Through the heroic efforts of these great women, gender equality and human rights have significantly advanced from the earliest colonial settlements to today. Women have made us proud to be Canadian, from famous people and historical events to iconic foods and influential artists.
Canadian women have made an impact as pioneers in various fields, including journalism, athletics, and the military, many of whom were the first women in their respective fields. Women have played a crucial role in Canada’s labour market, social movements, and culture for centuries.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane and explore the amazing Canadian women who shaped what Canada is today and how their stories reflect on the challenges women continue to tackle in the quest for gender equality, human rights and more.
We present to you 20 amazing Canadian Women!
1. Emily Howard Stowe (1831-1903)
Dr Emily Howard Jennings Stowe was the first Canadian woman to get a medical degree. Dr Stowe departed Canada after being denied admission to the University of Toronto, Ontario, to attend the New York Medical College for Women. Following her graduation in 1867, she established a practice in Toronto, Ontario and began her career as a pioneer for women’s rights, including suffrage, education, and medical education.
Dr Stowe demonstrated her commitment to women in medicine by establishing the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. She also established the important Toronto Women’s Literary Club, an organisation dedicated to bringing about change for women in all sectors of life. Dr Emily Stowe’s legacy will be remembered forever, as demonstrated by her acceptance into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 2018, which ultimately made her one of the most prominent Canadian women.
2. Jennie Kidd Trout (1841-1921)
After graduating from the Women’s Medical College in Pennsylvania in 1875 and returning to Canada, Dr Trout became the first woman to practise medicine in Canada legally. She was granted a practising licence by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO). She supported specialist treatment for women, such as electrotherapy, while providing free dispensary care to individuals who could not afford it.
Trout, at the drop of a hat, established Queen’s University’s medical school for women. She also led the Women’s Temperance Union, a movement that held that drinking was to blame for many of society’s ills, eventually leading to prohibition. She served as Vice-President of the Temperance Movement and Vice-President of the Association for the Advancement of Women, making her one of the most famous Canadian women in Canada’s history.
3. Kit Coleman (1856-1915)
Catherine Ferguson, known as Kit Coleman, was a Journalist and a War Correspondent. Coleman produced some of Canada’s most imaginative and thought-provoking journalism. Coleman’s weekly column, which eventually became the “Woman’s Kingdom” page, appeared for the first time in the Mail in October 1889.
She rose to prominence as a journalist, noted for her vibrant style, quick intellect, and irreverent humour. She wrote about things she felt would interest women – politics, business, religion, and science which led to her becoming women’s page editor of the new paper when the Mail merged with the Empire in 1895.
Coleman’s career reached a crescendo during the Spanish-American War when she became the US government’s first woman to be recognized as a war reporter. She helped form the Canadian Women’s Press Club in 1904, outraged by the inequality faced by women in her industry, and served as its first president.
Coleman spent most of her 25-year career as a journalist walking a creative equilibrium between what was considered appropriate female journalist behaviour and what was deemed too bold, which makes her one of the most well-known Canadian women.
4. Lady Aberdeen, Ishbel Maria Hamilton-Gordon (1857-1939)
Lady Aberdeen set up the National Council of Women of Canada in 1893. She was a Scottish novelist, philanthropist, and feminist activist.
Lady Aberdeen was the president of the International Council of Women for 36 years (1893–1936) and the National Council of Women of Canada for six years (1893 – 1899). When her husband was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, she formed the Women’s National Health Association to battle Tuberculosis.
When her husband was Governor General of Canada in 1897, she formed the Victorian Order of Nurses for Canada and served as its first President. She also founded the May Court Club, North America’s first women-only service club, making her one of the eminent Canadian women.
5. Pauline Johnson (1861–1913)
A gifted writer and a poised orator. Johnson made major contributions to Indigenous and Canadian oral and written culture. She penned novels about aboriginal women and children that were based on idealistic but more realistic than those published by her contemporaries.
Johnson published her work in the New York Magazine Gems of Poetry. She began to recite her poetry and stories for audiences mixing representations of Indigeneity and Anglo-Canadianisms. She released another collection of poetry, The White Wampum, in 1895, when her career was at its peak. Her patriotic poetry and short stories made her a renowned Canadian ambassador and one of the most renowned Canadian women.
