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Legal Rights of Women

The Saskatchewan Legislature early demonstrated a degree of commitment to women's equality. The University Act of 1907, for example, explicitly stated that women should have equal access to a university Education, and in 1916 Saskatchewan became the second province to grant women the vote. The initiative for many changes came from women's organizations such as the Local Council of Women (founded in Regina in 1895), the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the Women's Grain Growers Association. Such organizations promoted legislative change with respect to a number of issues that concerned many women, including restrictions on the sale of alcohol, participation by women in the professions and in civic life, and the protection of women and Children from sexual exploitation.

Despite these signs that women's rights were gaining ground, it took many decades to put women on an equal footing with men with respect to their legal status within families and their claims to ownership of property. By the time the province was founded in 1905, the law recognized that not only single but also married women could own and manage their own property and could enter into contracts in their own right. These legal principles were of limited relevance to most married women, however, as they devoted their adult lives to raising children and homemaking rather than to paid work that would permit them to accumulate property. These wives and mothers could inherit property, or dispose of property they brought with them into the marriage, and in some cases they had joint title to property. The contributions they made through homemaking and child-rearing were not, however, reflected in any kind of property right.

Early legislation recognized the vulnerability of women and children, and was designed to ensure that they were protected from destitution and homelessness. Statutes were passed (initially in 1911) requiring men to provide financial support for dependent wives and children in the event of family breakdown or estrangement, and permitting unmarried women to seek financial support from the father of a child born outside of wedlock. Legislation passed in 1918 provided that widows and children would receive a share of the estate of a man who died without making a will; later legislation provided similar protection in cases where a man made a will that did not adequately provide for his dependents.

The Homesteads Act of 1915 provided that a husband could not dispose of the homestead - defined as the matrimonial home or, in rural settings, the “home quarter” (the 160 acres on which the matrimonial home was located) - without the written consent of his wife. It also required that the wife receive her own independent legal advice prior to giving consent. This legislation, a version of which is still in force, did not give the wife a property right in the homestead, or any means of preventing a sale - only protection from having the homestead sold without her knowledge.

No legislation conferred on women any property rights with respect to property accrued during a marriage, unless inherited, earned outside the home, or formally held in joint title. In 1978 a Supreme Court of Canada decision denied Helen Rathwell of Tompkins, Saskatchewan, her claim to a share of half of the farm that she and her husband had worked on during their twenty-four-year marriage. The criticism generated by this case, along with others like Irene Murdoch's claim (Alberta), decided by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1975, triggered a re-examination of the law. In 1980, a Matrimonial Property Act permitted a judge to assess the value of the contribution made by women's unpaid Labour to the accumulation of family assets, and to allocate a share of the property to the wife. This legislation was later amended to include a presumption that the wife would be entitled to a share of half the property acquired during marriage; this may be altered if it is demonstrated that the wife agreed to a different arrangement or that circumstances justify a different allocation. In interpreting such legislation, courts have held that women are entitled to a share in pensions, the value of a spouse's professional education, and the assets of family businesses. The most recent version of Saskatchewan's matrimonial property legislation, passed in 2001, is called the Family Property Act.

Current legislation also recognizes the rights of women who are partners to common law relationships; and the Family Property Act has extended these rights to partners in same-sex relationships. Changes in the last quarter century have also created a uniform national system of enforcement: this has eliminated many of the difficulties which once faced women attempting to obtain financial support when they or their spouses moved from one province or territory to another.

Beth Bilson

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Further Reading

1980. Saskatchewan Women 1905-1980. Regina: Saskatchewan Labour, Women's Division; 2004. A Guide to the Law for Saskatchewan Women. Saskatoon: Public Legal Education Association of Saskatchewan.
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