Tag: Famous Five

The Cost of the Vote


Monday was voting day in Canada, our 43rd general election since Confederation in 1867. I voted on a miserable, stormy day and gave thanks for the privilege. As Sir Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest. 

2019 is also the 90th anniversary of the “persons case” in which women were declared by the Privy Council of Great Britain to be legal persons in Canada, and therefore entitled to election to the parliament.

In the 21st century it is hard to imagine that women could be declared legally non-persons, but such were the prejudices and self-interest of men. In fact, throughout history, power has had to be wrested from one class to the next.  The barons  of England gained power from the king with Magna Carta, but they wouldn’t share with the commoners until forced. Those with land wouldn’t share power with renters, until forced. Whites wouldn’t share with Indigenous peoples and men wouldn’t admit women to the halls of power, until ordered to do so.

Canada derives its parliamentary system from Britain, so the history of the UK shaped our own.

Even in the US, founded on the principles of freedom and “no taxation without representation,” the founding fathers conceived the Electoral College as a way to keep the “riff raff” from having too much power.

 It seems everyone who champions the cause of democracy, changes sides when they have something to lose. 

But the human spirit is stronger than politics.  Men and women insist on being part of the process, not mere subjects commanded by the whim of a monarch. Every time I mark the X on my ballot, it tip my hat to those who fought for that right.

  I especially raise a teacup to the women who suffered ridicule, slander, incarceration and the torture of force feeding, that I might have a say in my country’s government.  Thank you famous five, and all the others who worked to secure my rights.

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Women as Persons

Following last week’s light hearted look at marriage proposals, I found myself exploring the whole question of property, wages, suffrage and marriage in Canada.  I got mad!  Then, this morning the CBC news announced that women’s income compared to their male counterparts is, in fact, going backward.  In 2015 women earned 72¢ for every $1.00 earned by men.  In 2009 the number was 75¢.

Why?  Because “women’s work” is paid on a lower scale than “men’s work” and because women provide the majority of unpaid labour in our society.   For centuries women have petitioned, marched, struck, gone to jail and appealed to the courts to redress the unequal treatment of the sexes.  A few months ago Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed a gender-balanced Cabinet because, he famously announced, “it’s 2015.”

Yet, here we are in 2016 and the problem of  disparity persists.  Hardly surprising since,  for centuries the subservient position of women was legislated in the law of the land.

For example, a married woman in  pre-Confederation Canada in 1859 could own property, but she could not sell it without her husband’s consent.  In 1871 Manitoba passed a law “allowing” a woman to keep her property, but her wages belonged to her husband.

Perhaps the most ludicrous example of this type of thinking was the question of whether women were “persons under the law.”

In 1876 a British common law ruling stated that “women are persons in matters of pains and penalties, but are not persons in matters of rights and privileges.”  Nice eh?  Women can go to jail but they can’t go to parliament.  Since Canada’s law is founded on English law, the ruling applied here too.

1883 Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald introduced a bill into parliament to grant the right to vote to unmarried women and widows provided they owned property.  The bill failed.

In 1885 The Dominion Franchise Act defined an eligible voter as a male person.  It also included the proviso that ,  “a man can vote if he or his wife own property; she is responsible for the property tax.”  Here we go again.  She pays the penalties (taxes) he gets the privileges.

During the decade 1890-1900, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and Quebec all introduced bills giving women the vote in provincial elections.  The bills were all defeated.

The situation came to a head in 1917 when Emily Murphy, a qualified lawyer, was denied a position on the bench because her opposition claimed she was not a “legally defined person.”  It is this moment that galvanizes Murphy and her supporters into ultimately forming  the “famous five.”

In August, 1927 Emily Murphy, invited four women, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards and Louise Crummy McKinney, to her house to consider petitioning the Supreme Court for a decision on the question of whether women are persons according to the British North America Act of (1867).

When they brought their case, the government petitioned the Supreme Court of Canada to answer the question, “Does the word ‘persons’ in Section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867, include female persons?”  The case was argued on March 14, 1928, Emily Murphy’s 60th birthday.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a woman is not a “qualified person.”

In 1929 , Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards and Louise Crummy McKinney , took their case to The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England (Canada’s final Court of Appeal at the time).  The Privy Council overturned the decision of the Canadian Supreme Court and recognized Canadian women as “persons” under the law.

Finally, we got the “rights and privileges” of a citizen, not just the “pains and penalties!”

But women must keep vigilant.  As one court rules in our favour, another may rule against.  Given that we have centuries of a patriarchal system as our heritage, women’s rights is “new” in our culture.  It is fragile and must be nourished.  Yesterday was International Women’s Day.  It is telling that we still need a “day.”

Let us honour our foremothers by keeping vigilant, by shining a light on inequality, and by performing our civic duties with diligence and gratitude.

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Monday was election day in Canada and I happily took myself off to the polling station and exercised my right to vote for my member of parliament.  As I did so, I remembered my grandmother, one of the first generation of Canadian women to win the vote.  Imagine, she’d taught school, personally known Sir John A. MacDonald,, helped her husband pioneer on a farm in Northern Ontario, born ten children, sent a son to fight in Flanders Fields and she was deemed unfit to chose her government.  In our modern age such a situation seems incredible.  Roughly 30% of eligible voters didn’t bother to mark a ballot this time around.  My grandmother would shake her finger at them and say, “shame on you.”

My grandmother got the right to vote partially through the efforts of the Famous Five, a group of five women who took their demand to be considered “persons” under the law all the way to the Privy Council in Britain.  They had been denied by the Supreme Court of Canada, but the Privy Council agreed that women were in fact, persons, and as such must be treated equally with men under the law.

Apart from the right to vote, and the right to run for parliament,  this change in the understanding of the BNA Act had far reaching effects on women’s rights of ownership, finances, family, children, divorce and education.  The famous five didn’t end their activism with suffrage.  After they were declared “persons” they worked on many causes including mother’s allowances,  better education for their children,  free medical and dental care for school children, and equal pay for equal work.

One of the Famous Five was Nellie Mooney McLung.  My grandmother claimed kinship with Nellie because of the shared Mooney name.  I have a cousin who has done extensive work on our family tree and even she has been unable to unearth a connection between our family and Nellie’s but Grandmother claimed there was a spiritual connection even if she couldn’t find one by blood.

So, as I cast my vote I say thanks to Nellie and her compatriots who campaigned so tirelessly for the rights of women and I say thanks to my grandmother who instilled in all her many descendants the privileges and duties of citizenship.  This one’s for you, Gramma.

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