October is Women's History
Month, an initiative of Status of Women Canada to foster an appreciation for
the past and present contributions of Canadian women and to recognise their
achievements as a vital part of our heritage. It is especially appropriate that
the Senate be part of this celebration since the month of October was chosen in
order to coincide with the annual commemoration of the Persons Case. In October
1929, that case extended the status of "persons" to women, enabling
them to be considered for appointment to the Upper House. Shortly thereafter,
in February of 1930, Cairine Wilson was appointed to the Senate by Prime
Minister King. Since that time, many women have served in the Senate and have
made very significant contributions to it. On October 8,1993 a panel discussion
on "Women's Contributions to the Senate" was organised by the Senate.
Panellists were Dr. Lorna Marsden, President and Vice-Chancellor of Wilfrid
Laurier University, Professor of Sociology, Senator from 1984 to 1992, and past
Chairman of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and
Technology; Senator Joan Neiman, who was admitted to the Ontario Bar in 1954,
appointed to the Senate in 1972, and was Chairman for eight years of the
Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs; and Senator
Marjory LeBreton, who served with the Progressive Conservative Party for 31
years, was named Deputy Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Mulroney in 1987, and
was named to the Senate in 1993. The moderator was Heather Lank of the
Committee's Branch of the Senate. The following are extracts from the
What impact have women Senators
Senator Joan Neiman: There have only been 35 of us altogether
since 1930. I was number 14 in 1972, so we have not really made a great deal of
progress, but it is nice that 15 of us are in the Senate today. That is a
beginning. I think it has made a tremendous difference to have women in the
Senate, but perhaps we have not made as much of a difference as perhaps we
might have wished over the years.
Senator Marjory LeBreton: Women generally approach problems, and the
solutions to those problems, in a much different way than men. Parliamentary
institutions - indeed, all institutions would greatly benefit by having more
women. For many years Parliament and politics have been viewed very much as a
man's game. Slowly but surely, this perception is changing. It is important for
women, when they come into politics and into Parliament, to realise, as I did
that they need not be "one of the boys" in order to survive in
Parliament and in politics, and that they do not have to be less
"female" to take on a leadership role.
Dr. Lorna Marsden: I have looked at this subject in some
depth through three case studies. The first was the impact of women senators on
divorce reform in Canada.
Divorce was a very major matter
because the Senate looked at all the divorce petitions for all too many years.
Therefore senators, both men and women, were some of the greatest pioneers for
divorce reform in
this country. In fact, there was a
joint committee of the Senate and the House of Commons on divorce reform, and
if you follow Muriel Ferguson's interventions, you will find them extraordinarily
interesting. She was a member of the Business and Professional Women, the
University Women, and various other national councils of women. For years such
councils and bodies had been petitioning for divorce reform, to make it fairer.
Women still had to prove two grounds for divorce and there were all kinds of
There were hearings on divorce
reform and the various associations came forward to testify. We know that many
of the senators - and certainly Muriel Ferguson - had the briefs from the
women's associations of which they were members. All of the senators asked
questions of the witnesses. However, Senator Ferguson asked two very
penetrating questions. To the representatives of each association she said,
"How many members do you have?", knowing that politicians are very
affected by the size of the membership. It transpired that the associations
that were opposing divorce reform tended to be organised differently, so while
they may have had millions of people actually associated with them, due to the
way in which their membership was structured, they had relatively small
official memberships. In contrast to that the National Council of Women, which
signs up individuals, had a membership of an enormous size. Senator Ferguson
asked those questions to get such things on the record and to make the point
At that time, the National Council
of Women had a new president who was not too well-informed about such hearings.
Senator Ferguson asked if they had written a brief on this issue? The new
president said they had." Senator Ferguson then asked, "Could you
distribute it?" The new president could not because she did not have
copies. ---Well" said Senator Ferguson, "As a matter of fact, I have
plenty of copies to distribute ..." and she handed them around to the
committee and thus got it on the record. The main point was to get such
material on the record.
Women senators had this depth of
experience with issues that were of particular concern to the lives of women,
and these issues came to the attention of Parliament through the efforts of
women senators. When you compare what women senators have said with what the
women members of the House of Commons have said, you see that there is an
extraordinary difference. The women senators are better informed. They are
better plugged in. They have far better grounding in that aspect, and there has
been a real impact in that sense.
