March 8 is International Women’s Day. This global event, originally known as International Working Women’s Day, has been marked for well over a century (1911).
While the original idea came from the United States, 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 19th and early 20th centuries brought a surge of economic growth. However, it also often brought abysmal working conditions, particularly for women and children.
Moreover, rights for women were sadly lacking. It was rare for women to have a vote in elections. Legal and property rights generally went to men over women.
A real advance in women’s rights came in the 1920s, in the aftermath of the First World War. The war had decimated the male population across Canada.
Many of those who made it home from the war came back with serious wounds to their bodies and/or their minds. Women took increasingly important roles in society and the economy.
Changes had already begun during the war. In April 1916, women were given the right to vote and to hold public office in Alberta.
In 1917, the franchise was extended to women in federal elections. A large motivation had been the belief women were likely to vote to support the war effort – to support the sons, husbands and brothers serving overseas.
Extending the right to vote was already well established in Red Deer. 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, men and women, were given the right to vote in civic elections.
Once the franchise was extended to the provincial and federal elections, there was an emerging interest by women to run for public office. In 1921, Laura Irish became the first woman in Red Deer to run when she made a bid to become a public school trustee. She lost by only 10 votes.
That same year, Irene Parlby of Alix was elected to the Alberta legislature, and shortly thereafter, became the first woman cabinet minister. In 1926, Edith Ellis McCreight was successful in her bid to be elected to the Red Deer Public School Board.
Meanwhile, in 1922, Red Deer made legal history when, for the first time in Canada, a court case was heard with women on the jury.
The case was for breach of promise, the legal mechanism at the time by which young unwed mothers could secure financial support from the father of their child. Jessie Huestis, Zelma Smith and Maude Horn were the women selected for the jury. All six jurors found unanimously for the young mother.
Changes in the post-First World War period were not limited to giving the right to vote to women and improving their legal rights.
Women’s sports flourished. Red Deer had women’s hockey teams going back to 1904, but the sport became even more popular in the 1920s.
Games involving the local Amazons often outdrew the men’s games, probably because for a number of years, the Amazons won a number of championships, while Red Deer’s men’s teams generally did not do very well.
Other women’s sports that became popular included baseball, tennis, speedskating, golf and basketball.
Despite all the advancements and accomplishments for women in the 1920s, Red Deer was still a rural community. Hence, one did not often see the very modern Flappers, whose images are one of the enduring memories of the Roaring Twenties.
Nevertheless, bobbing one’s hair, and wearing stylish felt hats and shorter dresses was a common way for women, in central Alberta and across the province, to show their determination to secure more improvements in life.
In one famous incident at the Holy Cross Hospital in Calgary, an attempt was made to prohibit nurses and nursing students from bobbing their hair.
Virtually every woman at the hospital responded by having their hair cut short. Faced with this massive revolt, the hospital’s male management was forced to back down.
Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.