“Never Retract, Never Explain”

  • National Newswatch

October 18th marks Persons Day in celebration of Canada's Famous Five— Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Emily Murphy, and Irene Parlby—who asked the Supreme Court of Canada in 1927 to answer the question: does the word “person” in the British North American Act include female persons?When given the wrong answer, the Famous Five took their case to London, England, the highest court of appeal. On October 18, 1929, women were deemed persons--thus paving the way for women to contribute fully to Canadian life.I shared this inspiring story year after year with my students because I wanted them to know Nellie McClung's words, “Never retract, never explain, never apologize”, and because I wanted them to know that they were more powerful than they ever thought, and that, like the Famous Five, they could move mountains.However, I remember one group of young women in one class who asserted that the Famous Five were “old school”, and they were “from back in the day”, that there was no need for “feminism” because “it's all fixed now, it's not like it used to be.”Their homework for the evening was to interview their sisters, aunts, cousins, and friends, and to see if they had indeed always been treated the same as the men in their lives. The answers were telling: her sport team received half a track suit, men's football received a complete uniform, a membership to a gym, and a three-piece suit for travel; she was talked into being a teacher, although she had always wanted to be an engineer; he made $6,000 more with the same degree; and she gave up her career to look after the children and her husband's aging parents.I added my own experience to the discussion: being photographed from my ankles upward by documentary film makers, being asked how I wanted to be treated as a “woman” or as a “scientist”, as if I couldn't be both, being asked to put through male colleague's long-distance phone calls, and being grossly underpaid because, “you're a woman”. I then taught my students to negotiate, and to negotiate hard to earn what they were worth.Parliamentarians should be inspired every day—and not just on Persons Day—by the Famous Five, who are immortalized on Parliament Hill, to right the injustices my students learned to see, and to battle: appallingly, women earn roughly twenty percent less than men, face barriers to employment, strive to break through the “glass ceiling”, and suffer the violence affecting one third of all women in Canada.My students asked why their elected officials failed to see where women and girls were hurting, and why they did not fix these long-standing problems--after all, the fight for pay equity and national child care extend back to 1915 and 1970 respectively.We need more women parliamentarians to be a voice for women, to raise their challenges at the national level. Agnes Macphail addressed a group of students at the University of Toronto in 1948 on the topic of “Women in Parliament: Why aren't there more?”Sadly, 65 years later, Canadians should still ask the same question, as Canada ranked 47th in the world in 2013 in terms of female representation in national parliaments.Parliamentarians should demand that Ottawa make eliminating the gender wage gap an economic imperative, as it hits the Canadian economy at the macro scale and our families at the micro level. A 2005 Royal Bank of Canada report estimated the lost income potential of women in Canada due to the wage gap at about $126 billion a year.With the challenges of the current financial climate, it has never been more important to take full advantage of the skills and talents of all Canadians, regardless of gender, and to remove the obstacles, such as lack of child care, that keep Canadian women from realising their full potential. Parliamentarians should demand that the government act to give families choices for child care and to reduce waiting lists for the limited number of existing child care spaces.But of all the challenges I discussed with my students, nothing was as important as teaching them to recognize violence and how to get out of a damaging relationship. Each year in Canada, abuse drives over 100,000 women and children out of their homes and into shelters.And each week in my women's health class, the statistics sadly played out. Sometimes, at the end of a lecture, students would hang back, wanting to talk, desperately needing help. Some were verbally abused by their boyfriends, others were physically abused by male guardians — and then there were the sexual assaults by family members.All too often the perpetrator went unpunished, and the victims, having already endured the crime, felt fear and shame. These young women would collapse in my arms sobbing; they had nowhere else to go, they felt alone, and they felt they could talk to no one. But by coming forward, they knew that they would get the help they desperately needed, and the support they required to escape the violence.Recently, I ran into one of my former students, a survivor of abuse. I hugged her, and asked how she was doing. She said: “all okay”, as she took a small piece of paper out of her pocket with the words, “Never retract, never explain, never apologize.” And then she smiled, “I guess they really are still relevant. I learned to be strong from them. Maybe, just maybe, one day I will run for Parliament.”