Little Bits of History

August 27

Posted in History by patriciahysell on August 27, 2017

1927: The Famous Five file a petition. Also known as the Valiant Five, Emily Murphy, Irene Marryat Parlby, Nellie Mooney McClung, Louise Crummy McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards, were women’s rights activists from Alberta, Canada. They posed a question regarding the British North America Act, 1867. This act, also called the Constitution Act, was and remains a major portion of Canada’s Constitution. It defined the operation of the Government and federal structure which included the House of Commons and the Senate as well as the justice system and taxation procedures. Under Part IV “Legislative Power” was a section on how senators would be placed into office.

The Governor General of Canada held the power to make normal senatorial appointments. Today, this is done with only with the advice of the prime minister. Prior to 1965, an appointment was for life but today, they must retire at age 75. There are 96 seats in the senate, apportioned by province in the Act. What the five women wanted to learn was the definition of a particular word in Section 24. They asked, “Does the word ‘Persons’ in Section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867, include female persons?” Their petition was filed with the Canadian Supreme Court on this day.

The Supreme Court gave their unanimous decision on April 24, 1928. They believed that “Person” did not, in fact, include women in this instance. The last line of their judgment read, “Understood to mean ‘Are women eligible for appointment to the Senate of Canada,’ the question is answered in the negative.” The women were not pleased with this announcement. Murphy had been advocating for women’s rights since 1916 and she gathered her partners in activism together for this question. In Canada, the federal government has the power to refer questions to the Court for clarification. The Court decided, but at the time, they were not the final arbiters of the question.

The next step was for the case to be brought on appeal before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. This was the court of last resort for the British Empire. The names were listed in alphabetical order, so it is Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General) but it is more famously known as the Persons Case. The committee found a different meaning of the word and Lord Chancellor, Viscount Sankey’s determination was that women were, in a broad sense, persons. With this reversal, it was now possible for women to become Senators. None of the five original women were ever posted to that seat, but on October 8, 2009 the Senate voted to make all five of them “honorary senators”. The first female senator came from Quebec and was Cairine Reay Wilson, appointed four months after the ruling which came down on October 18, 1929.

Women have been taught that, for us, the earth is flat, and that if we venture out, we will fall off the edge. – Andrea Dworkin

Women belong in the house – and the Senate. – Author unknown

Feminism is the radical notion that women are people. – Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler

I ask no favors for my sex…. All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks. – Sarah Moore Grimké



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