Chapter 9. Cold War Canada, 1945-1991

9.17 The Sexual Revolution

A glamorous woman poses beside an abstract statue of a person.
Figure 9.71 The Canadian-American actress, Norma Shearer, won an Academy Award for her performance in The Divorcee (1931).

Of the many challenges to established norms in the Cold War years, one of the more complex and lasting is the sexual revolution. This was, again, a social change that occurred internationally — not just in Canada nor just in North America.

Origins of the Revolution

It seems both obvious and provocative to state that sex is at the heart of the Canadian project. Whether one looks at the filles de roi of 18th- century New France, the bride ships of 1860s Vancouver Island, or the efforts to recruit whole households to settle the West, the idea of the family as the core productive unit in Canada is a dominant theme. So dominant, in fact, as to be largely unspoken. Historians have increasingly questioned the historic norms of family and sexual relations because of what they reveal about the ideology of Canada and citizenship and because of what they exclude.

The patriarchical structures of citizenship have been mentioned already. Men, particularly men who were understood to be the head of household, were seen as the sole representative voice of their families. One study points out the continuity between 19th- and 20th-century patriarchy, despite what mid-century modernists might claim: “Postwar Canadians could look askance at the backward Victorians and their patriarchal families even as they continued to support a quite similar structure of family life.”[1] Married men had first call on citizenship in the modern world. In industrial communities where housing was provided by the employer, first call went invariably to married men and their families. A family sustained local shops more so than a single man; a family sustained local churches and schools as well. And families produced labourers who would not need to be recruited from elsewhere.

Women were profoundly disadvantaged in this situation. Their entitlement to waged labour was vastly less powerful than men’s. Their bodies were considered engines of population growth and thus as good as the property of the state. Women who defied social sensibilities (which advocated heterosexual marriage and reproduction) faced considerable sanctions. In one particularly harrowing 1947 homicide case in Vancouver, a murdered woman — Viola Woolridge — whom the court subsequently decided was, in life, a poor mother and an inadequate wife, was effectively put on trial for her own death at the hands of her husband. She was found wanting as an example of Canadian womanhood, and the charges against her husband/killer were dropped.[2] It is not too much to say that women were occasionally reminded that their defiance of what constituted normalcy could be repaid with their lives.

Challenges to the patriarchal order were led in the 1960s by what became known as second wave feminism and, later in the decade, the Women’s Liberation Movement (described by Robert Rutherdale in Section 7.10). One element of this movement was a reclaiming of women’s bodies and biology in a way that inevitably addressed issues of sexuality and sexual morality. Some feminists critiqued the institution of marriage itself as inherently repressive and essentially about women’s reproductive capacity. This was a position that could be taken because, at mid-century, the question survived of whether sex served any purpose other than reproduction; women’s sexual activity, it was widely held, ought to be constrained to marriage where it served a rational purpose. Feminists in this period — and they came from a wide band of radicals, liberals, conservatives, and others — proposed that sanctions against pre-marital sex were obsolete. (Even this line of reasoning, however, often presumed the eventuality of marriage.)

Young feminists took this critique of  normal into popular culture. The hippy movement advanced the case for free love (that is, sexual relations outside of the institution of marriage and an end to marital monogamy). For men, this could mean a variety of things; for women, it presented challenges as far as pregnancies outside of marriage were concerned. Whatever advances feminists and counterculture spokespersons were able to make, society still took a dim view of unmarried motherhood and illegitimacy. Finding the means to control fertility was, therefore, a critical piece in the building of a sexual revolution.


The significance of birth control changed through the 20th century. Before 1914, social sanctions against fertility controls were paired with fear of a falling fertility rate. Eugenicists tied this to race suicide, while imperialists feared the ongoing fertility transition would weaken the nation when it came time to muster soldiers for war. Although birth control and its advocacy remained punishable under the Criminal Code, statistical and other evidence shows that middle class couples were clearly using some measures to reduce fertility even before the 1930s. They were doing so, moreover, without much in the way of professional advice. The first family planning clinic in Canada was established in 1932 in Hamilton under the direction of Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw (1881-1982); it operated illegally until reforms allowed it fully into the light 1969. Morality and the law notwithstanding, unwanted pregnancies were a profound economic issue in the Depression years; in wartime, illegitimacy was a greater concern.

