How Women Became Persons in Canada

By: Grace Smith
In Canada, we generally state that the year women officially won suffrage was 1921, but this is not true. The road to women’s rights and opportunities concerning politics in Canada has a long and tumultuous history, in which  women of colour were often excluded and neglected. First, women of colour were not permitted to vote in federal elections until the late 1940s, and Aboriginal women until 1960. Also, while (some) women had the right to vote in the federal election, they were not legally considered persons until almost a decade later. From this issue spawned the Famous Five and “The Persons Case”, which legally established women as people under Canadian law.
At the time, as stated by Canada’s Constitution, only “qualified persons” could hold positions in the Senate. So while women were allowed to vote and hold positions in the House of Commons, they were not legally considered persons under law and could not be appointed to one of the highest positions in the Canadian government. This problem was first tackled by five Canadian women after Emily Murphy, a pioneer for women in Canadian politics, was barred from being elected to the Senate. With the hard work of herself, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Edwards, Louise McKinney, and Irene Parbly, the Famous Five  took what became known as “The Persons Case” to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1927.
Over the course of a year the case was heard,arguing that women should be granted the same legal acknowledgement and political opportunities as men. Finally in 1928, over a year of deliberation, the court ruled not in their favour and Canadian women continued to be labelled as second class citizens unworthy of the label “person”.
Despite this ruling the Famous Five refused to rest and appealed to the highest court in Canada. On October 28th, 1929, the highest court in Canada ruled in favour of the Famous Five, and legally declared Canadian women “persons”. Furthering their victory, the courtman who declared the ruling stated “the exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours” (famou5 foundation). This marked an important shift in the perception of women in North American society. While there was still much opposition and further work to be done, society was beginning to respect the important role of women and allow them to become influential members throughout Canada.
Less than a year after this important court ruling, Canada’s first female senator was appointed to office. The Honourable Cairine Mackay Wilson took her seat February 30th, 1930 and proceeded to serve both domestically and internationally with the Canadian government until her death in 1962. Although she was not a member of the Famous Five, during her first speech in office she thanked these important women for all they had done for Canadian women in government.
The Famous Five and “The Persons Case” were not just an important part of women’s history, but also of Canadian history. Without these women and this ruling, women would have continually been barred from office, which would only be reflected in societal treatment of women. Without people like Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Edwards, Louise McKinney, and Irene Parbly, Canadian women today would not enjoy the basic rights and freedom all persons deserve.



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