Archives

The Famous Five and the 'persons' ruling of 1929

Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King unveils a tablet commemorating the 1929 decision that declared Canadian women "persons" under the law.
Prime Minister King poses with Nellie McClung, 2 senators and "Famous Five" family members in front of the tablet unveiled commemorating the "Women as Persons" ruling. (Eugene M. Finn / National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque / Library and Archives Canada / C-054523)

In this CBC Radio clip from June 11, 1938, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King spoke at the unveiling of a tablet honouring the women who came to be known as the "Famous Five." 

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

Five Alberta women who fought to have Canadian women declared "persons" are honoured today. 4:15

Their battle began in 1916, when lawyers challenged Judge Emily Murphy's rulings because she was not considered a "person" under Canadian law.

By 1927, the women had garnered support all across Canada, and they petitioned Canada's Supreme Court. After five weeks of debate, the appeal was unanimously denied.

The women took the fight to the Privy Council of the British government, and won their case, paving the way for Cairine Wilson to become the first woman to be sworn in to the Canadian Senate in 1930. 

Nellie McClung, one of the "Famous Five" spoke at the unveiling of the tablet in 1938. (National Archives of Canada/C. Jessop/Canadian Press)

Nellie McClung was present at the unveiling of the tablet, and spoke of the historic struggle as an epic one for which "women had first to convince the world that they had souls, and then that they had minds and then it came on to this matter of political entity.  And the end is not yet."

now