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1929: Women become persons

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On Oct. 18, 1929, women are finally declared "persons" under Canadian law. The historic legal victory is due to the persistence of five Alberta women -- Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards.

The battle started in 1916. From Murphy's very first day as a judge, lawyers had challenged her rulings because she is not a "person" under Canadian law. By 1927, the women have garnered support all across Canada. They petition the nation's Supreme Court. After five weeks of debate, the appeal is unanimously denied. Shocked, the women take the fight to the Privy Council of the British government; in those days it was Canada's highest court.

In this CBC Radio clip from June 11, 1938, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King unveils a plaque commemorating the women activists in what became known as the "Persons Case" and Nellie McClung, one of two surviving members of the "Famous Five," speaks of the historic struggle.

National Archives photo, June 11, 1938:
Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King and guests unveil a plaque commemorating the women. [Front, L-R]: Mrs. Muir Edwards, daughter-in-law of Henrietta Muir Edwards; Mrs. J.C. Kenwood, daughter of Judge Emily Murphy; Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King; Mrs. Nellie McClung. [Rear, L-R]: Senators Iva Campbell Fallis, Cairine Wilson.
• Lord Sankey, Lord Chancellor of England's Privy Council, announced the unanimous decision. It stated "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?"

• Emily Murphy (1868-1933) led the legal challenge in 1927. Born in Cookstown, Ont., a mother of two, she was the first woman in the British Empire to be appointed a magistrate, in 1916.

• Novelist, legislator, prohibitionist and suffragette Nellie McClung (1873-1951) was the first woman on the CBC Board of Governors, a representative to the League of Nations, a Sunday school teacher and mother of five.

• Louise McKinney (1868-1931) was the first woman sworn into the Alberta Legislature, and in the British Empire. As an MLA in 1917, she helped initiate social assistance for widows and immigrants, and, with Murphy, helped establish the Dower Act, giving women property rights in marriage.

• Irene Parlby (1868-1965), elected to the Alberta Legislature in 1921, helped push through 18 bills to improve the plight of women and children. She was the second woman cabinet minister in the British Empire.

• Henrietta Edwards (1849-1931) was active in prison reform and organized the forerunner to the YWCA to provide job training for poor working women. An author and law student, she helped establish the National Council of Women in 1890.

• In 1939, portraits of each of the Famous Five were unveiled in the Alberta Legislature.

• In 1979, a medallion commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Persons Case, designed by Dora de Pedery-Hunt, was released.

• In 1999, a monument at Calgary's Olympic Plaza was unveiled. That same year, the Governor General's annual commemorative awards were established, to recognize those who have made outstanding contributions to women's quality of life in Canada.

• The Famous Five bronze monument on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, unveiled Oct. 18, 2000, commemorates the women activists. Until then there had only been two statues on Parliament Hill dedicated to women, both Queens of England.
 
• In 2004, the Famous Five were featured on Canada's $50 bill. The note was redesigned in 2012, replacing the women with an image of a Canadian icebreaker.
Medium: Radio
Program: CBC Radio News Special
Broadcast Date: June 11, 1938
Guest(s): William Lyon Mackenzie King, Nellie McClung
Duration: 4:12
Photo: National Archives PA-195432

Last updated: December 19, 2014

Page consulted on February 4, 2015

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