Part of the challenge arose from the lack of reliable techniques for reducing fertility, let alone preventing pregnancy. Condoms, of course, would help, but their sale was illegal until the 1960s (although they were discretely available through most barber shops). Besides, condoms were associated in the public mind more with preventing the transmission of venereal diseases than staving off pregnancies. A great deal of publicity and propaganda accompanied campaigns to protect young men (not so much women) from sexually transmitted diseases, especially during and immediately after WWII. This issue perpetuated eugenicist sentiments with regard to race suicide and its cure, muscular Christianity. Venereal diseases were principally blamed on promiscuous women or female prostitutes (often understood by the police, the press, and the public to be one and the same) and seldom on their clients.[3] Sex outside of wedlock, for any purpose other than procreation was thus bound up in hazards, as were condoms.

The context of discussions about birth control changed at mid-century. Fertility rates had recovered (thanks to the baby boom) and illegitimacy was in retreat: consequently, opposition to contraception moderated. Moralists, militarists, and eugenicists could no longer whip up hostility to the conversation about contraception as they had earlier. Indeed, moral panics about teenagers (as surveyed in Sections 10.10, 10.11 and 10.12) created circumstances that favoured a reconsideration of contraception as a positive. Folk solutions were overshadowed by scientific advances in technological barrier prophylactics like condoms and diaphragms, although these could still be notoriously difficult to obtain. Rather suddenly, in 1960, there was a new option.

In that year, an American team produced the first state-approved oral contraceptive pill. The case for the Pill advanced rapidly in part because it had the sanction of science behind it (even though that same science was reeling at the same time from the thalidomide disaster). As historian Angus McLaren describes it,

[Physicians] drew their metaphors from the science of engineering. They appeared to be more comfortable — given their references to “pelvic floors”, “follicle walls,” “cervical canals,” “storage and transport of ovum” — when regarding the uterus as a construction site rather than as a human organ. Similarly, doctors who were still embarrassed to fiddle with a messy cream or floppy rubber contraption were happy to distribute a pill, a product of scientific research, a “preventive medicine” that was simply prescribed.[4]

Because the Pill was so effective, simple, clean, easily packaged, distributed, and obtained (and, by the middle of the decade, so widespread), it drew renewed but largely repositioned debate about the moral and health consequences of premarital sex and promiscuity.

Never before had sexual activity been so abstracted from reproduction. For a couple using the Pill, intercourse became purely an expression of love, or a means of physical pleasure, or both — but it was no longer exclusively a means of reproduction (not that it ever was). While this was true of previous contraceptives, their relatively high failure rates and their less widespread use failed to emphasize this distinction as clearly as did the Pill. The spread of oral contraceptive use thus led many religious figures and institutions to debate the proper role of sexuality and its relationship to procreation. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, reiterated the established Catholic teaching that artificial contraception distorts the nature and purpose of sex.[5] These sanctions had particular resonance in Quebec, or they might have done so only a few years earlier. Despite the apparent authority of the Catholic Church, Quebec women’s fertility plateaued from 1947 to 1957, between 28 and 31 births per 1,000 women, and then halved in the next 15 years to 14.3 births. It continued to fall until 1986, when it rallied a little. From the highest provincial fertility rate in Canada before the war (rates that were, as well, higher than those in France, Britain, and the United States), the Quebec rate became the lowest from the mid-1960s to the millennium. Clearly, this could not have been accomplished without resort to contraceptives or terminations. Resistance to birth control did not, however, instantly evaporate: it wasn’t until 1969 that aiding in birth control was removed from the Criminal Code. Thereafter, the Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada became a more prominent part of the public discussion about fertility limitation. The appearance of changing sexual behaviour beginning in the early 1960s (if not earlier), then, reflected the arrival of the baby boomers into their years of sexual activity, diminished concern over falling fertility levels, and technological change. This was accompanied and complemented by the advent of second wave feminism. In Quebec, the invitation to challenge assumptions that was bound up in the Quiet Revolution also played a role. Social and demographic behaviours thus transformed in ways that were, quite simply, revolutionary.


