Pondering the history of International Women’s Day

Michael Dawe

On March 8, people around the world commemorated the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

While March 8 is the date that the global event is now held, the first International Women’s Day, or as it was then known, International Working Women’s Day, was celebrated on March 19, 1911.

The original idea of an International Working Women’s Day was put forward by the Socialist Party of America, but the first observances took place in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.

The event was never meant to be just a celebration of respect and appreciation for women. The rapid industrialization that occurred in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries brought a surge of economic growth. However, it also often brought abysmal working conditions, particularly for women and children.

Moreover, legal rights for women were sadly lacking. It was rare for women to have a vote in elections. Protection from domestic violence and abuse was weak or non-existent. Property rights generally went to men over women.

Central Alberta is not often known for activism and radicalism, but there was a growing local recognition of women’s rights in the early part of the last century. In 1901, when Red Deer was incorporated as a town, unmarried women and widows with property were given the right to vote.

In 1913, when Red Deer was incorporated as a city, all adult property owners, both men and women, were given the right to vote in civic elections.

Meanwhile, there was a strong movement, led by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, to bring in Prohibition against the sale and manufacture of alcohol. Today, many people dismiss groups such as the W.C.T. U. as being overly straight-laced individuals who are against others enjoying some beer, wine or liquor.

However, just as the situation is today, alcohol was frequently a major contributing factor to violence, crime, poverty and poor health. Those who bore the brunt of the violence and the burdens of poverty were wives and children. There weren’t the social programs in place to ease the suffering and provide ways of correcting the domestic and economic situations.

Thus, “banning the bar” was, for groups such as the W.C.T.U., a promising way to improve the plight of women and children. Moreover, the W.C.T.U. became a strong advocate of improving women’s rights to property and estates, creating mothers’ pensions, providing legal protections for women and children against violence and abuse, and creating public health systems.

Groups such as the W.C.T.U. and the Red Deer Local Council of Women also strongly supported extending the franchise in municipal, provincial and federal elections to women, not only to improve the calibre of people elected, but also to increase the chances of Prohibition being approved in plebiscites.

In 1915, Red Deer voted for prohibition by a margin of 80%, while the measure was approved province-wide by a two-thirds margin. In April 1916, women were given the right to vote and to hold elected public office in Alberta. The franchise was extended to women in federal elections in 1917.

In 1921, Laura Irish became the first woman in Red Deer to run for public office. She lost her bid to become a public school trustee by only 10 votes. In 1921, Irene Parlby of Alix was elected to the Alberta Legislature and shortly thereafter became the first woman cabinet minister.

In 1922, Red Deer made legal history when, for the first time in Canada, a court case was heard with women on the jury. Those first woman jurors were Jessie Huestis, Zelma Smith and Maude Horn.

In 1926, Edith Ellis McCreight became the first woman to be elected in Red Deer when she successfully ran for public school trustee. In 1960, Margaret Parsons became the first woman chair of the Red Deer Public School Board.

In 1961, Ethel Taylor became the first woman to be elected to City Council. In 1992, Gail Surkan was elected as Red Deer’s first woman mayor. She held the office for 12 years, thereby tying the record as longest serving mayor set by her predecessor, Bob McGhee.

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