When the phone rang at Lola Lange’s farmhouse in southern Alberta one winter day in 1967, it hardly seemed likely that the person on the other end would be the prime minister of the day.
Yet when she put down the receiver, she turned to her family and said, “Lester Pearson just phoned me on the party line!”
The prime minister wanted to know if Mrs. Lange would serve on his newly struck Royal Commission on the Status of Women. For months, Mr. Pearson had faced the mounting wrath of the country’s feminist groups, who wanted the government to comprehensively address critical issues facing women: poverty, reproductive rights, daycare, equal pay for equal work. When campaigner Laura Sabia threatened to hold a million-woman march on Parliament Hill, the government bowed to demand, and a commission was called.
In total, seven commissioners were called. There were two men and five women: three academics, one engineer, one judge, one journalist and Mrs. Lange. As she later wrote, “They were looking for a farm wife and my name was put forward.”
For Mrs. Lange, who died on Christmas Day at age 91, a one-year pledge stretched into a four-year commitment. The committee was chaired by journalist Florence Bird (almost invariably called Mrs. John Bird in news stories) and in 1968 it travelled across the country to hear the concerns of Canadian women.
When the committee got to Victoria, Mrs. Lange fielded phone calls from women who complained they couldn’t get loans without signatures from husbands, and from female students who couldn’t find well-paying summer jobs. At the time, women made up one-third of the labour force, but were underpaid, earning an average annual wage of $2,522, while men were bringing home an average of $4,172.
“Women are phoning us about any problem,” Mrs. Lange told The Globe and Mail at the time. “I think that’s a good thing. A great many women feel frustrated by their inability to get help and advice.”
Hundreds of other women testified in person or submitted briefs. The tenor of the times might be judged from newspaper reports, which referred to committee members by their married names and characterized one forestry official who testified as “a pretty young woman who holds a master’s degree in science.” A CBC television report announced the inquiry into women’s status this way: “Generations of domesticity may have hobbled her mind, but now she’s back in the hunt this time demanding equal rights on the labour market, while retaining the special privileges of a lady.”
For Mrs. Lange, who had married her husband, Ottomar, at age 21, the experience was, to use a well-worn phrase, empowering. “As a young married woman I had no identity,” she later wrote. “For 20 years I was the ‘wife’ or the ‘mother.’ The commission proved to me that I was a woman in my own right.”
The commission’s report, tabled in 1970, was a boon for women: Its 167 recommendations included advice on overhauling daycare, pay legislation, hiring practices and maternity leave. For Mrs. Lange, four years spent intermittently away from the farm led to discontent when she returned. She and her husband divorced and she took a job with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., working with rural and aboriginal clients.
Lola Lange was born in Edmonton in 1922, the daughter of Stella and Ralph Smith, who ran a bike shop. A gifted pianist, she passed Grade 8 examinations held by the Royal Conservatory of Music and was a church organist for much of her life. As she later noted, options for women of her generation were limited: When you graduated from high school you could study to be a nurse or a teacher, “or you got a job.”
Or you got married. Lola Smith met her future husband, Ottomar Lange, at a dance at Concordia College in Edmonton, and they married in 1943. They moved to the Lange family farm near Claresholm, 125 kilometres south of Calgary, a relocation that unsettled the music-loving young woman from the city.
Says Mrs. Lange’s daughter Nadine Miller: “It was a complete shock. She was not at all prepared.” As Mrs. Lange put it, “We lived 12 miles [19 km] from a small town with no library and no live music.”
To occupy herself, Mrs. Lange became active in 4H and the Alberta Farm Wives’ Union, and took courses at the Banff School of Fine Arts. Between 1944 and 1953 she had three daughters, Anola, Nadine and Debra. In 1967, she won a grant from the Bank of Montreal to study the role of continuing education in young farmers’ lives. It was this work that brought her to the attention of the decision makers in Ottawa, who were looking for a rural woman to be a member of their new commission.
In 1982, Mrs. Lange moved to the West Coast to be closer to her two daughters and her grandchildren (one daughter remained in Alberta.) She travelled widely and loved attending plays and symphony concerts.
Mrs. Lange did not spend much time talking about the four years she spent working on one of Canada’s most important fact-finding missions. “That was her generation,” Ms. Miller says. “They didn’t talk about feelings much.”
And yet, she adds, the experience was profoundly important for her mother and Canadians like her. “It was life-changing. It exposed her to a bigger world and the challenges of women living in it.”
Mrs. Lange leaves her daughters Anola Laing, Nadine Miller and Debra Lange; six grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.