6. Ga’axstal’as, Jane Constance Cook (1870–1951)
Leader of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, cultural mediator, and activist. Jane Constance Cook was born on Vancouver Island, Ga’axstal’as, the daughter of a Kwakwaka’wakw noblewoman and a European fur trader. She was raised by a missionary couple and gained great reading skills and a grasp of both cultures and legal systems. Cook advocated for First Communities to preserve access to land and resources as colonialism strengthened its hold on West Coast nations.
She testified before the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission in 1914 and was the sole woman on the Allied Indian Tribes of British Columbia administration in 1922. She was a fierce activist for women and children, a midwife and healer, and the mother of sixteen children, making her inevitable to be on this list of famous Canadian women.
7. Nellie McClung (1873-1951)
Women in Canada now possess the right to vote in all elections. But that right was not granted to women; it had to be earned. Nellie McClung played a key role in making Manitoba the first province to give certain women the vote in 1916, more than a century ago.
Nellie Letitia McClung was a well-known international writer, platform speaker, feminist, and social activist whose zeal for social reform in the service of justice was matched only by the funny, engaging manner in which she conveyed her message. She used literature as her podium to bring about social change and was appointed the only female member of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s first board of governors.
Throughout the great war, she worked on writing about women’s suffrage and prohibition. She fought for various social causes, including medical care for children, women’s property rights, factory safety, and many more. She became a member of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly after the war. She was one of the “Famous Five” who battled for women in Canada to be recognized “persons” before the law, which makes her one of the most distinguished Canadian women.
Nellie McClung also had a significant role in promoting Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act, which until its repeal in 1972, resulted in the forced sterilisation of thousands of persons deemed “mentally defective.”
8. Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942)
Lucy Maud Montgomery OBE (Officer of the British Empire), a Writer most famous for being the creator of “Anne,” the red-headed orphan from Anne of Green Gables, made her an international phenomenon. Prince Edward Island gained international recognition due to the book. Montgomery wrote over 500 short stories, 21 novels, two collections of poetry, and several magazine and essay anthologies. Her piece of work is believed to have sold 50 million copies globally.
Only Anne of Green Gables has been translated into at least 36 languages, including braille. It has been modified thousands of times for other mediums. She was the first Canadian woman to be elected to the British Royal Society of Arts and named a Canadian Person of National Historic Significance, making her one of the most notable Canadian Women.
9. Jane Wisdom (1884-1975)
Jane Barnes Wisdom was one of Canada’s first professional social workers and the head of the Halifax Bureau of Social Services. Jane Wisdom received her early social work training through one of the first diploma courses in social work and study in New York because there were no social work institutions in Canada. In 1916, she returned to Halifax to manage the newly formed Bureau of Social Services.
She came to Montreal in 1921 to finish her studies and to teach social work. She worked in Montreal for eighteen years before returning to Nova Scotia. In 1941, she took a post as the first welfare officer for Glace Bay, making her the province’s first municipal welfare officer, making her one of the most outstanding Canadian women.
10. Elsie MacGill (1905-1980)
Elsie MacGill was the first woman in the world to receive a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering (1929). She was also the first Canadian woman engineer in practice. She was appointed chief aeronautical engineer of Canadian Car & Foundry in 1938. (Can Car). During WWII, she oversaw the Canadian manufacture of Hawker Hurricane fighter jets, earning her the title “Queen of the Hurricanes.”
MacGill was an outspoken feminist who served as national president of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (1962–64), making her one of the most influential Canadian women. She was also a member of Canada’s Royal Commission on the Status of Women (1967–70).
11. Viola Desmond (1914-1965)
Viola Irene Desmond was the busy owner of Desmond School of Beauty Culture until an incident in 1946 in a rural Nova Scotia movie theatre in New Glasgow caused her to raise a commotion by refusing to relocate to an informally designated section of the theatre for black consumers. Desmond was hauled from the theatre and arrested.
While officials disputed that Desmond’s race was the basis of the problem, her story inspired Nova Scotia’s black community to campaign for change. Segregation was formally abolished in Nova Scotia in 1954.
The Nova Scotia government offered an apology and a posthumous pardon in 2010. The federal government declared in 2016 that Desmond will be honoured on the newly designed $10 note, making her one of the most celebrated Canadian women.
Since we talked about Desmond School of Beauty Culture, check out today’s 8 Most Popular Canadian Fashion Models.
