Women Are Persons!

October 18th is Persons Day in Canada, a significant day to commemorate. In 1927, Emily Murphy, Alberta’s first female judge, along with Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby and Henrietta Muir Edwards challenged a part of the Canadian Constitution that had historically prevented women from being appointed to the Senate. These women became known as the “Famous Five”, and already had an earlier history of campaigning for women’s suffrage.

The Famous Five launched a legal challenge that would mark a turning point for equality rights in Canada. The point of dispute was over the narrow interpretation of “persons” in Section 24 of the British North America Act (now known as the Constitution Act, 1867), which “used the word “persons” in the plural sense but when it referred to an individual person, it used the word “he”” which was interpreted as only men could be appointed to the Senate (Senate of Canada, para. 5-6). This prompted the question: “Is a woman a person?”

Up until this point, women did run in federal elections, including Agnes Macphail from a rural constituency in Ontario, who became Canada’s first female Member of Parliament in the House of Commons. But this was not the case for women being appointed to the Senate and this was the injustice that the Famous Five wanted to rectify.

Agnes Macphail was first elected MP in 1921 for the riding South-east Grey in Ontario. She was involved in the farmers’ movement and upon deciding to run for election, she asked herself “What can I do for farmers?” (UF 2002.0032.06).

Edwards v. Attorney General of Canada, also known as the Persons Case, went to the Supreme Court, and ultimately rendered the verdict that women were not in fact “persons”. The Famous Five did not accept this decision and brought their case to the highest court of appeal – the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, England to be reassessed. On October 18, 1929, Canada’s Supreme Court decision was overruled by the Privy Council, enabling women to serve on public bodies, including the Senate. However, this decision still excluded Indigenous women and women of Asian heritage and descent (Government of Canada, para 1).

“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?”

Lord Sankey, Lord Chancellor of Great Britain
The header of an article by Nellie McClung in Farm and Ranch Review (January 2, 1930). In this article, McClung details the Persons Case, what the final decision means for women and the future of female activism (UF 2002.0032.05).

After the ruling, Nellie McClung remarked on the outdated wording the creators of the BNA Act had initially written, stating that “They did not think of women at all… They did not know that the day was coming when women, equipped for life by higher education, liberated from drudgery by electrical and other labor-saving devices, would push back the horizon of their narrow, and take their place beside men of the world (McClung, 1930)”.

Did you know that a member of the Famous Five was also involved with the United Farmers of Alberta (U.F.A.) and the United Farm Women of Alberta (U.F.W.A.)? Irene Parlby helped to establish the first U.F.W.A. local in Alix in 1915, became the organization’s President the following year, and was the first female member of the U.F.A. board. In 1921, Parlby was elected to the provincial legislature and appointed Minister without Portfolio in the new U.F.A. government. With her experience and enthusiasm, Parlby was integral to both the farming and suffrage movements in Alberta.

U.F.A. 1919 Board of Directors, with Irene Parlby (UF 2004.0037.94).

At the United Farm Women of Alberta (U.F.W.A.) Annual Convention in January of 1930, members of the Famous Five were in attendance and a congratulations was read in honour of the historic Persons Case win. The U.F.W.A. had been a long-time supporter of women’s suffrage, along with other causes that often fell within the “women’s sphere” such as public health, child care and education. The excerpt below from the minutes of the 1930 convention highlights the admiration the organization had for the work of the Famous Five.

Women Now Persons: Excerpt from the U.F.W.A. Annual Convention Minutes, January 1930, recognizing the significance of the Persons Case.

The event that kick started the Persons Case was when Emily Murphy, Canada’s first female judge, was proposed for a Senate position. She had the support of several other female activists and organizations, including the National Council of Women of Canada and the Federated Women’s Institutes, but as the BNA Act did not account for women, she was refused. Murphy witnessed the historic outcome of the Persons Case, but herself did not get a chance to become a Senator, as she passed away a few years later in October 1933. Murphy along with the rest of the Famous Five were named honorary senators in 2009.

Excerpt from the Official Minutes U.F.W.A. Executive, Board & Convention, January 1934. The U.F.W.A. sent a letter to Murphy’s husband Arthur, to offer their condolences and to express their admiration for Murphy’s accomplishments for women’s equality.

While the historic milestone of the Persons Case remains significant for women’s rights, other legacies of the Famous Five are more fraught today. The Famous Five supported the eugenics movement and aggressively campaigned to have Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act passed in 1928, permitting the sexual sterilization of individuals “deemed to have undesirable traits”. This resulted in Indigenous women being primarily targeted. Other perpetuated harms include supporting white-only immigration, blaming Chinese and African-Americans for the drug trade, and while the Famous Five were integral to gaining women’s right to vote in Alberta, they did not include all women, particularly those who identified as Indigenous or Asian. 

Newspaper clipping in the Edmonton Journal (July 12, 1933) on the Famous Five being nominated for recognition with a bronze tablet at the Parliament buildings, Ottawa (UF 2002.0032.10).

Persons Day reminds us of the long history towards women’s political equality in Canada. Rights which are enjoyed today due to a movement which began on the prairies are owed to the Famous Five and their activism. But this day also serves as a reminder of how we look at the legacies of the Famous Five. Persons Day is undoubtedly an accomplishment to be commemorated, and we can do this while also recognizing that there were views held by the members of the Famous Five that are much less acceptable today.

Sources & Further Reading:

Bell, D. (2019, October 18). “’Our histories are complicated’: Famous Five fought a good but imperfect fight.” CBC News. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/famous-five-fought-good-imperfect-fight-1.5325290  

Cavanaugh, C. (2020). Famous Five In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/famous-5 

Famous 5 Foundation. (n.d.). The Famous Five: The “Persons” Case. In Famous 5. Retrieved from https://www.famous5.ca/the-persons-case

Government of Canada (2021). Persons Day – Women and Gender Equality Canada Retrieved from https://women-gender-equality.canada.ca/en/commemorations-celebrations/womens-history-month/persons-day.html

Jackel, S. (2020). Emily Murphy In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/emily-murphy 

Kersten, L. (n.d.). Alberta passes Sexual Sterilization Act. Retrieved from http://eugenicsarchive.ca/database/documents/5172e81ceed5c6000000001d   

Kurbegovic, E. (2013, September 13). The Famous Five. Retrieved October 12, 2021, from https://eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/tree/5233768a5c2ec5000000004d 

Marshall, T., & Cruickshank, D. (2020). Persons Case In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/persons-case 

McClung, Nellie (1930). “Now That We Are Persons” in Farm and Ranch Review. Fonds 2, Series 7, File 6 (UF 2002.0032.05) In custody of the United Farmer’s Historical Society.

Millar, Nancy (1999). The Famous Five: A Pivotal Moment in Canadian Women’s History. Deadwood Publishing. 

Senate of Canada (2016). “Why the Persons Case Matters” in How & Why. Retrieved from https://sencanada.ca/en/sencaplus/how-why/why-the-persons-case-matters/ 

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