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COLUMN: The evolution of women’s rights in Sarnia was often slow

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Randy Evans

A historical perspective is often enlightening, especially when it comes to women’s rights.

Take equal pay for equal work, for example. Back in 1883, the Sarnia School Board announced that male teachers would be paid more than their female colleagues. That prompted a response in The Observer:

“Can any person explain why women who do the same work as men should not receive the same wages? asked a reader, identified only as “One Who Wishes Justice Done.”

In politics, it wasn’t until 1917 that Canadian women won the right to vote, and only in a limited way during the First World War.

But half a century earlier, in 1867, an editorialist in The Observer noted that though women didn’t vote they did “in no small way influence over the [election] result.”

Sarnia continued to drag its feet on the issue. Finally, in 1923, women were granted the right to vote in the city’s municipal election. Not all women mind you – only those who owned real estate or whose husbands were land-titled.

But the change did spur political participation at the municipal committee level. Before the 1923 election only one woman, Maud Hanna, served on a civic committee. By 1940 no fewer than 12 were actively contributing on municipal boards.

The right to vote, however, did not quickly translate into female representation on city council. Two decades would elapse before Joan Haney finally broke the glass ceiling in 1945.

In December of 1936, the Sarnia School Board passed a resolution that banned married woman from working as teachers.

It had apparently been unofficial policy for some time, because the school trustees were surprised a formal resolution was required. They also expressed concern that greedy women teachers would continue working, collect their ill-begotten income, and keep their weddings a secret.

In 1905, three different women filed civil suits against male defendants during the fall session at the Lambton County Courthouse.

In one case, a Miss Laura Short was awarded damages after a good-for-nothing cad by the name of Hector MacLean broke his promise of marriage.

In fact, in all three civil cases the women were successful, which is noteworthy because all-male juries rendered the decisions.

It wasn’t until November, 1952 that woman in Sarnia were even allowed to sit on a jury. Local justice officials, in making the announcement, said they were mindful the “fair sex” had sensibilities.

Accordingly, prospective female jurors were given “suitable facilities” with an attending matron.

And any women could be granted a full exemption from jury duty if she simply asked for it – no explanation required – or if the “nature of the evidence” would be too much for her.

Sensitivity is always the right choice.

Randy Evans is a Sarnia resident and regular contributor to The Journal

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