A flyer prepared for the Nellie Langford Rowell Library.

Nellie Langford Rowell Women's Studies Library

Persons Day: October 18

Background

In 1918, the Women's Franchise Act gave the federal vote to every woman in Canada over the age of 21 who was a British subject and had the qualifications required for the provincial franchise for men; in 1920 a standard federal franchise was set (which excluded Asians until 1948, Inuit until 1950, and status Indians until 1960; Quebec was the last province to give women the provincial vote, in 1940). In 1919 it became possible for women to be elected to the House of Commons, also on the same terms as men.

Women's groups that had sought the vote to bring about social change now wished to have women appointed to the Senate to continue their campaigns. They requested the Prime Minister to appoint a woman as one of the eligible "persons" specified under the British North America Act. Two successive Prime Ministers claimed that they could not do this unless the BNA Act was modified, since women had no independent legal identity in Britain when the BNA Act was passed in 1867.

Edmonton feminist Emily Murphy, whose actions as a magistrate had been challenged on the grounds that she was not a "person" under the BNA Act, was the preferred Senate candidate of national women's groups. Along with four other prominent women activists - Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby, and Henrietta Muir Edwards - Judge Murphy persuaded the government to direct the Supreme Court to rule on whether women were indeed "persons." The court ruled in the negative, but on October 18, 1929, eight years after the campaign began, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England, then the appeals court for the Canadian Supreme Court, ruled in the women's favour.

Disappointingly, Judge Murphy was not appointed to the Senate; she was from the wrong political party for the first appointment available and the wrong religion for the second. Cairine Wilson, appointed to the Senate in 1930, was active around issues of child welfare and anti-fascism.


Significance

The Senate has not proved an effective platform for reform, though a number of important women have served there, including: Florence Bird, chair of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women; Thérèse Casgrain, the leader of Quebec feminism; Ann Cools, the first black senator; and Lorna Marsden, chair of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.

The decision in the Persons Case had, however, a large symbolic meaning, as a victory achieved through the machinery of the existing system. Second-wave feminists in the 1970s adopted "personhood" as a symbol of women's legal personality and made it into an occasion for celebrating the achievements of women activists. Several Canadian governments annually give "Persons Awards" honouring prominent women. In contrast to International Women's Day, this is a specifically Canadian festival; in contrast to December 6, it is an occasion for joy.


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