The Famous Five: Canada’s Crusaders for Women’s Rights
Author: Barbara Smith
Publisher: Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd.
138 pages, including: Prologue, Timeline, Acknowledgements, Notes, Bibliographical Essay And References, Index, paperback
Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Most Canadians, I hope, have heard of the Famous Five. There are statues of them in Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and Ottawa.
These five women, although born and raised in various places, eventually all ended up living in Alberta. They were socially active and politically progressive for their time; which is a bit of an irony in that Alberta is one of the more conservative provinces in comparison with some of the others.
Emily Murphy was perhaps the most outspoken of them, and regarded as the leader. Ironically, she was appointed as a judge, even though she was not trained as a lawyer. However, she did develop significant knowledge of the law and was most instrumental in getting the Persons Case to the Privy Counsel—which ruled that women were persons under the BNA Act, and hence entitled to the same political positions as men, including to sit in the Senate. Shortly after Lord Sankey’s ruling, Prime Minister Mackenzie King, in February 1939, appointed Cairine Wilson to the Senate. Emily Murphy, deeply desiring to be appointed to the Senate, was never chosen. It was not until 1979 however, that Alberta’s first female senator was appointed by Prime Minister Joe Clark, she was Martha Bielish. In 1979, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Persons Case decision, October 18 is now observed as “Persons Day” in Canada.
All five women Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney, and Irene Parlby were committed advocates for women’s right to vote, more just legal rights for women concerning marriage, divorce, adoption, property rights, dower rights, protection of children, minimum wage agreements, widow’s allowances, and the temperance movement. Another woman and feminist who may be considered “the sixth member of the Famous Five” was Alice Jamieson, a Calgary judge.
Of the five women, three were elected to Alberta’s legislative assembly—Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby and Nellie McClung. McKinney was the first female parliamentarian in the British Empire. Irene Parlby was reluctant to become involved in politics, yet she was a well-respected MLA from 1921 to 1935.
Henrietta Muir Edwards helped in founding the National Council of Women of Canada, the Victorian Order of Nurses, and the Young Women’s Christian Association.
Nellie McClung was the author of over a dozen books, went on travelling tours promoting them, a church elder, the only female delegate at the 1938 League of Nations convention in Geneva, Switzerland, and was appointed to the first board of directors of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
There is, of course, a propensity to idealise people who are famous. However, according to Smith: “...the Famous Five were staunch supporters of eugenics.” (p. 101)
Smith has provided readers with a valuable history of the Famous Five, her Bibliographical Essay and References are most helpful for those who would like to do further reading and research—including Books by the Famous Five.