“It’s a great thing to believe in yourself.”

So says Thelma Pepper, 98, who began taking photographs when she was 60 years old.  Her children were grown, and she was bored, so she picked up a camera.

“I had spent my whole life not really doing anything for myself . . . Life really begins for a lot of people at 60. Maybe the cells in the rest of your body decay, but not your brain’s.”

She took her first photos in the nursing home in her community where she was a volunteer. Since then, she has published four books of her photographs, which honour the “ordinary women” of Saskatchewan: the ones who, she says, carried much of the responsibility for the day to day tasks while the men received most of the attention.

Earlier this month, she was awarded the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, becoming the oldest person to receive this honour. 

#MakeAnImpact

The timing of Pepper’s award couldn’t have been better, since October is Women’s History Month in Canada. This year’s theme is #MakeAnImpact, in honour of the women and girls who have made a lasting impact as pioneers in their fields.

Status of Women Canada has created an online gallery that celebrates a number of women who have made an impact. Many of the women featured in this gallery will not surprise: Doris Anderson, Margaret Atwood, Emily Carr, Roberta Bondar, Rosemary Brown, Ursula Franklin, Naomi Klein, Joni Mitchell, Buffy Ste, Marie, Jeanne Sauve and dozens more.

But I stumbled on many women I had never heard of when I made my way through the gallery:

Kate Rice is recognized as Canada’s first women prospector. Born in 1882, she left her teaching career in southern Ontario in favour of staking nickel and copper claims in northern Manitoba, where she lived for the rest of her life, also becoming known as a fisher and trapper. When reflecting in her life, she said:

“It isn’t courage that is needed so much as perseverance.”

Grease monkeys and suffragettes

From the time she was very young, Laurie Brault Laurin spent her days helping her father, who was a mechanic. Initially, she passed him tools at his direction, but gradually she took on more and more responsibilities. During World War II, when male mechanics were scarce, she began to work full time in her father’s garage, and became known as Canada’s first woman mechanic.

“It was like I was thumbing my nose at the overly narrow social norms.”

Armine Nutting Gosling came to Newfoundland in the late 1800s to teach at a girls’ school. Before long, she had founded the St. John’s Ladies Reading Room and Current Events Club, which became a base of operations for the Newfoundland suffrage movement. She was the President of the Women’s Party, which ran two candidates in the 1925 St. John’s municipal election, the first election in which Newfoundland women could vote. As she put it:

“The laws that so materially affect our lives are bound to be haphazard and one-sided without the aid of the counsel of responsible women.”

Education and awareness

The SWC site contains a plethora of resources: an education guide for teachers, suggestions for group projects, a crossword puzzle and reading lists for kids and adults.

As Women’s History Month 2018 comes to a close, on the eve of Hallowe’en with its attendant witchly-costumed trick or treaters, we should all take a few minutes to learn more about women who have made an impact in Canada. Or, start planning now for Women’s History Month 2019.

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