In 1929, Five Albertans Broke Barriers for Women in Canada


It was only on October 18, 1929 that judges allowed women to be named to the Canadian Senate.

The constitution of the country at the time - the British North America Act of 1867 - said that only "persons" could be named to the Senate. At the time, only men met this definition, even if Canadian women had been able to be candidates in federal elections since 1919.

In 1927, five Albertan women, led by Emily Murphy, decided to try to change the situation. They asked the Supreme Court of Canada to examine the legal meaning of the word "persons", arguing that it should include women. The court said it did not.

The five women challenged the decision before Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, England. At that time, the Committee was the highest court when it came to challenging decisions of Canadian courts. On October 18, 1929, the Council decided in favour of the women.

Four months after the groundbreaking decision, Cairine Wilson became the first female senator in Canadian history. The women involved in the case - Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby and Nellie McClung - became known as the "Famous Five" - without ever becoming senators!

To learn more about the so-called "Persons Case", visit the website of the Library and Archives Canada.


Photo: 1938 unveiling of a plaque in honour of the "Famous Five" (Front row, from left to right): Mrs. Muir Edwards, daughter-in-law of Henrietta Muir Edwards: Mrs. J.C. Kenwood, daughter of Judge Emily Murphy; Rt. Hon. MacKenzie King. Prime Minister of Canada; Mrs. Nellie McClung (Rear row, left to right): Senators Iva Campbell Fallis, Cairine Wilson