed more.

  15. History not only provides us with a look of the past peoples and events, but also allows us to challenge a new or an existing perspective in which situations are dealt in the present. Looking at CBC’s “Mommy Myth”, it is evident how “things we read or [hear] change our views of the world [and] how we must behave” (Zinn). People have a generalized understanding of women in society, whether in the workplace or at home. This would have rooted from the flaw in Confederation which Marsden says is “the complete omission of rights or recognition of women.” In the grand scheme of our country’s known history, it is difficult to find any which focus on the perspectives of women. As it is well known, rich, white males stood to represent the population at the time of Confederation and since then, women have suffered from being stigmatized as powerless, subordinate, and insignificant to a society built by men. Marsden points out that her book “does not single out a particular individual as an agent of change” in contrast to John Ralston Saul’s series which “[casts] a new light on Canada’s past leaders and their contributions to how women understand themselves.” She attempts to show how women have “been able to move their agendas into law or common practice.” In order for our Canada to take a further step in developing women’s contributions and equality in societies, it is essential that we take in to account the various perspectives in which history is told.

  16. One of the biggest flaws of Confederation was that women did not get any rights out of it. At that time, women were not considered people and they wouldn’t have had a say in government. There weren’t any women involved in the creation of the BNA Act. If there was, then maybe women would have had rights for later. Today, women have the same rights as men do yet they still face discrimination, just because they’re female. Another flaw of Confederation was that each individual province could keep their own set of laws and customs. Therefore, each province had different laws pertaining things like marriage, health care, and family law. By allowing each province to have their own laws, it made Confederation a bit easier because no one had to change their customs based on what the federal government decided what was best. However, it would be a bit confusing to adapt to new laws and customs if people moved between provinces. If there was only one set of laws and customs controlling everyone, it would be easier. Now, there’s fighting to figure out which laws are controlled by the federal government and which ones are controlled by the provincial government. If everyone had just adopted one set of laws before Confederation had happened, this fighting wouldn’t be present. I think it’s extremely important to look at history from many different perspectives. Like the saying goes, there are two sides to every story. History is full of stories and to get a deep, true understanding of history, we need to look at every side of the story. By looking at every perspective, we can get a better understanding of what really happened. We often look at history in the perspective of the rich, white man. However, that’s just one side of the story. What they say about history is different than what women have to say about history. The women will probably talk about how they were discriminated against throughout history, compared to the men. What the rich, white men say could just be a bunch of lies, created in order to make themselves look good. In order to know the truth about history, we need to look at everyone’s perspective, not just one.

  17. I think one of the most significant flaws of confederation, in agreement with almost everyone who has posted before me, is the lack of recognition of female rights. The effects of this negligence are still seen today. Gender inequality in the workplace is something that middle/upper class Canadians can closely relate too. Unequal pay is an ongoing issue in North America regarding woman’s rights. In his State of Union address, Barrack Obama said; “You know, today, women make up about half our workforce, but they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns…that is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. Women deserve equal pay for equal work”. Though these are US statistics, Canadian data shows similar results. Why is it that the same work is “worth” less when done by a woman than done by a man? Even more curious is the fact that woman outnumber men in education. In 2003, there were 1.35 females for every male who graduated from a four-year college and 1.3 females for every male undergraduate (The National Bureau of Economic Research). There are woman doing the same job as a man, with higher education, getting payed less. How is that logical? The answer roots back to confederation. Because woman’s rights were not formally recognized in the same fashion as that of men, each individual right had to/has to be brought to attention, analyzed and resolved. We are still painstakingly undoing the mistakes made by the “fathers of confederation”. Their negligence and disregard for the group of people making up half of society was the source for these issues we see today.

  18. I think it’s really easy to criticize when we look at events in the past. Yes, Confederation didn’t really include the recognition of female rights and that’s rather unfortunate, but what we have to really look at is whether it was really feasible for the “Fathers of Confederation” to include them in the BNA Act. Canada was already asking for quite a lot at the time; adding the recognition of female rights would have been another burden. As Marsden recognizes, many of the fathers of Confederation did respect the women in their lives. George Brown’s wife Anne was greatly influential and is known as an unofficial mother of confederation. Then it begs the question why the fathers of Confederation didn’t bring up women’s suffrage at any of the conferences.

    It’s honestly probably because it wasn’t the biggest priority at the time. If we look at the causes of confederation, all of them together created a goal that needed to be completed in a short amount of time. The Fathers of Confederation were really running on a deadline to get Canada to become independent, especially with the fear of the US looming. Their system of government was failing, Britain didn’t really care about Canada anymore…etc. Canada had a lot of problems that needed to be dealt with as soon as possible. And unfortunately, one of these large problems was not women’s suffrage. As a result, it was not one of the topics discussed and therefore was not put into the BNA Act.

    I’m not saying that it’s okay that they didn’t even acknowledge that women were people as it certainly isn’t. I just think that if we put everything into perspective and really look at what the Fathers of Confederation were trying to achieve with the BNA Act, the lack of talk about women is understandable. Gaining rights and equality is a process that needs to be dealt with carefully. Canada needed to focus on becoming independent before it could possibly think of properly dealing with its internal problems. As as shown through history, once Canada gained independence, all the talk about more rights and more equality came out. And slowly but surely, women and many other “minority groups” (women aren’t really a minority group) have been becoming more and more recognized in society. They’ve gained the rights that they deserved and are still fighting. Of course, inequalities do still exist in Canada, but our society is trying to change for the better. We cannot expect society to instantly change as that is unrealistic. Change takes time and careful planning. As long as we always have people in society that question the norms, change will happen.

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  21. In class, we have a history textbook and this is all it says about women’s role in the Confederation:
    “In addition to the daily discussions, there were various social events held during the conferences. The leaders’ wives and their unmarried daughters and sisters ofter attended the many dinners and parties. At the time Confederation was being discussed, women could not vote. Refer to Figure 2.24 and Figure 2.25 Do you think the presence of some women at conference events was adequate to establish their collective voice in the decisions being made about Confederation?

    Figure 2.24 is a painting of a ball and Figure 2.25 is a quote that goes “Although women were not part of the formal decision-making process that resulted in Confederation, some politicians’ wives played informal roles. Male politicians’ letters show that they discussed Confederation politics and their political decisions with their wives. Letters and diaries also suggest that politicians’ wives and daughters were included in social events during, for example, the Charlottetown Conference. At these events, women’s social skills could be put to use to build friendships and goodwill among delegates, which were necessary for the men to be able to work together on the Confederation project.” -Carmen Nielson, Mount Royal University

    And that’s all the information that I have for a 3-5min presentation

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