Historical Feminist Organizing Part 1 – The Royal Commission on the Status of Women


The TBTN blog will be looking back on the history of the feminist movement in Canada. Today’s post discusses the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, established in the 1960s which became a rallying point for women across the country.

During the 1960s, women’s organizations in English-speaking and French-speaking Canada mobilized to demand a Royal Commission to investigate women’s issues in the country.

A Royal Commission is a formal inquiry into a particular – often controversial – issue. Royal Commissions are very influential and make policy recommendations to governments based on their findings.

In 1967, the Canadian government responded to the demands of the women’s movement and appointed a Royal Commission on the Status of Women (RCSW). From 1967 through 1970, the seven commissioners for the RCSW travelled around the country, gathering research and holding public meetings with women and women’s organizations.

Their final report made 167 recommendations to advance the status of women in Canada. The report’s recommendations covered issues such as the economy, family, education, childcare, poverty, immigration, citizenship, criminal law and women’s participation in democratic life.

Many felt that this process and the final document didn’t go far enough; however, the recommendations that came out of the RCSW became a rallying point for the feminist movement in Canada. For example, it led to the creation of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (commonly known as NAC), a coalition of women’s organizations which monitored and pressed for the implementation of the report’s recommendations.

Another significant result of the commission was the creation of women’s policy agencies within government, including Status of Women Canada, the Women’s Program, the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women (CACSW) and similar agencies in the provinces and territories.

Judy Rebick’s book, Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution, is a collection of stories from women who participated in feminist organizing in Canada throughout the years. Here are a few accounts from her book about the Royal Commission:

“There wasn’t anything in the way of a women’s organization in the 1960s, other than in the political parties. In political parties, women’s committees were always looked on as adjuncts, or something to help out when the time came, but not to make decisions. But Laura Sabia headed the Canadian Federation of University Women. Every year they met with cabinet and brought recommendations. They were a non-partisan organization that represented a great swath of women’s groups all across the country. Among other things they were always lobbying for better representation of women in Parliament, particularly in cabinet. This was while Lester Pearson was prime minister, and there was one woman, Judy LaMarsh, in the cabinet. Mr. Pearson said, ‘You know, I have a woman in the cabinet.’ Laura said, ‘Well we want a Royal Commission on the status of women to find out where women stand.’ He wasn’t at all willing to listen to what she said. But then she said, ‘Well, then, I’ll have two million women march on Parliament’. It was really because of that threat that reconsideration was given to setting up a commission”. – Flora MacDonald, quoted in Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution (pg. 26)

“The reaction when the Royal Commission was first set up, from governments and from journalists, most of whom were men, was that it was a joke. ‘What’s wrong with the status of women?’ Women got really hostile to this, particularly as the commission went across the country. It held hearings in every province, and stories were coming from ordinary women, terrible stories. I don’t know how these women had the courage to show up. These were things nobody talked about – discrimination, unfair pay, the difficulties of bringing up children. So the media had to start taking the whole thing seriously.” Kay Sigurjonsson, quoted in Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution (pg. 27)

— Lisa


Brodie, Janine & Isabella Bakker (2007) Canada’s Social Policy Regime and Women: An Assessment of the Last Decade. Ottawa: Status of Women Canada.

Chappell, Louise A. (2002) Gendering Government: Feminist Engagement with the State in Australia and Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Rankin, L. Pauline & Jill Vickers (2001) Women’s Movements and State Feminism: Integrating Diversity into Public Policy. Ottawa: Status of Women Canada.

Rebick, Judy (2005) Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution. Toronto: Penguin Canada.

“The Royal Commission on the Status of Women” Canada’s Human Rights History. Available online: http://www.historyofrights.com/events/rcsw.html


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