Did you know that in Canada women didn’t always count as people? Straight up. It sounds insane, but until 1928 (Think about that, guys. 1928. My grandparents were alive. Maybe not yours. I’m kind of ‘old’ now. BUT STILL.) under the British North America Act, women did not legally qualify as “persons” and so could not hold positions in the Senate or attend certain court hearings or do a lot of different things that “people” (read: men) were allowed to do without any problems. Straight up according to the law, women were “eligible for pains and penalties, but not rights and privileges.” Guyyyys our constitution said we were not allowed to have rights! We could serve a jail sentence but damned if we were going to get to issue one, you know what I’m saying?
I hope you’re mad about it. If you are, it makes you almost as badass as this week’s group of badass women from history. Emily Murphy, Irene Marryat Parlby, Nellie Mooney Mclung, Louise Crummy McKinney, and Henrietta Muir Edwards were, between them: women’s rights activists, the British Empire’s first female judge, suffragettes, Alberta’s first female cabinet minister, accomplished authors, farm owners, mothers, and You KNOW these ladies were badass because they had TWO cool Fantastic-Four type nicknames—either “The Famous Five” or “The Valiant Five” depending on which books you read. Whatever the nickname, the five of them decided this exclusionary definition of personhood was full cray and fought to change it. They decided this over a tea party, duh.
The ladies brought their case to the Supreme Court after petitioning the federal government to no avail. While the Supreme Court conceded that women were people in a general sense (very big of them), to the concept of women in the Senate they were like, “no thanks.” Can we keep in mind that the official head of state at this time had very recently been the Queen? As in HER Majesty?? Victoria?? Anyone?! Nobody seemed to notice or care though, and the Supreme Court took a reaaaal “please ladies, calm down, do you need a fainting couch” stance. Undaunted, the women appealed the case.
The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, to whom the case was appealed, had a little more sense in them. The Lord Chancellor Viscount Sankey (real name) ruled that OF COURSE women count not only as “people” but as “qualified people,” saying: “to those who ask why the word should include females, the obvious answer is why should it not?” Preach, Lord Chancellor Viscount Sankey, PREACH. Canada’s first female member of Senate, Cairine Reay Wilson, was appointed four months after the original ruling was overturned.
While the individual beliefs of some of the women themselves leave something to be desired (eeeeek Emily Murphy, what is UP with your interest in sterilization for population control/borderline eugenics??), the Famous Five established a legal precedent for women in all roles of Canadian government, and illustrated the power of a group dedicated to a worthy task. A statue of the five remains on Parliament Hill as a reminder of their achievements, and terrifying debates about women’s bodies in the upcoming American presidential race will serve as a reminder of how much of their work still needs to be continued. #justsayin
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