The efforts of five women known as the Famous Five has had a lasting effect on the rights of women in Canada to this day. These women, all from Alberta, were Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby and Henrietta Muir Edwards. Emily Murphy pressured the Alberta government into passing the “Dower Act’ which protected a wife’s right to one-third (⅓) share of her husband’s property. Nellie McClung was very active with organizations and was involved in politics from 1914 to 1926. Louise McKinney was a very strong supporter of the prohibition. Irene Parlby supported all programs which would benefit the welfare of women and children, she was very interested in the well being of women and children. Henrietta Muir Edwards had a reputation for knowing more about the laws affecting women than even the chief justice of Canada, which was very helpful when dealing with the “Persons Case”. The “Persons Case” allow women to be appointed to the Senate of Canada, this also helped with women’s rights. Women’s rights to vote, to work and everything in between were changed by the Famous Five and the “Persons Case”.
Emily Murphy pressured the Alberta government into passing the “Dower Act’. Born in Cookstown, Ontario in the year 1868, Emily Murphy was the third of six children. Murphy grew up in a family where law and political events were often dinner conversation. One of Murphy’s uncles was a Supreme Court Judge and another a Senator, one of Murphy’s brothers became a lawyer and was appointed to the Supreme Court. In 1887 Emily married Arthur Murphy and they moved out west. After Murphy’s move to Alberta she met an Alberta woman who, after years of hard work supporting the family homestead, was left with nothing when her husband decided to sell the farm.
This motivated Murphy to study the legal implications of this injustice. Murphy’s work for women’s rights was strongly supported and encouraged by many women; in 1911 Murphy pressured the Alberta government into passing the “Dower Act’. The ‘Dower Act’ protected a wife’s right to one-third (⅓) share of her husband’s property. Murphy founded the Federated Women’s Institute for rural women. Later Murphy became member of the Equal Franchise League where Murphy worked with Nellie McClung to get the vote for women. Murphy was dedicated to the protection of women and children; this brought her before the courts which was very unusual for a woman in the early parts of the 20th century.
Murphy was appointed the police magistrate for the city of Edmonton in 1916 becoming the first woman magistrate in the British Empire. Emily Murphy was the instigator of the “Persons Case”, a writer and a pioneer of married women’s rights. She was the National President of the Canadian Women’s Press Club 1913 to 1920, the vice-president of the National Council of Women and the fist president of the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada. When Murphy became part of the “Famous Five” she helped carry the “Persons Case” to the Privy Council in England. Murphy continued her involvement in social activism and research when she died in 1933. Murphy was the one person who got the ball rolling for the “Persons Case” and with help of the other four women Canada was changed.
Nellie McClung was very active with organizations and was involved in politics from 1914 to 1926. Nellie McClung was born in Ontario in 1873. Her family moved to Manitoba in 1880 as pioneer homesteaders. McClung was a pioneer teacher, author, suffragist, social reformer, lecturer and legislator. McClung moved around to many places in the West including Manitou, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Victoria because of her work. McClung was a practical and realistic leader who put words into political action. As a young mother in Manitou, McClung started working with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.). The work she did with the W.C.T.U. motivated her to found the following organizations; the Winnipeg Political Equality League, the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada and the Women’s Institute of Edmonton of which she was also the first president.
McClung was also very active in other organizations such as the Canadian Authors Association, the Canadian Women’s Press Club, the Methodist Church of Canada and the Calgary Women’s Literary Club. McClung was an advocate for a broad range of issues, her successful leadership was applied to her constant causes of women’s suffrage and prohibition. McClung became a speaker for the Liberal Party in the Manitoba provincial elections of 1914 and 1915. Her effort in these elections paid off when she was rewarded in 1916 by Manitoba becoming the first province to give women the right to vote and run for office. McClung was elected as a Liberal member of the Alberta legislature in 1921 to 1926, but was not re-elected in 1926. McClung spoke about her own party’s measures to improve the rights of women and children such as old age pensions, amendments to the “Dower Act”, public health nursing services and better conditions in factories.
Some precedent setting positions McClung attained were: delegate to the Women’s War Conference in Ottawa, 1918; sole woman delegate of the Methodist Church of Canada to the Eucumenical Conference in London, England, 1921; the only women member of the Canadian delegation to the League of Nations, Geneva, Switzerland, 1938; and the first woman member of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Board of Broadcast Governors in 1936. McClung died in 1951. On August 29th, 1973 an eight cent postage stamp was issued in her honour. Her name also appeared on a plaque outside the Senate chamber placed in honour of the five women (Famous Five) who initiated the “Person’s Case”. McClung was very involved in politics and because of that was a great asset to the Famous Five and the “Persons Case”.
Louise McKinney was a very strong supporter of the prohibition. McKinney was elected in the Alberta General Election of 1917. She was nominated as a Non-Partisan League candidate running and winning on a prohibition ticket making McKinney the first female elected to a legislature in the British Empire. McKinney was born in Frankville, Ontario on September 22nd, 1868. McKinney taught for seven years in Ontario and then in North Dakota before moving with her husband, in 1903, to a homestead near Claresholm, Northwest Territories. In North Dakota she became involved in Women’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.). In Claresholm she founded a local chapter and served for over 20 years in high profile roles as an officer at the local, provincial and national levels. Her contribution paid off in 1931 when she became acting president of the national organization and vice-president of the world organization.