12. Joan Bamford Fletcher (1918-1979)
Joan was born in Saskatchewan around 1910. Educated in Europe, she was comfortable on her family’s ranch, where she trained horses. When war broke out, the adventurous Joan wanted to serve, but military branches for Canadian women did not yet exist.
She joined the Saskatchewan Auxiliary Territorial Service, a uniformed paramilitary group for women, and later the Canadian Red Cross, training to be a driver. Joan joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and was sent to Southeast Asia for a humanitarian mission in April 1945. She evacuated 2000 Dutch civilians imprisoned by the Japanese military for 3 years.
Joan Bamford Fletcher’s bravery earned her the Order of the British Empire, making her one of the most honoured Canadian women. She spent several years in public relations for the British Foreign Office in Poland when that country was still under Soviet rule.
13. Doris Anderson (1921–2007)
Women’s rights activist and magazine editor. Doris Anderson was a long-time Chatelaine magazine editor and newspaper writer. Doris Anderson worked diligently during the 1960s to establish the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, which prepared the path for significant advancements in women’s equality. She was crucial for including equality rights for women in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
She wrote three novels and an autobiography, Rebel Daughter, and served as president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. Anderson was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada in 1974 and elevated to Companion in 2002. She also received a Persons Case Award and other honorary degrees, making her one of the most respected Canadian women.
14. Julia Verlyn LaMarsh (1924–1980)
Canadian politician, author, lawyer, broadcaster, and novelist. Julia “Judy” LaMarsh became the House of Commons’ second female cabinet minister in 1963. From 1963 to 1965, she served in Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s Cabinet as the minister of national health and welfare and the minister of amateur sport.
During this period, the Canada Pension Plan was put in place, and the Canadian healthcare system was developed. From 1965 to 1968, LaMarsh was Secretary of State, where she directed the centennial year festivities, enacted the new Broadcasting Act, which introduced many of today’s key characteristics of broadcasting policy, and formed the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada which makes her one of the most prestigious Canadian women.
15. Kenojuak Ashevak (1927–2013)
Ashevak, known as the well-suited Inuit Ashevak, is perhaps the best-known Inuit artist because of her famous print, The Enchanted Owl (1960), featured on a Canada Post stamp. She was also the first woman to work in the newly opened printing business in Cape Dorset. She became salt of the earth for many other Inuit women, who have become almost renowned.
Ashevak spent most of her life at Cape Dorset with her big extended family of children and grandkids. She has been an inspiration and guide to second and third-generation Inuit artists because she is kind, poised, and intelligent, making her one of the most acclaimed Canadian women.
16. Kim Campbell (1947 – Present)
Kim Campbell’s life has been full of firsts as Canada’s first and only female Prime Minister. Ms Campbell had spent most of her life tearing down barriers for women, beginning at 16 when she became the first female student body president of her high school and ending 30 years later as Canada’s 19th Prime Minister. She held positions at all three levels of the government of Canada.
After leaving politics, she became the Canadian Consul General in Los Angeles, then taught at Harvard Kennedy School before becoming a global leader of leaders with organizations such as the International Women’s Forum and the Club de Madrid. From 2014 to 2018, she served as the Founding Principal of the Peter Lougheed Leadership College at the University of Alberta, drawing on her extensive academic and leadership expertise.
Ms Campbell has addressed audiences in Kyiv, Dubai, Toronto, Berlin, Ulaanbaatar, Prague, Washington DC, Brussels, Cordoba, Paris, London, Vancouver, Beijing, Seoul, and Ottawa for ten years.
17. Marina Nemat (1965 – present)
Marina Nemat’s idyllic upbringing in Tehran was devastated when the Iranian Revolution of 1979 heralded the beginning of a new era of Islamic authority. She was arrested for voicing her opinions and protesting against the new Islamic government’s repressive regulations and authored anti-revolutionary articles in a student publication. After being released from prison, Nemat escaped to Canada and decided to pen about her experience.
She has published two books and now lectures often at high schools, colleges, and conferences throughout the world about our right – and, in her opinion, our duty – to speak up against injustice. Nemat received the inaugural Human Dignity Prize in 2007, offered yearly by the European Parliament and the cultural organization Europa 2004 to honour those working to establish a society free of bigotry and social injustice, which makes her one of the most notable Canadian women.
