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In 1972, the twenty-ninth session of the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) adopted Resolution No. 3275 proclaiming 1975 as International Women’s Year (IWY). The year was designed to “promote equality between men and women” and to emphasize “women’s responsibility and important role in economic, social and cultural development at the national, regional and international levels” of society.[1] As a signatory Canada’s federal government was required to ensure that the terms of the resolution were carried out in this country, especially in its own institutions.

International-Womens-Year-1975_WHY-NOT_because_buttons1[1]

What was really accomplished? According to Chatelaine, one of the leading Canadian women’s magazines at the time, not much. Journalist Michele Landsberg, writing in “Has Women’s Year Laid an Egg?,”[2] observed that the exercise was largely a public relations opportunity for Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s governing Liberals.

Although the federal government had allocated $5 million toward promoting IWY through a program called “Why Not?,” it spent the bulk of the funds creating informational programs, conferences for men, designing pamphlets and buttons, and developing a number of mobile information vans that toured six of the provinces. All of these initiatives focused on the federal government’s programs rather than providing funding for local women’s groups and projects. The idea of the federal government raising awareness of women prompted one man to wonder if this was “the first time the government had heard of women?”

equality equal rights amendment separate but equal is not equal[1]Women’s complaints about the inadequacies of the campaign prompted Prime Minister Trudeau to publicly offer up his own complaint: “That’s the trouble with women: they bitch after the fact.” It was an example of the prevailing attitudes toward women in the 1970s.

Landsberg did note that some minor progress was made in 1975. For example, women were no longer discriminated against under the Canada Pension Plan and they were no longer required to identify themselves as “Mrs.” on the voters’ list. They were also given more flexibility when deciding when to use their 15 weeks of paid maternity leave. Girls were allowed to join the military cadets for the first time. Rape victims were now legally protected from being questioned by defense attorneys about past sexual behaviour during court proceedings.

But serious injustices remained. The provinces dithered over marriage laws, specifically the division of assets and property rights during a divorce. Those decisions were left entirely to a judge’s discretion and, more often than not, judges decided in favour of men. Preschool children of working mothers were still without adequate childcare.

Women who worked full time in 1973 earned just over half of the wages paid to men who, on average, earned up to $3,834 a year more. Forty years later, little has changed. In 2011, according to Statistics Canada, women earned $32,100 a year, or just 66.7% of the $48,100 earned by men, an alarming statistic that should concern all Canadians.[3]

womens-rights1[1]

The failure of the government’s IWY campaign to effect real, lasting change for Canadian women in 1975 prompted Landsberg to conclude that change would only come when women themselves became more active in demanding their rights as citizens. Government grants, glossy ads, buttons, and kiosks did little to generate concrete cultural change in 1975, and they won’t today. Women’s inequality will only become a thing of the past when those who are committed to “fighting politically for human betterment” make their voices heard.

[1] United Nations General Assembly Resolution #3275 (XXIX), “International Women’s Year,” December 10, 1974.

[2] Michele Landsberg, “Has Women’s Year Laid an Egg?” Chatelaine 48:11 (November 1975).

[3] “Average Earnings by Sex and Work Pattern,” Statistics Canada, June 27, 2013. www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableau/sum-som/101/cst/o1/labor01a-eng.htm.

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