In 2016, let's make women visible, starting with the money

Historian Merna Forster is right on the money when she says we can all play a role in celebrating and raising the awareness of Canadian women, and on the money would be a great place to commemorate women in the year 2016.

When women are not seen and not heard; it leads to them not being acknowledged, not being considered important

The new year is an extremely important one for women across Manitoba and Canada, for it is the 100th anniversary of certain women first winning the right to vote. Manitoba women led the way in 1916, thanks to Nellie McClung, resulting in our province being the first to grant this privilege to some women — a right that most men simply took for granted.

Historian Merna Forster is right on the money when she says we can all play a role in celebrating and raising the awareness of Canadian women, and on the money would be a great place to commemorate women in the year 2016.

The new year is an extremely important one for women across Manitoba and Canada, for it is the 100th anniversary of certain women first winning the right to vote. Manitoba women led the way in 1916, thanks to Nellie McClung, resulting in our province being the first to grant this privilege to some women — a right that most men simply took for granted.

Federally, women were not allowed to vote until 1918 and even then that did not include all women across Canada.

Canada's first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, was elected in 1867. It wasn't until recently when Canada's 23rd prime minister, Justin Trudeau, was sworn in 148 years later that cabinet, for the first time in our history, attained gender parity.

When the Victoria-based Forster wrote her sequel, 100 More Canadian Heroines, she noted in her introduction that "the first and only great Canadian woman I remember hearing about as a child was Nellie McClung." That's it. Other than that, she did not grow up learning much about any other female Canadians. Why?

Forster added that a CBC television contest launched in 2004 to determine the "greatest Canadian in our history" resulted in only six women making the top fifty. They were Laura Secord, Nellie McClung, Mary Maxwell, Shania Twain, Avril Lavigne and Céline Dion. The final top ten selected were all men.

Likely, Forster says, many were not aware of the abundance of other females they could have chosen.

'Make it Happen' was the theme for International Women's Day, held on March 8. It is a century where some progress has happened but so much more needs to happen around the world in terms of the horrific physical and sexual violence against females; the appalling poverty that many women live in, the denial of education for females in many countries, the absence of equal rights, equal pay, the lack of representation in government and much more.

Here in Canada, Forster has concentrated on promoting the awareness of noteworthy Canadian women. She has written two books dedicated to Canadian heroines; some famous, many not at all well-known and others likely forgotten, hoping her efforts would help to liberate them from obscurity.

It is true that in looking back and in trying to trace the history of significant events, places or prominent people, it is men who pop up most frequently. It is their names that figure most prominently as subject matter literally dominating the pages of our old newspapers, books, magazines and literature.

When women are not seen and not heard; it leads to them not being acknowledged, not being considered important.

Women are becoming more visible today in many ways, but we have such a long road ahead of us, and much of it is uphill. Women are paid less and struggle in many ways, bearing on their shoulders most of the unpaid domestic labour that keeps families and in fact society, running.

It has been said that even Nellie McClung would not have been able to do what she did if she had not belonged to a class of people that was able to afford household help.

Forster initiated a petition in Canada in 2013 to put women on the money. That is, to include Canadian women on bank notes. She told Canadian Geographic in December 2014, "I realized that the only Canadian women to ever make it onto the bank notes had been removed. On the back of the $50 bill we had the statues of the Famous Five from The Persons Case; they were replaced by an icebreaker."

The petition is still ongoing. In October 2015, Forster noted on her Facebook site — a site she created to promote Canadian women in history — that more than 64,000 Canadians had signed the petition. The Bank of Canada, she had said earlier this year, "had still not accepted the demands of the petition, so the campaign continues."

She claims there is no shortage of notable Canadian females; they are simply not represented in the images around us that contribute to our view, to our understanding of the world.

Some of the women put forward by campaign supporters as possible candidates for our paper money are Viola Desmond, a civil rights icon; Thanadelthur, a powerful Chipewyan Dene who served as a guide in the fur trade and Dr. Jennie Trout, said to be the first woman licensed to practice medicine in Canada. And of course Manitoba's own Nellie McClung.

Likely many have not even heard of the first three Canadian women mentioned. The current series of bank notes depicts Sir John A. MacDonald, Sir Robert Borden, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Queen Elizabeth.

Forster insists we can all contribute. And she is right. Aside from signing petitions, we can make movies, write books, articles, teach and tell stories featuring women in our classrooms, in our communities and in our homes. We can help to make more visible the discrimination, horrendous cruelty, trafficking and poverty suffered by women in countries around the world.

And so in 2016, the anniversary of certain women first obtaining the right to vote, we can all choose to honour, to celebrate, to remember women and to help make them more visible all year long. What better year is there to finally put Canadian women on our bank notes?

Cheryl Girard is a Winnipeg writer.