Historical Trailblazers - The Women We Aspire To Be
Updated: Aug 7
Amazing Canadian women you should know
We’re taking you back to school in this piece to learn about some of the badass women who forged their way through Canadian history. These are the women we want to be when we grow up!
We are taking you back to school in this piece to learn about some of the badass women that forged their way through Canadian history. These are the women we want to be when we grow up!
1. Roberta Bondar (1945 - Present)
Roberta Bondar is not necessarily a historical Canadian woman (she’s still kicking) — but as the first Canadian female astronaut, we would be remiss to not include this stellar pioneer.
Most known for: Canada’s first female astronaut and the world’s first neurologist in space.
Roberta dreamed of being an astronaut from childhood. And while many children do, this aspiration was seriously encouraged by her father. In his basement lab she was free to perform experiments and explore her scientific curiosities.
In high school, Roberta’s guidance counselor discouraged her from pursuing science in post-secondary, saying it “wasn’t a subject for girls” — *eye roll*. Despite that, Roberta went on to obtain many degrees, ranging from a bachelor of science in zoology and agriculture, and masters of science in experimental pathology, to two doctorates, one in neuroscience and the other in medicine. Pretty impressive for a girl!
In 1992, Roberta’s dream of being an astronaut was realized aboard the NASA Space Shuttle, making her the first Canadian female astronaut and first neurologist in space. Following that mission, Roberta continued her career as a pioneer in space medicine. Her research drew important new links between how the body recovers from the lack of gravity in space to neurological diseases like Parkinson’s disease.
Her 2020 Twitter bio:
Roberta actually has a Twitter bio: “Physician Scientist Fine Art Landscape & Avian Photographer Astronaut World's First Neurologist in Space Author Educator Communicator Lifelong Learner” – but we took the liberty of spicing it up…
2. Mary Two-Axe Earley (1911 - 1996)
Most known for: Indigenous rights activist, Indigenous Elder, women’s rights activist.
Beyond having probably the most kick-ass surname, Mary Two-Axe Earley, was an indigenous rights activist who famously fought for corrections to gender discrimination under the Indian Act.
She was born Mary Two-Axe on the Mohawk (Kanien’kehá:ka) reserve of Kahnawake, Quebec. At the age of 18, she moved to Brooklyn, New York and a few years later married an Irish American, Edward Earley. At that time, the Indian Act dictated that by marrying a non-status man, a woman was stripped of her legal Native status and treaty rights.
This left Mary unable to participate in her indigenous community. She lost the right to own the land she was set to inherit on her ancestral lands, she could not participate in her band’s politics, she could not be buried on the reserve, and her future children would also face these discriminations.
Mary wouldn’t stand for it. “I was angry since I observed the devastating effects of this policy on so many women,” she said. She spent decades fighting for the fact that a woman’s principle is not defined by her husband. Eventually, in 1985, when Mary was 73 years old, Bill C-31 was established. This amendment addressed gender discrimination in the Indian Act and outlined a process for reinstating lost status, helping many other women regain their rights.
Her 2020 Twitter Bio:
3. Justice Bertha Wilson (1923 - 2007)
Most known for: First female Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, contributed to many important decisions for women’s rights in areas of discrimination, self defense for battered women, and abortion rights.
Bertha Wilson was strong in her convictions and not the meek woman you might picture when imaging a minister’s wife and school teacher in the 1950s. When Bertha applied to Dalhousie’s Law School in 1954, the Dean was skeptical and quipped, “why don’t you just go home and take up crocheting?” (Again, *eye roll*).
But Bertha was always a trailblazer and a woman of firsts. She started off her career in law as the first female lawyer in a major Canadian law firm, before becoming its first female partner. Following that, she was the first woman appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal. And finally, Bertha was the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
On the Supreme Court, Bertha wrote judgement over many landmark decisions including R. v. Lavallée which established battered-wife syndrome as valid self-defense to murder. She also authored a momentous decision which stuck down Canada’s ban on abortion based on a woman’s right to choose.
Notably, Bertha wrote a controversial paper, Will Women Judges Really Make a Difference, where she argues that seemingly equal laws do not contain a female perspective and are often, at their core, discriminatory towards women. She concludes by saying, “If women lawyers and women judges through their differing perspectives on life can bring a new humanity to bear on the decision-making process, perhaps they will make a difference. Perhaps they will succeed in infusing the law with an understanding of what it means to be fully human.”
Fully human, as in acknowledging both genders. Amen to that, Bertha.
Her 2020 Twitter Bio:
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Until next week.
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