A Brief History
On August 27, 1927, five steadfast women in Canada petitioned the Supreme Court of Canada to clarify if the word “persons” in the British North America Act included women. These ladies from Alberta were disappointed when months later the Court ruled no, women were not “persons.”
The 5 Alberta women, known as “The Famous Five” or “The Valiant Five” were specifically seeking clarification of the wording to see if women could legally be appointed to the Senate. This case was more or less a continuation of the women’s suffrage movement in Europe and in the United States (which was successful as of 1920) and was technically known as Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General). The case was better known colloquially as the “Persons Case” and the ruling against the women was overturned in 1929 by the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. (Say that 5 times fast!)
Women in Canada at the time already had the right to vote in most of the country, and this case was just one step in the long battle for equal rights for both sexes. One of the women, Emily Murphy, had been appointed as the first female judge in the British Empire, but her reputation was stained by her racist views. Her prejudice extended to more than just people of African descent and included anyone not of white, Northern European heritage. Interestingly, none of the Valiant Five became Canadian Senators, though all were active in government, cultural and/or Red Cross functions. All were made honorary Senators.
The Famous Five are not universally applauded, as racial and ethnic views have tainted their legacy. They apparently were not particularly keen on immigration to Canada by people not of Northern European stock, and were proponents of eugenics. The women held strong opinions regarding subjects such as alcohol prohibition, birth control, divorce, women’s rights, protection of women and children, and universal health care, putting them at odds with some people.
Overall, history celebrates the Famous Five and remembers them with statues, parks named in their honor, plaques in the Canadian Senate chambers, and their appearance on the 2001 Canadian $50 bill. During their lifetimes, the women received various individual honors as well.
It may seem bizarre today that women were once not considered “persons,” but not that long ago that was exactly the case. Progress made in women’s rights has been dramatic, and yet many issues remain to be resolved. Question for students (and subscribers): What women’s issues do you think need changing or clarifying today? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Benoit, Cecilia M. Women, Work and Social Rights: Canada in Historical and Comparative Perspective. Pearson Education Canada, 1999.