Critical Thinking

The (nee Ferguson) was born in Cookstown, Ontario

The Famous Five

 

October
18th 1929 is a date that went down in history because it was on that
day that women were finally declared “persons” under Canadian law. Before this
big step towards equality of the sexes Canada was governed by The British North
America Act which did not recognize women as a person. At the time “persons”
referred to either more than one person as in a group of people or “he” when
used to describe one person. This meant that those who wanted to keep women out
of positions of power such as a judge or a senator could claim that women were
not eligible for those positions because they were not considered a person
under the law.        

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So
how and why did the legal system change in Canada?

Well
it started with five women.

 

The
most successful teams generally have a leader or captain and in the case of
Alberta’s Famous Five, that was Emily Murphy. Emily Murphy (nee Ferguson) was
born in Cookstown, Ontario in 1868. Her father was a wealthy businessperson and
owned quite a bit of land so Emily was educated at a private school in Ontario.
Some say that her education is what helped her have such a liberal outlook on
life. She married Arthur Murphy and together they had four children.
Unfortunately, one of her children passed away with diphtheria (an acute
bacterial disease) and the family moved around before settling down in Alberta
in 1906. In Alberta, Murphy became very involved in social issues such as
poverty and the welfare of women and children. The issue that struck her the
most was that the current property laws gave women no rights. This meant that
the husband could sell the house, move out and the wife and children would have
nothing and nowhere to go. Murphy started campaigning to overturn the property
law and in 1916, the Dower Act was passed as a result. The Dower Act gave women
legal rights to 33% of their husband’s property which today doesn’t sound like
that good of a deal. This was a part of Murphy’s activism that really put her
in the spotlight and helped her gain some supporters.

 

Such
supporters included Nellie McClung who helped Murphy pass the Dower Act. Nellie
McClung (Nee Mooney) was born in Chatsworth, Ontario in 1873. She married
Wesley McClung at age 23 and had five children. In 1911 McClung and her family
moved to Winnipeg where she continued fighting against problems such as women’s
rights and alcohol abuse, pushing towards prohibition. Apart from being one of
the famous five, McClung is also well known for her fight to allow women to
vote. McClung and other members of the Political Equality League created a play
in 1914 meant to mock parliament and outline the perils of giving men the right
to vote. The play was very effective and by 1916 Manitoba was the first province
to allow women to vote. McClung stayed active in her fight for human rights
until her death in 1953.

 

Louise
McKinney was born in Frankville, Ontario in 1868. In 1903, McKinney came to
Alberta as a former schoolteacher. She came into the spotlight as the first
woman elected to a legislature in the British Empire as well as the first woman
sworn into the Legislative Assembly of Alberta. She was a member of the
Non-Partisan League and served from 1917 to 1921 in the Alberta legislature.
McKinney felt strongly about topics such as education, women’s property rights,
the Dower Act, government control of grain elevators and flour mills, and stronger
liquor control. Unfortunately, McKinney passed away in 1931 just a couple years
after the Persons Case in Claresholm, Alberta.

 

Irene
Parlby was born in London, England in 1868. She moved to Canada in 1896 and
became very involved in politics and activism regarding women’s rights. She was
a lifelong advocate for human rights and continually spoke out for Canadians (women
and children) living in rural areas. As the last surviving member of the famous
five, she passed away of old age at age 97 in 1965. A year after Irene passed
away, the government of Canada erected a plaque to honour her as a Person of
National Historic Significance which can be found in Alix, Alberta. You can also
find a mural in Irene’s honour in Edmonton, Alberta.

 

Henrietta
Muir Edwards was born in Montreal, Quebec in 1849 making her the eldest of the
five women. In fact, she was 80 when the person’s case occurred. She was raised
in a middle to upper class family that focused on religion quite heavily. She
grew very unhappy with older traditions that made it acceptable to exclude
women. She married Dr. Oliver C. Edwards in 1876 and they had three children.

 

 

Emily
was an activist and part of her activism was to attend some trials of women
accused of prostitution. Unfortunately, during the trials women were asked to
leave to courthouse as they were told, “it would be inappropriate for them to
be present”. Murphy did not believe it was fair to allow the women to be tried
in a group made up solely of men so she suggested a female judge. The concept
was presented to Honourable C.W. Cross and he agreed therefore making Judge
Emily Murphy the first female to be appointed to the senate even though she was
still not considered a person. During her first trial, the lawyer of the
defendant argued that Emily’s verdicts were invalid because Emily was a woman
and therefore not considered a legal person. This was the start of a lengthy
campaign to have women considered as persons. Murphy discovered that in order
to address her concerns in court, she would have to get five names on a
petition to be presented to the court. Four females including Emily herself
signed the petition and those women are now known as The Famous Five. March 14th
1928 the five women accompanied by the Honourable Newton Wesley Rowell (lawyer)
presented their case to the Supreme Court of Canada. The lawyer asked the court
this question “Does the word ‘Persons’ in Section 24 of the British North
American Act of 1867 include female persons?”. Sadly, the Supreme Court of
Canada decided that women were still not persons. Thankfully, these women were
not put off by the verdict; it only fuelled their determination more. They
decided to take their case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in
England and after five months of waiting, on October 18th 1929, a
law was passed that included women as persons. Lord Sankey who is the Lord
Chancellor of England’s Privy Council was the one who announced the unanimous
decision to pass this new law. He said, “The exclusion of women from all public
offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours. And to those who would ask
why the word ‘person’ should include females, the obvious answer is, why should
it not?”. The Famous Five were very much involved in equality of the sexes on
the senate even though none of them was appointed to the senate. The first
female senator in Canada was Cairine Wilson who was sworn in on February 15th
1930.

 

To
honour these five women for their accomplishments a statue created by Barbara Paterson
was erected to show their determination for women’s rights that helped change
Canada for the better. For two years, Mrs. Paterson worked with bronze to highlight
a scene that depicted the success of Canadian women. The statue was revealed in
October 1999 at Olympic Park, Calgary, Alberta with the title “Women Are
Persons!”. A second copy of the statue was placed on Parliament Hill in Ottawa
one year after the original statue was erected. The back of the Canadian $50
bills produced from years 2001-2011 also paid tribute to The Famous Five. In
1997, The Persons Case became recognized as a Historic Event. The Senate voted
on October 2009 to name the members of the Famous Five the first “honorary
senators” of Canada. I like to imagine that the five women are somewhere
looking down, very pleased with what they accomplished, what they left behind,
and how far Canada as come since the persons case. They say one person can
change the world; in this case it was five persons who changed a country. I
will end with a quote from Nellie McClung.

 

“I
am a believer in women, in their ability to do things and in their influence
and power. Women set the standards for the world, and it is for us, women in
Canada, to set the standards high.” – Nellie McClung

 

Thank
you for listening. 

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