If you look at biographies of the
women who have served in the Senate - and in particular the first 13 of them
-one of the first things you recognise that they have in common, is that every
single one of them lists an affiliation with some aspect of women's
organisations or the women's movement; their party's women's association, the
Canadian Federation of University Women, their university women's clubs, the
Business and Professional Women, or National Action Committee. When you read
the men's biographies, interesting though they are, they do not have
gender-linked associations because the world of men and women in this country
is organised, institutionally, quite differently.
Does gender play a role
independent from party and/or regional affiliations and loyalties in the
Dr. Lorna Marsden: I think it does, and I do not think that anyone
who has watched the Senate in action can have any doubt that gender does play a
role quite apart from party, as do many other things. The alliances and the
coalitions that form in the Senate very often have nothing to do with party.
That is the great genius of the Senate, and that is why we need the Senate,
because there are very significant and substantial coalitions through which a
lot of things are accomplished. We are all very grateful for the role played by
senators from both sides of the chamber on the proposed integration of the
Social Science and Humanities Research Council and the Canada Council. Those of
us in universities applauded and cheered loudly when that bill did not go
The abortion bill was another
example of an alliance that had nothing do with party. It had to do with
beliefs and willingness to take action.
I think there is a women’s caucus.
It is not organised and does not meet at Thursday lunch, for example, but when
there is interest, people do caucus. It is a network as opposed to a caucus,
but it works across party lines; it works between the House and the Senate. It
exists. There is an information flow.
Senator Joan Neiman: Yes, but not to a great extent because
there have been so few of us. However, there are certain significant things I
can recall. Certainly, the Constitution debate was extremely important to us
with regard to the rights of Indian women. It was the women getting together,
and certainly not a party exercise at all, that made it very clear that those changes
in the Constitution had to be made in order to protect the rights of Indian
women. How successful that exercise has been is another question entirely. It
is something that many of us are still interested in working on and trying to
The most important initiative we
have had recently is the abortion debate. That was extremely significant for
us. It was a question of just insisting on what we believed was the right way
to go, regardless of party. It was the women who, as a group, made the difference
in that vote. That was a very significant contribution from our point of view.
We have been interested in politics
and active in politics for many years. These institutions, as such, a re
important, but the work that any woman does in her community is far more
important, at whatever level you choose to be active.
Senator Spivak and a group of us
were trying to get together in an all-party women's caucus, but in the end we
did not get anywhere. It fell apart because of time, and we could not do it. I
think it is an excellent idea. I like the idea. I was and am still in favour of
Senator Marjory LeBreton: It certainly does. It is very important
that senators, no matter from which political party they hail, be actively
involved in their own party caucus so that they have an understanding of some
of the issues, and that they are part of the consensus when a decision is
reached. Having said that, there are certain issues, particularly those that
concern women and children, and those of particular concern to women, and here
I will use the abortion issue as an example, where even if 99.9 per cent of the
members of my party were going one way, I would not support any policy that did
not give women the right to choose.
Because I was a young working
mother, I am a strong believer in child care and access to it. I plan to bring
to bear all of my real-life experiences, not only my personal experiences but
also experience gained working in the political backrooms and observing the
attitudes towards women that abound in those circumstances. I will not be as
regionally motivated as I will be by my own personal beliefs. The fact that I
am a woman and have these life experiences will play a large part. I know what
it is like to be a secretary; I know what it is like to feel threatened. Every
woman who has worked, especially in my era, knows what harassment, or sexual
harassment, in the workplace is. I certainly will bring these experiences with
me to the Senate.
Do you believe that there should
be quotas or other mechanisms to establish a certain minimum number or
proportion of women senators?
Dr. Lorna Marsden: I do not believe there should be quotas,
nor can I support the 50 per cent proportional representation. I believe that
if the Senate were elected, and if the election was held with a proper format,
there would be more than 50 per cent of women in the Senate, which would be a
great thing for the country and for the Senate. Therefore for this and other
reasons I really am opposed to quotas. I am in favour of electoral reform, and
certainly of Senate reform in that area.
It remains to be seen whether
Senate reform will ever be achieved, but I do think that there is a lot that
in the Senate in any event that
brings about reform in the way the rules operate, the way in which committees
operate and in the way in which information is gathered.
Men and women can be equally good
feminists and carry forward the interests and the analysis of the position of
women in society. We see lots of evidence of that from senators of both sexes.
