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Agnes Macphail, Canada’s first female MP

The Story

Surrounded by a panel of men, Agnes Macphail addresses a group of students gathered at University of Toronto's Convocation Hall on a subject close to her heart, "Women in Parliament: Why aren't there more?" Macphail made history on Dec. 6, 1921, when she became the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons in Canada. In this radio excerpt, Macphail offers her thoughts on the absence of women in public life almost three decades after her historic win. "Some nominations the men don't want," says Macphail.

Medium: Radio
Program: This Week
Broadcast Date: Nov. 13, 1948
Guest(s): Agnes Macphail
Host: Bill Beatty, Willson Woodside
Duration: 2:08
Photo: Yousuf Karsh/Library and Archives Canada/PA-165870

Did You know?

• Agnes Campbell Macphail was born on March 24, 1890, in Proton Township, Grey County, Ont.
• The former school teacher was elected to the House of Commons in the 1921 general election -- the first federal election in which women could vote. Macphail represented the rural Ontario riding of Grey South East for the United Farmers of Ontario. She served until her defeat in 1940.

• During her years in Parliament it was rumoured that Prime Minister Mackenzie King offered Macphail a cabinet post if she would join his Liberals. But she refused, preferring to keep her independence.
• Agnes Macphail was the first woman appointed to the Canadian delegation to the League of Nations. She was an active member in the World Disarmament Committee.

• In 1943, Agnes Macphail, along with Margarette Rae Luckock, was one of the first two women elected to the legislative assembly of Ontario. Macphail was sworn in first, followed by Luckock. She lost her seat in 1945 but was re-elected in 1948 and served until 1951.
• Agnes Macphail began writing a column on agricultural issues for the Globe and Mail after her 1940 election defeat.

• Macphail founded the Elizabeth Fry Society of Canada, a group working for women in the justice system. The first Canadian Elizabeth Fry Society was established in Vancouver in 1939.
• Macphail was instrumental in getting Ontario's first equal pay legislation passed in 1951.

• Macphail never married despite at least three marriage proposals. She said she cherished her independence and political life and didn't want anything conflicting with them. The newspapers frequently portrayed her as a loveless spinster, which she hated. In order to disprove it, Macphail gave some of her love letters to the National Archives.

• The proper spelling of her family name was actually MacPhail but around 1925, after her election to Parliament, she began spelling it with a small "p", because it was easier to write. On the family tombstone at Priceville, it is spelled without the "a."
• Macphail died in Toronto on Feb. 13, 1954. She was 63.

• The youth conference held at Convocation Hall, where this radio excerpt is from, was the first important event held by the Hansard Society of Canada.
• The Hansard Society of Canada was founded in 1948 to commemorate parliamentary institutions.

• Other speakers at the conference included:
-- Minister of Health and Welfare Paul Martin Sr. on "The Government Side of the House,"
-- John Diefenbaker, who had contested Conservative leadership, on "The Opposition, the Basis of Our Freedom,"
-- MP Jean-François Pouliot on "A Quebec Member in Ottawa."

• John Diefenbaker would become Canada's 13th prime minister serving from 1957 to 1963.
• Paul Martin Jr., son of Minister of Health and Welfare Paul Martin Sr., was sworn in as prime minister of Canada in December 2003.


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