Women mark enshrinement of equality rights

Margaret Hawthorn doesn’t take equality rights for granted.

“I remember being interviewed for a job. They said you’re definitely the most qualified person, but you’re married, so we know you’re not going to stay very long,” she said.

“Of course, I was happy to see that the guy they hired left after two years!”

That happened in the early 1970s, only a decade prior to women winning stronger equality protections in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Hawthorn, now secretary of the board of the Older Women’s Network in Toronto, said the early 1980s were a powerful time for women’s rights.

“It was just such a feeling of excitement that this was happening, a major social change,” she said.

Lawyer Marilou McPhedran worked as co-chair of the women’s constitutional conference in 1981. Getting equality rights enshrined in the Charter took a lot of hard work by Canadian women.

“It would not have happened unless thousands of women across the country at the grassroots level mobilized, crossed party lines and focused on making sure that the wording was stronger than what had been in the Canadian bill of rights,” she said.

When a 1981 draft of the Charter didn’t guarantee gender equality rights, women quickly organized. As chair of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, Chatelaine editor Doris Anderson convened a conference to discuss the impact of the legislation. When the government cancelled that conference, Anderson stepped down from the council in protest.

Women staged their own conference. On Feb. 14, McPhedran found herself co-chairing the Ad Hoc Women’s Constitutional Conference. She kept lobbying for women’s rights on Parliament Hill until the end of 1981.

On April 17, 1982, the Charter, which ultimately did include women’s equality provisions, was signed into law. But there would be a three-year waiting period until those provisions actually came into effect.

Retired elementary school teacher Mary Trapani Hynes attended the signing in 1982.

“My husband and I brought our kids, because we thought it was an important thing for them to see and be a part of. We went all the way from Toronto… I remember it raining, but it was special,” she said.

Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of enshrined equality protection. But McPhedran warned young women against forgetting how their rights came to be.

“If we don’t understand where it came from, we’re far more likely to take it for granted,” she said. “And when we take freedoms and rights for granted, that’s usually the beginning of losing them.”

The Older Women’s Network will hold a celebration at its co-op building on April 17 at 115 The Esplanade.