On the other hand, there are some women senators who are not feminists at all,
and who do not share that view or opinion, and that is fair enough. I am
interested in the gender question, but I object to being told I have to do
women as well as in areas of more things because I am a woman, and. for that
reason I oppose quotas
There are three separate issues
that often get confused. One is the removal of barriers so that women can gain
access into the Senate. Any barriers that exist that discriminate on the basis
of sex should be removed. The second thing is: What issues come before the
Senate? If you examine the record you will see that the Senate, even in those
years when it was almost exclusively male-dominated, has examined issues of concern
to women, through special studies and so on, far more often than has the House
of Commons. Getting those issues on the agenda, for example the violence issue,
was quite important.
The question then arises: Is merely
having women in place enough? The answer is no. I would defend the right of
women to hold the full range of opinions available in human behaviour. My
personal preference is to have feminists or people who share the world view
that many of us have - that is, to take the concerns of women into consideration.
However, I recognise that there are lots of women who hold the opposite view.
If you look at the vote on abortion, there were many women who voted for the
introduction of the bill, but then there were a great many who did not. All too
often those three matters, namely, barriers, issues and individual philosophy,
get confused under the label "Women."
Senator Joan Neiman: I do not like the idea of quotas, and I do
not support them since they simply would not work in an electoral system. I
have been working with Dr. Marguerite Ritchie, who is the President of the
Human Rights Institute of Canada. That institute has done a lot of useful work
in such areas as defending the rights of Indian women as well as in areas of
more general concern.
While we have an appointed Senate,
and I think that will be the case for some time to come, I see no reason why
each and every one of us cannot press to have more women appointed here.
Admittedly, it would be a difficult end to accomplish if and when the Senate were
to be elected, but while we still have an appointed body it should be quite
The important thing is that
Canada's population today consists of 52 per cent woman. Therefore, it would be
preferable to have in the Senate a more equitable percentage of women, truly
reflective of the reality of today's situation rather than, as we now have,
only 15 senators who are women out of a total of 104..I. do not think that is
good enough. It would be great if we could pressure our government to make an
effort to correct that imbalance in some way. It is possible to do so, and it
would make a tremendous difference in the Senate, and for women's interests and
in women's causes, if we could have that change in appointments to this body.
There are many qualified, intelligent and public-spirited women out there, as
there are men, but we have to make an effort to find them and to push their
names. The men will not do it. There will always be people who will want to
look after themselves or look after a buddy. Therefore it is extremely
important for all of us to zero in on good women candidates.
It would make a significant
difference if we had a much higher proportion of women than we do today. I
should like to see the appointment process, so long as it is there for the next
few years, concentrate across Canada on getting more qualified women into the
Senate. We can then start to deal with the education process of both men and
women with respect to women's issues. Women have a different approach. They are
not generally as confrontational; they would rather sit there and work at a
problem and work at solutions. That is where the Senate could make a valuable
Senator Marjory LeBreton: I do not believe in quotas. As a matter of
fact, that was one of the big issues in the whole debate on Senate reform in
connection with Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accord, in terms of regional
senators and what would happen during an election, for example, if there were
quotas; what would happen in a province that was entitled to have six senators,
and there were 14 names on the list? What would happen if, after the vote, the
six candidates who received the highest number of votes were all women?
Theoretically, we could only take three, then we would have to pass over three
or four women and take the first three men. For those reasons and others I do
not believe in quotas.
The way to get more women involved
in politics is to lobby and I certainly tried very hard to involve women when I
was working in the Prime Minister's office. We brought in many women, as you
will see if you look at the number of women who are heading up agencies and
boards, but that is still not enough. More work has to be done. We have to
exert political will as women on our own political parties. We have to lobby.
We have to exert incredible pressure.
I know women who are antiwomen. You
work with your colleagues, men or women, find the ones who support you on your
issues, and forget the ones who do not. That is why I do not support quotas.
There are some men who are more supportive of women than some women, and vice
Do you have any role models
among the women who were pioneers in the Senate?
Senator Joan Neiman: Muriel Ferguson was one of the outstanding
senators, as far as I am concerned, and not only among women senators. She was
an outstanding person because of the contributions she made in her own area
before she was appointed to the Senate. She fought for so many different
things. She fought for prison reform when she came here. just before I arrived,
they had been fighting for six or seven years for changes in that area, and
Senator Ferguson was a formidable factor in that battle. Even before she came
to the Senate, when she was back in New Brunswick, through different groups
such as the National Business Women's Association and various organisations
like that, she fought for women's issues and continued that all through her
time here. To me she was a very special kind of person whose interests went
beyond narrow party political interests as such. She was interested in society
and fought for changes that she felt were necessary. I consider her an
When I was appointed, I became the
seventh woman senator at that time. Some had already retired before I got here.