McKinney played a huge role in bringing temperance education in schools. McKinney became a leader, activist and organizer; she contributed to social reform and education through her long involvement in the W.C.T.U., the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (I.O.D.E.) and the Methodist church. As a supporter of church union she was the only woman to sign the Basis of Union of the United Church of Canada in 1925. McKinney was an excellent legislator and public speaker. In public service she fought for laws to aid immigrants, widows, separated women and other parts of society; she also fought for stricter liquor control laws. McKinney died in Claresholm, Alberta on July 10th, 1931. Lousie McKinney was honoured by the University of Alberta with a Post-secondary Scholarship given out in her name. There was also a plaque put at the entrance to the Canadian Senate in her honour.
Irene Parlby supported all programs which would benefit the welfare of women and children, she was very interested in the well being of women and children. Parlby was born in England in 1868. She was the eldest child of a British Army Colonel, and lived most of her childhood in India and Ireland. Her father encouraged her to become a doctor, but Parlby was more interested in acting and writing. Parlby traveled to various parts of Europe and came to Canada in 1897 at the age of 29. In Canada Parlby met and married Walter Parlby, an Oxford-educated Englishman, who had come to Canada to become a farmer. Parlby and her husband became the first settlers near the town of Alix and in 1899 their son Humphrey was born. In 1909 Walter Parlby became the president of the Alix local of the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), an organization dedicated to improving agricultural prices, markets, transportation and legislation.
From 1916 to 1919 Irene was president to the United Farm Women of Alberta. In that job Parlby worked for improvement of public health, the establishment of municipal hospitals, and travelling medical and dental clinics. In 1921 she was elected to the provincial legislature as a member of the UFA and was appointed Minister without Portfolio in the new UFA government. The second woman in Canada to become a provincial cabinet minister, Parlby studied international examples of education systems for rural areas and supported all programs which would benefit the welfare of women and children.
Despite there being many competent and successful women in public life in Alberta their legal right to hold these positions was challenged based on section 24 of the British North America Act which stated that women were not “persons” with rights and privileges. In 1930 Parlby travelled to Geneva as one of three Canadian delegates to the Assembly of the League of Nations and in 1935 became the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Alberta. Parlby retired from politics in 1935 but continued to be in demand as a speaker in person and on the radio. Parlby died in 1965, at the age of 97. Throughout her political career Parlby was idealistic and advocated for the betterment of rural Canadian women and children. Parlby worked to change Canada for the women and children who would come behind her.
Henrietta Muir Edwards had a reputation for knowing more about the laws affecting women than even the chief justice of Canada which was very helpful when dealing with the “Persons Case”. Born in Montreal in 1849 in her early years Edwards developed an interest in women helping women. Edwards joined the women’s movement becoming actively involved in different religious organizations and coming face-to-face with the injustices of old traditions where the rejection of women was widely accepted. In Canada, the United States and Europe, she pursued studies in the field of acts. Edwards involvement in women’s causes took root in Montreal where, in 1975, she and her sister Amélia founded the Working Girls’ Association (the precursor to the YWCA). During that same era Edwards launched the first Canadian magazine for working women called Working Woman of Canada, which Edwards and her sister edited.
The magazine was financed with the proceeds from Edwards artwork which consisted of paintings and miniatures. Following Edwards’s marriage to Dr. Oliver C. Edwards and the birth of their three children the Edwards family moved to Saskatchewan. There Edwards discovered her true passion for women’s rights. In 1893 Edwards and Lady Aberdeen founded the National Council of Women and Children. Also in collaboration with Lady Aberdeen she founded the Victorian Order of Nurses and was appointed chair of the Provincial Council of Alberta serving in this position for many years. Throughout these experiences Edwards championed her accomplishments of different feminist organizations and was an avid supporter of equal grounds for divorce, reform of the prison system and allowances for women.
Edwards’s major contribution was to the review of provincial and federal laws relating to women earned her reputation of knowing more about the laws affecting women than even the chief justice of Canada. In 1927 she joined forces with Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, and Irene Parlby to sign a petition requesting that the Supreme Court of Canada reinterpret the law concerning the term “person” in the British North America Act. By joining the “Famous Five”, Edwards brought to the causes of “women not officially recognized” her determination, extensive knowledge of the Canadian legal system. Edwards was great at what she did helping women and children, it was her passion.
The “Persons Case” allowed women to be appointed to the Senate of Canada; this also helped with women’s rights. On August 27th, 1927, The Famous Five decided to petition the government and ask the Supreme Court to examine the meaning of the world “persons” in Section 24 of the British North America Act to determine whether it included female persons. The Court took the question under consideration on March 14th, 1928. Six weeks later it replied in the negative. The Famous Five did not accept this decision and appealed this to the Judicial Committee of England’s Privy Council. On Friday October 18th, 1929 a unanimous decision was made that the word “persons” in Section 24 of the British North America Act did include both male and females.
The Senate was very important to women because, until the 1970s, the Senate approved divorces, among other things. It was believed that if women were to sit in the Senate decisions concerning family matters would be more equitable. Although the members of The Famous Five were never themselves appointed senators, they opened many doors for all the women to come after. It was not until Friday October 18th, 1929 after talking their cause to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, that a reversal of the Supreme Court decision granted Canadian women their right to be appointed to the Senate. The Famous Five transformed North America for women.
The Famous Five changed the lives of women in Canada. The Famous Five’s efforts to have women recognized as equals paid off when the Judicial Committee of England’s Privy Council decided that women should be treated as equals. This opened many doors for women to follow behind them such as: The Honorable Cairne Wilson, who in 1930 to become Canada’s first female Senator, or Ellen Louks Fairclough, who in 1957 was the first woman appointed to the federal cabinet, and Pauline McGibbon, who in 1974 became the first woman to be appointed Lieutenant Governor in Canada. There are so many other women who followed behind and without the Famous Five would never have achieved such success. The Famous Five made a transformation to Canada that would last forever.