Near the beginning of the 20th century, five women would be responsible for shaping the lives of future Canadian women who would come after them. The efforts of the Famous Five, would not only allow women to be considered a “persons” and serve in Senate but help to increase women’s participation in all aspects of Canada.
Before the Famous Five made history, the early 1900s in Canada were going through a major reform. As many western provinces of Canada became more urban social problems such as alcoholism. To respond to these social issues, many women took the lead in forming organizations to help clean up society. With more women playing an active role in society, women began to desire for more political involvement.
By 1918 the majority of Canadian women who were over the age of 21 were allowed to vote in the elections. A year later, women gained the right to hold office in the House of Commons. Even with this progress, Senate was an area that remained closed off to women due to the British North America Act.
In Section 24 of the British North America Act of 1867, it stated that only “qualified persons” could participate in the Canadian government. Although the phrase “persons” would seem to include both sexes, the Canadians government recognized the word to only include males, meaning that Senate would remain off limits to women.
Suffragists were infuriated with the notion that women were considered to be not as qualified as men to possess a position in Senate. One activist, in particular, decided to take action. Emily Murphy, Alberta’s first female judge and equal rights activist, discovered that written in the Supreme Court of Canada Act, that any five people could act as one unit to petition a section of the constitution.
After uniting five of the brightest women she knew, otherwise known as, Louise Crummy McKinney, Nellie Letitia McClung, Irene Marryat Parlby, and Henrietta Muir Edwards, Emily formed the Famous Five. The petition formed by the Famous Five soon became known as the “Persons” Case.
Although the Supreme Court ruled against the petition, the Famous Five went to a higher authority, the Privy Council in England. On October 18th, 1929, Canada’s Supreme Court decision was overruled, and the Privy Council stated that women were considered as “persons.”
Not only did this group of women win the right for women to serve in Senate but they helped to eradicate any notion that women should be excluded from any public offices. The Famous Five’s determination and persistence was groundbreaking to Canada’s women’s suffrage movement.