Women In Business

A Tributary Women in Business – Viola Desmond

Marie Birkbeck

March 8 is International Women’s Day.

Every year on this day, for more than one hundred years, communities, cities and countries around the world take time to inspire women and to celebrate women’s achievements throughout history.

Many larger centres have conferences, seminars or luncheons with high profile guest speakers that may include educators, inventors, or entrepreneurs that speak about the importance of education and career opportunities.

The early 1900s was a time of expansion and turbulence in the industrialized world, unrest, booming population growth and the rise of radical ideologies. There was also great unrest and critical debate concerning women. The desire for emancipation was spurring women to become more vocal and active in campaigning for change.

In 1909 a declaration signed by the Socialist Party of America saw the first National Women’s Day celebrated in the USA. The first International Woman’s Day was March 19, 1911; the date later changed to March 8, still recognized today.

There have been many advances and milestones in the women’s movement over the course of time. The last few decades have seen significant changes and a shift in both women's and society's thoughts about female equality and emancipation.

Although much progress has been made to protect and promote women’s rights in recent times there is still nowhere in the world that women can claim to have all the same rights and opportunities as men. In fact the World Economic Forum predicts that the gender equality gap will not be fully closed until 2186!

Much of the world's 1.3 billion absolute poor are women. On average, women receive between 30 and 40 percent less pay than men for the same work. They also continue to be victims of violence, with rape and domestic violence listed as significant causes of disability and death among women worldwide.

Today, because of the forward thinking of the women who have gone before us, we have female astronauts and prime ministers, schoolgirls are welcomed into university, women can work and have a family, women have real choices. The tone and nature of IWD has, for the past few years, moved from being a reminder about the negatives to a celebration of the positives.

Long before the official recognition of International Women’s Day, women of all nationalities and ethnic backgrounds have stood up for what they believed in and leveled the playing field for women across the world. Some Canadian women of distinction that have made a difference include magazine editor Doris Anderson, Inuit artist, Kenojuak Ashevak, artist Emily Carr, Mary Two-Axe Earley. Mohawk poet Pauline Johnson, politician Agnes Macphail, and beautician and civil rights pioneer, Viola Desmond.

On March 8, 2016 it was announced that a Canadian Woman would be featured on the new $10 bill to be released in 2018. After an extensive nomination and shortlisting process, Viola Desmond was chosen to be that new face, and the first Canadian woman to be featured on Canadian currency.

So just who was Viola Desmond and why did she earn this spot of distinction? A good majority of Canadians had never heard of her until this announcement.

Viola Desmond was a successful businesswoman who refused to accept racial discrimination by sitting in a Whites Only section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre.

Born in Halifax, NS in 1914, Viola Desmond (nee Davis) was one of ten children born into a mixed marriage; her mother was white and her father was black. Early on Viola had set her sights on addressing the lack of professional hair and skin care products for black women.

Being of African descent, she was not allowed to attend the beauty school in Halifax, so for her beautician training she had to go to Montreal, Atlantic City, and New York. On completion of her training, she returned to Halifax where she not only started her own salon, she opened the Desmond School of Beauty Culture for black women in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec, and started her own line of beauty products which she marketed and sold herself.

It was during a business trip to New Glasgow in 1946 that Viola encountered another episode of racial discrimination. She went to a movie theatre where she was denied admission to a main floor seat, being told that it was reserved for whites only, and she would have to sit in the balcony. She defiantly returned to her main floor seat and was subsequently forcibly removed from the theatre, arrested and spent the night in jail without being informed of her right to legal advice, a lawyer, or bail.

She was charged with tax evasion for refusing to pay the one-cent tax difference in the price of the more expensive main floor ticket. That one-cent difference netted Desmond a $20 fine plus court costs. Desmond decided to fight the charges. The next few months followed an unsuccessful legal battle to file a lawsuit against the Roseland Theatre on the grounds of racial discrimination. The courts insisted that the case was one of tax evasion.

Although eventually dismissed, Desmond's case is one of the most publicized incidents of racial discrimination in Canadian history and helped start the modern civil rights movement in Canada.
Change did not happen quickly. It was not until 1954 that segregation was legally ended in Nova Scotia, thanks in part to the courageous determination of Desmond and others like her who fought to be treated as equal human beings.

On April 14, 2010, 45 years after she passed away, Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, Maryann Francis, herself a black woman, granted Desmond the first ever posthumous pardon.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau stated “Her story is an official reminder that the state can be mistaken, laws can be unjust and progress can come from those pushing the system from the outside.”