Cold War rhetoric positioned the family as the bedrock of the Western democracies; anything that undermined the fundamental strengths of this social bond — including obstructions to fertility — was regarded dimly. And yet evidence from Ontario and British Columbia suggests that it was precisely in these years that the rate and number of abortion-related deaths was on the rise, an indicator that more abortions were taking place. Surgical terminations — abortions — were illegal, so women sought out back-alley medical facilities and interventions delivered by medical amateurs (including well-meaning women), or they turned to folk remedies involving toxic substances. Between 1921 and 1946, it is reckoned that between 4,000 to 6,000 women died of “bungled abortions.”[6] This stands in evidence — terrible as it is — of the risks women were prepared to take in order to get a termination.

Abortion remained a shadowy part of the birth control equation until a Montreal physician, Henry Morgentaler (1923-2013), began in 1969 to challenge the existing laws by providing abortions from the nation’s first “abortion clinic.” Prosecuted unsuccessfully under the Criminal Code (Quebec jurors refused to find him guilty), Mortgentaler became a target for the provincial state and spent 18 months in prison in 1973-1976, some of it in solitary confinement. By the time he was freed, the provincial government had changed and the Parti Québécois decided that the law was unenforceable. For all intents and purposes, abortions were now legal, at least in Quebec. The Criminal Code, however, was not amended to reflect the de facto changes until 1988. The fact that it took 20 years after the first change in abortion laws in 1968 to come up with provisions that actually allowed for and made accessible safe abortions under any circumstances is an indication of how firmly some Canadians continued to believe in the heterosexual and reproductive family as a foundational element of the culture.

The Post-Revolutionary Era

Fears of the sexual revolution leading to out-of-control fertility and illegitimacy proved unfounded. As one landmark study shows, teen pregnancies fell from 57,000 per year in 1974 to 38,000 in 1992, at a time when educational elements of birth control were advancing faster in Canada than south of the border. The authors add, “The fact that the Canadian teenage pregnancy rate was less than half that of the United States suggested that north of the border birth control education had enjoyed some success.”[7]

Marriage, too, was undergoing changes in the 1960s and 1970s. Women’s average age at first marriage actually increased in the 1970s, which meant that first births were also postponed and subsequent births fewer in number. Co-habitation out of wedlock increased in the 1960s and continued to do so into the 21st century. In Quiet Revolution Quebec, the backlash against clergy control of social and moral life produced a generation that opted for civil marriage ceremonies rather than church services, or chose a common-law arrangement. In those cases, co-habitation was as much an anticlerical political statement as it was a facet of the sexual revolution. These actions did not have the same meaning in English-Protestant Canada, but anti-establishment attitudes and an ethos of anti-conventionality certainly played a role. This could be seen as well in the shortened life-expectancy of marriages.

’Til Death Do We Part

Escaping unhappy marriages was one area where both women and men were limited by state and church authorities that placed a high value on heterosexual marriage.

Divorce courts first existed in British Columbia, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, spreading to Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan before 1939.[8] The involvement of Parliament was otherwise necessary and the only accepted cause for divorce was adultery: physical abuse and desertion, to take only two other possible reasons to end a marriage, were not sufficient. Despite these constraints, the divorce rate climbed steadily from the 1930s on, as did the rate per hundred thousand population. In 1933, the rate was 8.8, rising to 21.4 in 1941, 42.3 at the end of the war, and peaking (for a generation) at 65.6 in 1947. The number continued to rise, but not as fast as the population. Because divorce was associated for years in the public mind with working women, the battle against liberalized divorce laws became effectively synonymous with limiting female participation in the workforce. Laws ostensibly about marriage were thus used to regulate the supply or oversupply of labour.

