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Women's History Month, Famous Five

The Famous Five

If politics mean…the effort to secure through legislative action better conditions of life for the people, greater opportunities for our children and other people’s children…then it most assuredly is a woman’s job as much as it is a man’s job.

— Irene Parlby

Irene Parlby (born Mary Irene Marryat) was a firm advocate for rural farm women of Alberta. She organized and became the first President of the United Farm Women’s Association in 1916. She was elected to the Alberta Legislature in 1921 as a member of the governing United Farmers of Alberta party. She became the first female cabinet minister in Alberta (and the second in the entire British Empire). Irene used her influence to champion for the rights and welfare of women and their families. In 1930, she was asked by Prime Minister R.B. Bennett to stand as one of three Canadian delegates to the League of Nations meeting in Geneva.

I believe that never was a country better adapted to produce a great race of women than this Canada of ours, nor a race of women better adapted to make a great country.

— Emily Murphy

A prominent suffragist, reformer and writer, Emily Murphy (born Emily Gowan Ferguson) became the first female magistrate in the British Empire in 1916. Before that, she championed the right of wives to share ownership in their husband’s property — giving them and their children security in case of abandonment. Her efforts helped create The Married Women’s Protective Act, passed in Alberta in 1911. Her tireless activism as judge and advocate of social welfare for women and children earned Emily widespread respect across the nation

The purpose of a woman’s life is just the same as the purpose of a man’s life: that she may make the best possible contribution to the generation in which she is living.

— Louise McKinney

Louise’s activism helped give women the right to vote in Alberta. She also championed the first Dower Act in Alberta — a bill that gave women the right to prevent the sale or mortgage of their homes without their knowledge.

Canada is destined to be one of the great nations of the world and Canadian women must be ready for citizenship.

— Nellie McClung

Nellie McClung (born Nellie Letitia Mooney) was a novelist, reformer, journalist, and suffragist. She led the fight to enfranchise North American women, and her efforts led to Manitoba becoming the first province to grant women the right to vote and run for office in 1916. Nellie was the first female Director of the Board of the Governors of the CBC. In 1938, she was chosen as a delegate to the League of Nations in Geneva.

If women had the vote there would be no need to come twice asking for better legislation for women and children.

— Henrietta Muir Edwards

The eldest of the Famous Five, Henrietta Muir Edwards (born Henrietta Louise Muir), was an artist as well as a legal expert. In 1893, she helped found the National Council of Women of Canada — an organization that continues, to this day, to work to improve the quality of life for women, families and society. In addition to her work with the NCWC, she published Canada’s first women’s magazine and established the prototype for the Canadian YWCA. She also helped found the Victorian Order of Nurses in 1897.

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Person’s Day – October 18

Prior to 1929, women in Canada were not considered ‘Persons’ —at least not in the fullest legal sense of the word.

Section 24 of the British North America Act (at that time, Canada’s constitution, the source of its highest laws) said that only "qualified persons" could be appointed to the Canadian Senate. The Canadian government had consistently interpreted this phrase as meaning men only.

Suffragist Emily Murphy discovered a little known provision in the Supreme Court of Canada Act that said any five persons acting as a unit could petition the Supreme Court for an interpretation of any part of the constitution. On August 27, 1927, she invited four of the brightest and most determined women activists she knew to her Edmonton home. On Emily’s veranda, the Famous Five signed a letter petitioning the Supreme Court to look into the matter of whether the government could appoint a female senator.

The matter quickly became known as the ‘Persons Case’. It was debated on March 14, 1928, with the Supreme Court eventually ruling that women were not “qualified persons” as it related to Section 24 of the BNA act. One woman, Mary Ellen Smith from British Columbia, reacted to the news saying, “The iron dropped into the souls of women in Canada when we heard that it took a man to decree that his mother was not a person.”

The Famous Five petitioned The Privy Council in England to rule on the matter. On October 18, 1929, Lord Sankey arrived to a packed courtroom in London to read the Privy Council’s judgement. To the relief and joy of the Famous Five and women across Canada, the Privy Council said that yes, women were indeed persons and could become Senators.

“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

With this milestone victory, the Famous Five not only won the right for women to serve in the Senate, but also helped pave the way for women to participate equally in all aspects of life in Canada.

October Is Women’s History Month

October 11 is International Day Of The Girl

International Day of the Girl is a United Nations observance day dedicated to championing girls’ rights around the world, including freedom from violence and abuse, as well as equal opportunities in areas such as law, education, nutrition and health care. This year, the UN is drawing attention to the role economic empowerment plays in promoting equality for girls, specifically through improved access to education, increased political participation and leadership, and better support and training for girls in STEM.

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