Although women in Canada achieved the right to vote in 1917, many of the improvements to the status of women that first-wave feminists no doubt hoped would follow were slow in arriving. Indeed, achieving equal rights to those of men has been a tedious journey and has required the ongoing persistent effort of countless women over the past century.
When I began work in a large Toronto office in 1970, the young man seated at the desk next to mine, who was hired after I was, and was performing exactly the same chores, was rewarded with a bigger paycheque at the end of the week, simply because he was male. Things have changed since then, but women are still under-represented in highly-paid positions.
One of the steps along the road came when women fought to be recognized as persons. You’d think this was self-evident, but Prime Minister Robert Borden, and then Prime Minister Arthur Meighen and their governments maintained otherwise. They argued that the 1867 British North America Act prevented women from holding seats in the federal Senate because Section 24 of the act stated that only “qualified persons” might be called to the Senate, and a British court had ruled that women were “persons in matters of pains and penalties, but not persons in matters of rights and privileges.”
Emily Murphy, an Edmonton magistrate, had campaigned for years for government institutions to open their doors to women. A clause in the Supreme Court Act stated that five citizens could petition for an interpretation of a part of the BNA Act if the minister of justice supported the request for a ruling. In 1927, Murphy was joined by Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards, all active participants in women’s organizations, in petitioning the Supreme Court.
On April 24th, 1928, Chief Justice Anglin handed down an opinion. He held that since women did not hold public office in 1867, the BNA authors could not have intended that women would be eligible to sit in the Senate. Therefore, women were barred from sitting in the Senate. In short, women were not to be allowed to sit in the Senate because they never had.
Murphy and her companions appealed the matter to a higher court: the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Westminster, England. In October of 1929, British lord chancellor Lord Sankey stated that the BNA Act was capable of growth. A liberal interpretaion of the act was espoused and he concluded that the word “persons” includes members of both the male and female sex. Therefore, women were eligible to be summoned to the Senate of Canada. This year, 2009, marks the 80th anniversary of the decision.
A commemorative statue remembers this important moment in the history of the Canadian women’s movement. Unveiled in October of 2000, the monument is situated on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The larger-than-life sculptures were completed by Edmonton artist Barbara Paterson and were donated to the Government of Canada by the Famous 5 Foundation. The Famous Five are portrayed as they might have been as they celebrate their victory. Nellie McClung holds up a headline announcing Women are Persons! At her side, Irene Parlby looks on. Emily Murphy stands by her chair, while Louise McKinney clasps her hands and Henrietta Muir Edwards raises her cup in acknowledgment of the victory.
Unlike most of the monuments on Parliament Hill, which are formal and conventional, the Women are Persons tribute invites visitors to join the women, even sit down with them and celebrate their achievement. It’s a lovely remembrance of five important persons.