Divorce law in Canada prior to 1968 could be more accurately described as anti-divorce law because it set up barriers to ending marriages (see Section 10.9). Under the more liberal Divorce Act (1968), the causes or requirements for a successful divorce case expanded from adultery to mental or physical abuse, desertion, and imprisonment of one spouse. The effect of these changes was immediate and dramatic: in 1968 there were 54.8 divorces per 100,000 population; in 1969 there were 124. The rate continued to rise, passing 200 around 1974-1975, and levelling off in the high-200s per 100,000 population in the mid-1980s. Further reforms to the Divorce Act were introduced in 1985 and the rate nearly doubled, peaking at 355 in 1987. Thereafter, however, the rate began to fall, heading to a rate once again below 200 per 100,000 population in the early 21st century.[9] While the sexual revolution was a factor in these changes, so too was the declining power of religious sanctions against divorce and the increased availability of paid employment for women (which lends to a greater degree of independent security — albeit in a wage environment that still favours men). Social demographers have also identified the rising life expectancies of Canadians as a factor: marriage unto death for a 25-year-old is a much greater commitment when the average life expectancy has leapt from 64.6 (in 1941) to 80 years (in 2001) and the probability arises of being with the same partner for 55 years rather than 40.[10]

But the focus on divorce rates belies other, increasingly important trends. Rising common-law unions or cohabitation as a share of marriages means that there are fewer marriages per se that can end in divorce proper. In short, there’s a difference it what we are attempting to measure. And some of this behaviour is driven by the sheer weight of the baby boom as it ages. There was a bubble in marriages in the decade after 1963 and it is echoed, 10 years later, in the rate of divorces. That is to say, baby boomers born in or shortly after 1941 were entering their marriageable years around 1963; they increased the incidence of marriages and, 10 years or so later, were getting divorced. Once that wave had passed, the marriage rates declined and — a decade later — the divorce rates did the same.

Key Points

  • Laws and attitudes toward the regulation and management of fertility and the extent of the state’s control over a woman’s body changed throughout the 20th century, with significant new features arriving in the 1960s.
  • The sexual revolution was made possible by a combination of changes in attitudes toward the family unit, pre-marital or extra-marital sex, and birth control methods.
  • The Pill made it possible for individuals and society to disentangle heterosexual intercourse for pleasure from sex for reproduction.
  • Following on the fertility explosion of the baby boom, fertility rates across Canada — and especially in Quebec — fell dramatically during the Cold War.
  • The heterosexual family unit was regarded as a fundamental piece of the Western world’s strategy in the Cold War, which meant that challenges to that normative view might be regarded as dangerous.
  • Reforms came in the late 1960s, when counselling birth control and abortion was decriminalized and divorce liberalized.

Media Attributions

  1. Christopher Dummitt, The Manly Modern: Masculinity in Postwar Canada (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2007), 9.
  2. Diane Purvey, “'Woolridge Driven to Kill Wife’: Lessons on How to Get Away with Murder,” Vancouver Confidential, ed. John Belshaw (Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2014): 205-14.
  3. Joan Sangster, Regulating Girls and Women: Sexuality, Family, and the Law in Ontario, 1920-1960 (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2001), 85-130.
  4. Angus McLaren, A History of Contraception From Antiquity to the Present Day (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 241-2.
  5. Boundless. “The Sexual Revolution and the Pill”. Boundless U.S. History. Boundless, 21 Jul. 2015, accessed 17 Dec. 2015 from
  6. Angus McLaren & Arlene Tigar McLaren, The Bedroom and the State: The Changing Practices and Politics of Contraception and Abortion in Canada, 1880-1997, 2nd edition (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1997), 49-51.
  7. Angus McLaren & Arlene Tigar McLaren, The Bedroom and the State: The Changing Practices and Politics of Contraception and Abortion in Canada, 1880-1997, 2nd edition (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1997), 139.
  8. Roderick Phillips, Untying the Knot: A Short History of Divorce (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 195-6.
  9. Lance W. Roberts, Rodney A. Clifton, Barry Ferguson, Karen Kampen, Simon Langlois, Recent Social Trends in Canada, 1960-2000 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 126-7.
  10. Ibid., 79, Table 3.


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Canadian History: Post-Confederation Copyright © 2016 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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