18. Hubert Gautreau
Hubert Gautreau is a nurse by profession and a woman of action known for her persistent commitment to promoting human dignity, gender equality, human rights, and social justice. She has worked in the United States, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Togo, Cameroon, and Peru, among other places.
This experience spurred her ambition to solve the root causes of her community’s problems. Amongst many feathers in her cap is the creation and co-founding of various organizations, including Crossroads for Women, a halfway house in southern New Brunswick that assists victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault. She also established the Options program to assist males in changing their violent behaviour, making her one of the most well thought Canadian women.
19. Josee Kurtz
Born in Montreal, Josée Kurtz has served in the Canadian Forces for almost 30 years, rising to Commodore. Commodore Kurtz served as a Weapons Officer and Combat Officer aboard HMCS VANCOUVER and has participated in various humanitarian operations. Unaware of how she obtained the fibre from her experiences, she worked as an Executive Officer on the HMCS VILLE DE QUÉBEC from 2007 to 2009. She was named Commanding Officer of HMCS HALIFAX from 2009 until 2011, immediately completing her second-in-command deployment.
Kurtz gained command of her vessel on April 6, 2009, following 23 years of duty, hard training, and significant study, including a master’s degree in defence studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. Her command of a big vessel was followed by a position as Commandant of the Canadian Forces Naval Operations School from 2011 to 2012. In 2019, she became the first woman to command a NATO fleet.
20. Jaime Black
Jaime Black started The REDress Project in 2010, a public art installation emphasising the epidemic of violence against missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) in Canada and the USA. Each dress represents an Indigenous woman who was killed or missing or represented a small number of thousands of people. Jaime Black believes that her REDress Project will offer these indigenous women a much-needed voice whilst also educating others who may be unaware of what’s going on.
Black, after showing her first The REDress Project at the University of Winnipeg in 2011 and travelling to different cities in North America, the project evolved into a national movement. The colour red became a symbol for MMIW. In Canada, 5th May has become a National Red Dress Day, where people of all backgrounds are invigorated to wear red to raise awareness.
United Farm Women of Alberta
The first provincial organization was The United Farm Women of Alberta (UFWA) of farm women in Alberta. Three provincial committees were set up which focused on health, education, and young people’s work, reflecting the organization’s focus on “social welfare” and “betterment of rural life.”
The United Farm Women of Alberta was responsible for innovations such as a Junior Branch for Young People, Farm Young People’s Week at the University of Alberta, Canada’s first Egg and Poultry Pool (1925), Farm Women’s Week at Olds Agricultural College, and Alberta’s first rural Chautauqua (1937).
From 1921 until 1935, the organisation was a key donor to the electoral campaigns that led to UFA administrations in Alberta. After obtaining a seat in the 1921 election, the organization’s inaugural president, Irene Parlby, became Canada’s first female cabinet minister.
Government of Canada & Gender Equality
Legalizing married women’s property rights was one of the earliest steps toward equality for Canadian Women. Beginning in Ontario in 1884 and Manitoba in 1900, the Married Women’s Property Act granted married women the same legal rights as males, allowing women to engage in legal agreements and purchase property.
Another turning point for women’s rights was defining “persons” under the British North America Act of 1867. In 1928, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy, and Irene Parlby petitioned the Canadian government to seek the Supreme Court of Canada to rule on whether women were considered “persons” for the Act.
The existing Quebec family law was founded on gender equality. It was codified in the Civil Code of Quebec, where Article 392 read: “The spouses have the same rights and duties in marriage.” The statute recognised women as “persons,” and Cairine Reay Wilson, the first woman to be appointed to the Senate, did so just one year later, in 1930.
They are committed to advancing gender equality, empowering women and girls, and promoting and protecting their human rights.
Gender equality is important to their foreign efforts. Their development strategies and initiatives seek to empower women, and they carry out particular projects to accomplish this. Women’s and girls’ human rights continue to focus on foreign policy. These debates take occur on international platforms and with other countries.
The government of Canada encourages Canadian women to be equal decision-makers and change agents in economic, social, and political systems. The emphasis is on:
- achieving equitable and sustainable progress
- respecting women’s rights and contributions
- improving women’s status
The Canadian Human Rights Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms now protect women against discrimination based on gender, age, marital status, and other factors. Throughout Canada’s history, Canadian women have left their mark and outranked themselves amongst the men.