The Persons Case and Womens Right to Vote in Canada


{The Vote: Suffragists were relentless campaigners, lecturers, demonstrators and petitioners. They bravely faced politicians' ire and the aggressive opposition of public opinion. By 1918, some women were granted the right to vote and to have a say in the political future of Canada. For many other women, their race, ethnicity and religion still barred them from the vote and, for them, the fight continued for almost 50 years. It wasn't until the introduction of the Universal Right to Vote in 1963 and the addition of the equality clause in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1985 that the right to vote could not be denied on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, mental or physical disability, or gender.}


The "Famous Five" and the Persons Case:


Early activists challenge conventional views to change Canadian history == The Famous Five achieved not only the right for women to serve in the Senate, but they and their many contributions paved the way for women to participate in other aspects of public life and the assertion of women's rights == Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards



"We want women leaders today as never before. Leaders who are not afraid to be called names and who are willing to go out and fight. I think women can save civilization. Women are persons."


- Emily Murphy - 1931


The early 20th century and the courageous women who challenged the existing status of women are now part of the historic landscape of Canada. Five women created legal history in women's rights by contesting the notion that legal definitions of persons excluded females. If women were not legally persons, then they had no rights.


The women who pursued the petition were journalists, magistrates or politicians. Their legal quest reached the highest level of appeals, the British Privy Council, which ultimately pronounced women "persons". It is a notable victory for equal rights.


The determination and dedication of these remarkable women is honored by The Governor General's Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case. In 1979 on the 50th anniversary of the decree that women were 'persons' the Canadian government struck the first medal. It is the only tribute to those who work to promote gender equality and the full participation of women in the economic fabric of the country.


Reform movements attract support


The early 1900s in the Canadian west were turbulent and rapidly changing times. In Alberta, the population began to shift from a strictly rural to an increasing urban one. Men outnumbered women three to two. These situations combined to create what some perceived as significant social problems of alcohol abuse and prostitution.


Women began to organize and support those organizations dedidated to 'cleaning up society'. At the same time, women began to seek a larger role in politics. In 1916, the Alberta legislature passed legislation granting women the right to vote.


The British North America Act of 1867 set out the powers and responsibilities of the provinces and of the federal government. This federal act used the word "persons" when it referred to more than one person and the word "he" when it referred to one person. Therefore, many argued, the Act was really saying that only a man could be a person, thus preventing women from participating fully in politics or affairs of state.


This situation was of concern to Canada's Emily Murphy, the first woman magistrate in the British Empire. Judge Murphy was the magistrate of a newly created Women's Court operating in Edmonton. On her first day a defendant's lawyer challenged a ruling, because she was not a "person" and therefore, not qualified to perform the duties of a magistrate.


Magistrate Alice Jamieson of Calgary found herself similarly challenged. In 1917 one of her rulings was appealed to the Alberta Supreme Court, which deemed that there was no legal disqualification for holding public office in the government based on sex.


At the same time, women's groups began pressuring the federal government to appoint a woman to the Senate. Despite the support of Prime Ministers Arthur Meighen and William Lyon MacKenzie King, no appointments materialized. Governments used the persons argument as the excuse used to keep women out of important positions, like the Senate. If only a man could be a person, then when the Act also said only "qualified persons" could be appointed to the Senate of Canada, then only men could be appointed to the Senate.


The five who became famous


In 1927 Emily Murphy and four other prominent Canadian women - Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards - asked the Supreme Court of Canada to answer the question, "Does the word "person" in Section 24 of the B.N.A. Act include female persons?" After five weeks of debate and argument the Supreme Court of Canada decided that the word "person" did not include women.


The five women, nicknamed "The Famous Five", were shocked by the Supreme Court decision but did not give up the fight. Instead they refused to accept the decision and took the Persons Case to the Privy Council in England which in those days was Canada's highest court.


The Privy Council decides

On October 18, 1929, Lord Sankey, Lord Chancellor of the Privy council, announced the decision of the five Lords. The decision stated "that 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?"


The Famous Five achieved not only the right for women to serve in the Senate, but they and their many contributions paved the way for women to participate in other aspects of public life and the assertion of women's rights is now honoured by the Governor General's Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case.


The "Famous Five":

Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards



Emily Murphy



"Whenever I don't know whether to fight or not, I fight."

Born in Cookstown, Ontario, Emily (Ferguson) Murphy was already an accomplished author by the time she arrived in Edmonton in 1907. A mother of two, she spearheaded campaigns for women's property rights, and in 1916 she was the first woman in the British Empire to be appointed as a police magistrate. During this time, a lawyer repeatedly challenged her rulings, claiming that she was not legally a "person." In 1927 she led the legal challenge now known as the Persons Case.


Louise McKinney



"The purpose of a woman's life is just the same as the purpose of a man's life: that she may make the best possible contribution to her generation."

Louise (Crummy) McKinney raged against the evils of alcohol and the "disabilities laid on women" and played a leading role in bringing Alberta women the right to vote in 1916. She was the first woman sworn in to the Alberta Legislature and the first in any Legislature in the British Empire. As an MLA, elected in 1917 to represent Claresholm, she worked to inititate social assistance measures for widows and immigrants and, along with Emily Murphy, helped establish the Dower Act, allowing women property rights in marriage.


Irene Parlby



"Evolution cannot be brought about by the use of dynamite."

Born in London, England, Irene (Marryat) Parlby came to Alberta in 1896, married a rancher, and settled in the Lacombe area. She was elected to the Alberta Legislature in 1921 under the United Farmers of Alberta banner and helped push through 18 bills to improve the plight of women and children. She was named to cabinet as a minister without portfolio in 1921, only the second woman cabinet minister in the British Empire. She was president of the United Farm Women of Alberta and a staunch advocate for rural Alberta women.


Nellie McClung



"Never retract, never explain, never apologize - get things done and let them howl."

Novelist, legislator, prohibitionist, and suffragette, Nellie (Mooney) McClung's influence was felt across the prairies. The Chatsworth, Ontario-born school teacher helped Manitoba women win the right to vote and continued the battle in Alberta after arriving in Edmonton in 1914. She was elected to the Alberta Legislature as an opposition Liberal in 1921, was the first woman on the CBC Board of Governors, a representative to the League of Nations, a Sunday school teacher, and a mother of five.


Henrietta Muir Edwards



"We sought to establish the individuality of women... It was an uphill fight."

Henrietta (Muir) Edwards was active in prison reform, organized the forerunner to the YWCA in Montreal in 1875 to provide vocational training for impoverished working women, and published and financed the first Canadian magazine for working women. A student of law, she helped establish the National Council of Women in 1890 and served for decades as its convenor of laws. She wrote several books on the legal status of women and compiled a list of provincial laws affecting women and children across Canada at the request of the federal government.