Thérèse Casgrain was born into an affluent Québec family, but she relentlessly championed women’s equality. Her speech to the League for the Rights of Women in 1941 occurred one year after women in Québec won the right to vote. Each year for more than a decade, Casgrain and other women found a sympathetic member of the Assembly to introduce a motion on female suffrage. Both movers of the motion and women watching from the gallery were routinely subjected to ridicule. In her speech in 1941 as the Second World War was raging, Casgrain refers to women’s voting but places it in a broader context.
“The right to vote is not an end in and of itself”
We secured [the right to vote] a year ago today, after several years of what seemed a fruitless battle. At the time of this victory, several sources said to us: “Now that you have what you wanted, your struggle is over and you can relax.” These words make me think of those romance novels in which the hero always marries the heroine at the end. What we forget is that the real story begins only after the wedding . . . This offer to relax was no doubt made with the best of intentions, but it shows, sadly, that there are those who have misunderstood the reason and the goal behind our struggle. The right to vote is not, and could never be, an end in and of itself: it is a means, a defensive weapon.
Education is key
Now that we possess some means of action that were denied us in the past, our true mission becomes apparent, our responsibilities take shape, our duties are made clear . . . We acknowledge that a large number of our economic and social problems are, in fact, educational problems. The dangerous bias with which totalitarian states infiltrate early childhood education should motivate us to redouble our efforts in preparing our own youth, not for the blood-soaked tasks of war, nor for the violent technology of invasion, but rather for the responsibilities it consents to assume in the future. We must work closely with the schools to cultivate in our children’s hearts love of family and of nation.
Plotting boundaries on geographic maps, praising a country of rhetoric and convention in your discourse — these will never shape a homeland: it is achieved by engraving those boundaries in the mind and soul of your children. Patriotism is not, has never been, a matter for rhetoric or convention. It is an undefined emotion that pulls at your heartstrings when a stranger utters the name of your country; it is an immeasurable exhilaration that sings within you when you tread native soil or when you breathe in its scent, and when its contours and relief seem like extensions of yourself. Education within the family and schools should instil this concept of a real and living homeland in our youth.
In these uncertain times, the heritage of a sound education is the only legacy we can be sure to pass on to our children. The post-war world — and I am not engaging in predictions of the future here, but rather considering facts simply and impersonally — the post-war world will have no tolerance for the weak, the underdeveloped, the irresolute; it will be a world where only intellectual and physical excellence will prevail. Will we have given our children the tools for their success and happiness . . .
Equal pay for equal work
Modern life has committed, as it were, working women to factories, clerical positions, and store clerk positions, as much in commerce as in industry. What kind of working conditions are women subjected to in our society? Exploitation of women’s work is not speculation; it is in fact a sad reality all too often. We must take care of this problem. Equal pay for equal work. There is nothing in the world that justifies handling the women’s workforce differently than the men’s workforce; in fact, that goes for all things equal. As well, has it not been proven, notably by the textile industry survey report, that lowering women’s salary results in a proportionately lowered salary for the men’s workforce? Requesting just compensation for women’s work not only safeguards a sacred right, but it also protects the security of the family unit. As for understanding the importance of working conditions, a Christian spirit or the simple respect of human dignity is all you should need.
Safeguarding human dignity
The concern with which we safeguard human dignity will also inspire our discussions about social well-being. For example, there is so much wrong with the fact that a big city can give rise to the shameful existence of slums. What sources of physical and moral contagions arise out of these dark and dingy shelters, where neither sunlight nor fresh air ever penetrate. Must we reiterate that slums are the biggest cause of juvenile delinquency, and that most of the men and women that fill the prisons today lived, as children, in these holes without light? Can women, caretakers of the home, ignore the problem of slums, of a cancer that is inexorably eating away at the social fabric and attacks the very essence of the family?
We recognize today, more than ever before, our collective responsibility. This conference marks for us an anniversary; it shall, by the same token, be a starting point if our work truly begins today. I am certain that we will all perform our new duties with the fervour and patience we found within ourselves during our struggle to achieve the recognition of primordial rights.
Source: Library and Archives Canada, Fonds Thérèse Casgrain: MG32-C25, Volume 10.
Thérèse Casgrain, A Woman in a Man’s World (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972).
Thérèse Casgrain, The Canadian Encyclopedia.
Photo: Library and Archives Canada
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author, blogger and a former Member of Parliament. His latest book is Speeches That Changed Canada.