The National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC) was founded in 1893, in a period when women were beginning to organize themselves for effective community action. Many women, looking beyond the charitable societies, garden clubs, music and literary clubs, and missionary societies to which they belonged, saw the need for societal reform, better education for women, even women''''s suffrage. They realized that they would be much more effective if they spoke with a united voice.
The International Council of Women (ICW) had been founded a few years earlier, in 1888, at a meeting in Washington, D.C. The idea of a Canadian Council was developed at the ICW World''''s Congress of Representative Women, meeting in Chicago in May 1893. A group of women attending from the Dominion of Canada took the opportunity to form a provisional executive for the possibility of a new Canadian Council.
The National Council of Women of Canada came into existence formally on October 27, 1893, at a public meeting held in the Horticultural Pavilion in Toronto and attended by 1,500 women. Lady Ishbel Aberdeen, the wife of the Governor General, agreed to become the first president, and the rapid spread of local Councils across Canada owed much to her energy and enthusiasm. Lady Aberdeen was never for a moment a figurehead president, and when she left Canada in 1898, her executive lamented… We feel that in losing your stimulating and energizing presence we are losing that which has hitherto been the mainspring of our organization.
From its beginning, the National Council worked to improve the status of women. Some of its earliest efforts were directed towards improving the lot of three underprivileged groups/women prisoners, women working in factories, and women immigrants. By 1900, its members were reporting the appointment of matrons in some institutions housing women prisoners, and of women inspectors in Ontario and Quebec factories where women were employed.
One of the founding members of the National Council, Dr. Augusta Stowe-Gullen, was the first woman to obtain a medical degree in Canada, and was a leader of the women''''s suffrage movement. At first some Council members were less than enthusiastic about the need for universal suffrage, but, in the end, the National Council pressed for women''''s suffrage in representations to provincial legislatures and the federal parliament. In 1918, the passing at the federal level of the Act to Confer the Electoral Franchise Upon Women rewarded their efforts.
A major thrust through the years has been the appointment of women magistrates and women to boards, delegations, and commissions. In 1897, minutes from a local Council record an early success/the first women trustees appointed to the school board in New Westminster, B.C. Throughout the twentieth century, many letters, briefs and telegrams have gone to the government asking for the appointment of women to boards, tribunals and international delegations. The government has responded, if slowly. In the 1930s, NCWC President Winnifred Kydd and Nellie McClung were members of Canadian delegations to the League of Nations. In 1930, Cairine Wilson, an active member of the Ottawa Council of Women, became the first woman to be appointed to the Senate.
In 1929, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in the United Kingdom, then the highest court of appeal for Canadians, brought down its landmark decision-declaring women to be persons. Of the five women who brought the case through the courts, three were actively involved in the National Council of Women.
The Council has always been concerned with the welfare of children, the family, and the community. In the 1890s, members were working to establish the first free libraries and supervised playgrounds for children in cities across the land, as well as the teaching of domestic science and manual training in the schools. They also pushed for many public health measures, including a pure water supply, the pasteurization of milk, and medical inspection in schools. The situation of the native people of Canada, the treatment of prisoners, and the condition of immigrants has been the subjects of many resolutions. Child welfare has also been a major focus, including the prevention of child abuse, the education of children, and the need for good day care.
Due to the wide-ranging interaction of its federated organizations, NCWC has been a leader in bringing developing issues to the government. For example, the call for equal pay for work of equal value was first made at the annual meeting of 1907. In the thirties, the Council was involved with the study and prevention of the spread of venereal diseases. In the forties, it was again recommending equal pay for work of equal value, as well as opening training programs to women and a health insurance plan. In the fifties, it wanted pension plans adapted to benefit female employees, and promoted standards for clothing and the fluoridation of water supplies.
The National Council of Women has not avoided controversial issues. In 1961, it recommended broadening the grounds for divorce. In 1964, it asked for the dissemination of birth control information and in 1971, it passed a resolution asking for the removal of abortion from the Criminal Code. In the 1970s, it also asked for programs to protect prostitutes and to assist in their rehabilitation.
Concern about the environment has also been a constant preoccupation. The National Council began campaigning for more parkland in 1912; its most recent resolution on the subject was in 1992. It has passed many resolutions about air and water pollution, and for better water management; its first resolution on the subject of acid rain was in 1978. In 1993 the National Council was granted an official Coat of Arms.
Over the years, as the Council''''s relationship with government became more formal, the practice developed of presenting an annual brief to the Prime Minister and members of the Cabinet. Currently, in addition to this annual brief, the National Council presents briefs to parliamentary committees and royal commissions and from time to time may be represented on special advisory committees.
The strength of its work comes from a broadly based network of organizations affiliated with local or provincial councils or with the National Council. It is their representatives who research and debate proposals for change and develop the resolutions, which the National Council presents to government. When these resolutions are approved at the national level, they represent the consensus of many thousands of women.
Today the National Council of Women of Canada continues to be concerned with a wide range of issues involving women, the family, the community, and the state. It has inevitably been affected by recent trends in Canadian society such as the increased movement of women into the workforce, the growing importance of the media, the technology of instant communication, and the development of single-interest advocacy groups. Its role in the next few decades will be affected by its ability to respond and adapt to these changes while retaining the strength, which comes from local grass roots participation.