International Women’s Day is celebration of women and girls, but also an opportunity to put a spotlight on the distance we still have to go to achieve true gender equality.

In the run up to International Women’s Day on March 8th we’re examining an interesting thought:

For gender inequality to exist today, there must have first been a period of gender equality – when was that and what did it look like?

We found (part of) the answer in a paper written by the UBC Indigenous Foundations: A Brief History of the Marginalization of Aboriginal Women in Canada that you can read here:

It discusses the effects that European patriarchy has had on diminishing Indigenous women’s power, status and material circumstances, and it give us a glimpse into a time before gender inequality.

4 Positive Lessons On Gender Equality From First Nations History

Before colonization by non-Aboriginal settlers, gender equality appears to have existed in most First Nations. We should look to this rich history to help guide us in achieving that balance again in the future.

That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history, is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach us – Aldous Huxley

As outlined in the UBC Indigenous Foundations paper women’s roles varied greatly between First Nations, but they shared similar characteristics. Here are 4 positive lessons on gender equality that today’s society could learn from our First Nations ancestors.

1. Women and men had different, but complimentary, and equally respected roles


Despite the vast socio-cultural diversity among Canada’’s hundreds of First Nations, historians and experts largely agree that a balance between women and men’’s roles typically existed in pre-contact Aboriginal societies, where women and men had different, but complementary roles.

Historians and scholars have emphasized the various capacities in which women were able to hold positions of power and leadership in their community. Women across many First Nations were responsible for land holdings, allocation of resources and they controlled access to certain areas as well as the distribution of its products.

2. Women were respected for their spiritual and mental strength


The central role of Native women within their societies is often reflected in the religious or spiritual content of their cultures.

In pre-contact time before non-Aboriginal settlers, women were respected for their spiritual and mental strength and men for their spiritual and physical strength. Women were seen as having been given the responsibility of bearing children because of these strengths and were trusted and respected to carry that responsibility through.

3. Motherhood was a position of leadership and responsibility


Motherhood was honoured and revered as the key to a thriving culture and was not always strictly defined by its biological role, but was understood as a position of leadership and responsibility for caring for and nurturing others.

The role of the Clan Mother is frequently cited as an example of a powerful political role, central to the Haudenosaunee Six Nations confederacy. While many Nations had male chiefs, in some societies such as the Haudeonsaunee, women selected the Chief and were also able to take his power away.

4. Some First Nations were even matrilineal


Many First Nations were matrilineal, meaning that descent wealth, power, and inheritance was passed down through the mother.

As you can see, gender inequality in Canada has not always existed. As we try to restore the balance, it is important we remember the lessons that history has to teach us.

The history of International Women’s Day

The origins of International Women’s Day can be traced as far back at 1908 to a march in New York City where 15000 women protested hours, pay and voting rights. Today International Women’s Day is an official holiday in 27 countries (although not in the US, UK or Canada) and has grown to become a global day of recognition and celebration. international-women-s-day


Happy International Women’s Day!