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What My Grandmother Taught Me About Women's Rights

03/08/2015 10:38 EDT | Updated 05/08/2015 05:59 EDT

On International Women's Day, I think of my maternal grandmother who held our family together through the good and the bad times.

She was born before women were considered "persons," and before women had the right to vote, but later worked in munitions factories for the war effort to help our country, and to support her two young daughters.

Life was hard for my grandmother. She was widowed in her early twenties, would move over 10 times in 13 years just to afford rent, and would add milk or sour cream to each meal just to stretch a penny.

But she still managed to support my mother and aunt through school and my mother through to university -- in her words, "Unheard of in my day! I had no mother, we had no food, and I had to leave school in grade 8 to help farm."

She worked all her life -- unusual for the time -- as did my mother, and so my grandmother looked after us during the school day, and entertained us with the changes that were taking place for women in Canada.

She would proudly say, "You will get the same education as your brother, you will go to university, and you will work in a place you choose, that you want. You will have your own cheque book, and your husband will not have to sign for you to have it. You will be independent."

She made it clear how hard her generation and my mother's generation had fought for a more equal relationship between men and women, but that there was still a long way to go. She also explained that if things do not continue to change or if things slide backwards, "you have to fight like hell."

In her words, "Things have to be even-Steven for men, for women. What's fair for one must be fair for the other."

She said women began fighting for equal pay in the year she was born, 1915; One hundred years later, women still earn 81 cents for every dollar a man earns.

My grandmother explained what lack of equal pay meant to her family. As a factory worker, the men and women on the line earned different amounts each week, and were able to put away different amounts for children's education and pension. "The lack of fairness hurt your mother, your aunt, and me. I was good at my job, faster than most of the men on the line, and I did not take the smoke breaks they did. With a little extra money, we could've had a better house, wouldn't have had to move so much."

My grandmother lived to hear about The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. She was excited, and despite her stroke, was once again fired-up -- about women's rights as human rights, better words, she thought, than her "even-Steven."

She was full of hope, and wanted to know what difference the platform would make, the changes that would take place in Canada and around the world, and what I was teaching my own students so that they would also care about women.

I lost my cherished grandmother before the start of the new millennium, and she did not see the changes that were to come.

The rapid progress she witnessed throughout her life stalled. Since the Conservatives came to power in 2006, they eliminated the words gender equality from the mandate of Status of Women; backtracked on pay equity; closed three-quarters of all Status of Women offices; decreased support for international gender-equality projects; eliminated funding for the court challenges program; failed to meaningfully address violence against women; and failed to undertake an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.

March 8, or International Women's Day and the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform is here. As we reach this important milestone, let each of us look back at our grandmothers' lives, what was accomplished, and how our own lives were transformed by them.

If I look at my own history, in just one hundred years, my grandmother went from not being able to vote to my being able to vote in Parliament. An extraordinary change; she would be amazed.

But we must be vigilant and not allow progress to be turned back. And when policies are reversed, let all of us "fight like hell" to restore them, and more importantly, put in place bold policies to at last achieve equality.