By Kerry Clark and Alex Chu
October is Womens History month. This years theme is "Yes, Women are Persons". While the fact that women are people may seem obvious to us now, it wasnt long ago that women fought to be recognized as equals.
Although women in most provinces were allowed to vote by 1929, they werent eligible for appointment the Senate. Looking to assert womens rights, a group of women known as the Famous Five asked the Supreme Court of Canada a simple question: Does the word "person" in Section 24 of the B.N.A Act include female persons? After five weeks of debate, the courts decided that it did not include women. Although shocked, the Famous Five did not give up their fight.
They took the Persons Case to the Privy Council of England, which in those days was Canadas highest court. On October 18, 1929, Lord Sankey announced, "The exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours. And to those who would ask why the word "person" should include females, the obvious answer is, why should it not?" The Famous Five achieved not only the right for women to serve in the Senate, but paved the way for women to participate in other aspects of public life.
Womens History Month was established in 1992 as an opportunity to learn more about womens historic accomplishments and contributions to Canadian society, such as the Famous Five. But why always look to the past for women to honour? What is it about our understanding of the word "history" that causes us to instinctively look backwards? In fact, there are other ways to look at history.
In Western culture, history is associated with our concepts of space and time, which tend to be lineal. Hence, we envision the past as a series of events that happen one after another in a sequential arrangement. This tendency to order ideas in a linear sequence can also been seen in the fact that information is often arranged and stored chronologically or alphabetically. But the past isnt always understood in linear terms of time and space.
For example, in the early 1930s an anthropologist named E. E. Evans-Pritchard studied a group of people called the Nuer living in the desert of north-eastern Africa. The Nuer lived a simple life splitting their time between communal villages during the wet season of the year and individual family camps during the dry season. Evans-Pritchard soon realized that the Nuer did not conceive of time in linear terms, rather they saw time as cyclical alternating between social events based on seasonal changes. When asked about the past, the Nuer conceived of time gone by in terms of how far back they could trace their family relations usually a few generations. Anything further back than this had no bearing on their life. Hence, for the Nuer, the past was not based on a series of events; it was based on social relations and annual events.