Senator Renaude Lapointe was another woman who was a tremendous influence. She
had been extremely active. She was an outstanding journalist. She had been very
active in her community and had a broad range of interests.
Let us face it, probably some of
those early women were, in a sense, token appointments. King appointed Cairine
Wilson. Bennett made one appointment, a Mrs. Iva Fallis, and that is all. Mr.
St. Laurent made four appointments, and Mr. Diefenbaker made two. Mr. Pearson
appointed only one woman senator in the time he was here. Sometimes that
depended on the number of vacancies that occurred. It might have been at a time
when there were not that many vacancies.
However, there were not that many
women appointed until we got into the Trudeau era, and I would think that some
of those were appointed because they were expected to appoint a woman. Even at
that, woman were not expected to do very much in those days. They were to be
here to be part of the background, and to show how progressive our Prime
Then there were some wonderful
women such as Madame Casgrain who was an outstanding woman, and Florence Bird,
who was appointed not long after I was. In the last 10 or 15 years the women in
the Senate have become more and more active. More and more, the women who have
been appointed to the Senate are here because they want to take part in what is
going on here, so I think there has been a very positive change over the last
several veers. As a woman, you are now a member of a committee, you are a
member of a group, and you act that way. Women do have their own particular
influences when they want to join forces in a particular cause, but apart from
that I think they are contributing on an equal basis with the men.
Dr. Lorna Marsden: By the time I got here I was benefiting
from the pioneer work that had been done by everybody from Cairine Wilson
forward, although if she were here, Florence Bird could tell us about the
washroom on the sixth floor, and how she liberated it from male domination.
In the very first few days after I
took my seat as a senator, Senator Inman was here. Many of you will remember
Senator Inman. She was about to retire. She was then 90something. She was not
particularly mobile, so she would come into the Senate in a wheelchair from
time to time. She said to me in the lobby during one of those very first few
days, It is so nice to have another feminist here." I thought that was
Many of the women who influenced me
when I first came to the Senate were women I had already known in the women's
movement; Thdr6e Casgrain and Florence Bird. But also Yvette Rousseau, who was
a great labour leader in Quebec. I had known her in the National Action
Committee and in various other aspects of the women's movement. There was
Martha Bielish from Alberta, who had done an enormous amount of work with the
Women of the World, with farm women
and with native women in this country. There was Mira Spivak, whom I had known
previously. Our paths had crossed on these kinds of issues in Winnipeg. And
there was Joan Neiman, whom I had known for many, many years as a colleague in
the Liberal Party, but also as someone who had worked on legal reform as it
related to women. One of the important aspects of being a woman senator is
building those connections between what you have worked with before and what
you can do to be a conduit back and forth in the Senate.
On what issues in the next
Parliament do you see women joining together across party lines?
Senator Marjory LeBreton: Health care. If there is one thing
Canadians hold near and dear, and we only have to watch what is going on in the
United States, it is our system of health care. That is not to say that
improvements cannot be made, but if there is to be a fractured Parliament, I
can see health care being at issue. It will certainly be an issue that I will
Senator Joan Neiman: One issue that should return is the Indian
women's rights, namely, the effect of Bill C-31, what it has and what it has
not accomplished. It is an issue in which none of the men are particularly
interested, including the native men in particular. They do not want to see it.
It is something that women of all parties should press for and try to achieve.
Certainly, the issue of violence against women and within the family generally,
and the judicial process with respect to that problem would be a wonderful
topic on which to move.
The question was raised about
health care and this question came up indirectly in our family. It was in
relation to medical research and how much money is devoted to diseases,
specifically breast cancer, for example, and women's diseases as compared to
some of the men's diseases. These are areas that we should investigate. These
are areas where we could make a difference and bring pressure to bear.
Dr. Lorna Marsden: I agree with respect to all the issues
that have been raised, but I do not think health care will divide along gender
lines. It may, but I doubt it. I will put two more issues on the table. One is
child care. There will be another go at child care. If the government is smart,
on that issue it will consult the Senate before it brings in the legislation.
There is also electoral reform. There is bound to be electoral reform following
on the Royal Commission, and there will be a gender view of electoral reform
that will transcend party lines.