The Famous Five

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The Persons Case: A Milestone for Women’s Rights in Canada

On October 18th, 1929, Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Henrietta Edwards, and Irene Parlby, known as the Famous Five, celebrated the ruling of the Privy Council in Britain declaring women as legal persons. Prior to this decision, Emily Murphy fought for the rights of all women for twelve years, never allowing her losses to bring her down. Emily became the first woman police magistrate in the entire British Empire and had her position challenged numerous times on the grounds that a woman is not a “person under the British North America Act of 1867. Murphy fumed at the injustice and she knew the law had to be changed and she was going to be the one to do it (Historica). Murphy first brought the case to the Supreme Court of Canada in March of 1928 and the courts ruled against it. Following this rejection, Murphy carried the case to the Privy Council in Britain where women were declared legal people. This legal milestone came to be known as the Persons Case. Giving women legal recognition as people and illuminating the female potential made the Persons Case one of the most important steps in the battle for women’s rights in Canada. Since the uprising of the Famous Five, there have been countless achievements changing the female role in the workplace, the home, and the law. Women are no longer seen as property, but as successors. Without the Famous Five, women’s rights would not have come this far.

Four months after the Privy Council legally defined women as “persons”, the first female Senate was appointed. Many people thought that it would be Emily Murphy who would take this role, but because she was a Conservative, Mackenzie King appointed Cairine Wilson as the first female Canadian Senate, because she worked as a Liberal party organizer (Munroe). This created many doors for women in politics. Agnes Macphail was the first female president of a major political party from 1932-34 and was also elected as the first female MPP in Ontario from 1943-45. The first five women elected into the House of Commons were as follows: Agnes Macphail, Martha Black, Dorise Nielsen, Cora Taylor Casselman, and Gladys Strum. The up rise in powerful women must have been inspiring for other women to run for political positions, because the first female mayor was Barbara Hanley, in 1936. Muriel McQueen Fergusson was named Speaker of the Senate and she became the first woman speaker of the Parliament of Canada in 1972. In 1974, Renaude Lapointe became the first French-speaking woman to hold the office of Speaker in Parliament. Later on in 1993, Joyce Fairbairn was named the first woman Leader of the Government in the Senate. In 1999, Senator Rose-Marie Losier-Cool was appointed Speaker pro tempore. Today, one-third of senators are women (Senate).

A lot of progress has been made since the 1960s and we have the Famous Five to thank for that. Because of them, women received legal recognition as people and women approached gender equality. The BNA Act of 1867 used the word “persons” to refer to more than one person, and “he” to refer to one person. A ruling in British common law in 1976 emphasized the problem for Canadian women by saying, “women are persons in matters of pains and penalties, but are not persons in matters of rights and privileges” (Munroe). After the Famous Five challenged the law of women not being legal “persons” and won their case, women were now people and had equal rights and privileges to men.

During the 1920s, women were dominated by men and denied many rights and privileges such as careers, marriage laws, political status, and social status. Women were mainly seen as homemakers, were provided minimal opportunity to work and were restricted to only working while single. Women sometimes held traditional jobs such as domestic servants, secretaries, sales clerks, factory workers, nurses, and teachers. Although women had won the right to vote during the...
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