I’ve walked past these five statues at Olympic Plaza in Calgary many times, often stopping to greet them or take a photo with them, but until today I never really asked myself who these women were, and why they were memorialized.
Well, come to find out, these Valiant Five (aka Famous Five) women were fighting some of the same battles that women fight today, though, thankfully, some of the battles have been won, by these women and by those who followed in their footsteps. Most assuredly, women are considered “persons” now, though in 1927, in law, they were not considered so in Canada.
The Valiant Five (Célèbres cinq) were five Alberta women memorialized for asking 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 five women created a petition to ask this question. They sought to have women legally considered persons so that women could be appointed to the Senate. The petition was filed on August 27, 1927, and on April 24, 1928, Canada’s Supreme Court summarized its unanimous decision that women are not such “persons.”
The last line of the judgement reads, “Understood to mean ‘Are women eligible for appointment to the Senate of Canada,’ the question is answered in the negative.” The judgment was overturned by the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council on October 18, 1929, in a case known as the “Persons Case.” Although Canadian women (white British/Canadian citizens) had the vote in many provinces and in federal elections by 1929, the case was part of a continent-wide drive for political equality, coming seven years after women’s suffrage in the United States through the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and thus had important ramifications not just for women’s rights but also because in ruling in favor of the appellants, the Privy Council engendered a radical change in the Canadian judicial approach to the Canadian constitution, an approach that has come to be known as the “living tree doctrine,” a doctrine of constitutional interpretation that says that a constitution is organic and must be read in a broad and progressive manner so as to adapt it to the changing times.
The Valiant Five were:
- Emily Murphy (1868–1933) (the British Empire’s first female judge);
- Irene Marryat Parlby (1868–1965) (farm women’s leader, political activist, and first female Cabinet minister in Alberta, still serving in that capacity at the time of the court case);
- Nellie Mooney McClung (1873–1951) (a suffragist, author, and member of the Alberta Legislature, 1921-1926);
- Louise Crummy McKinney (1868–1931) (who had been the first woman elected to the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, or any legislature in Canada or the rest of the British Empire) but no longer MLA at the time of the court case;
- Henrietta Muir Edwards (1849–1931) (an advocate for working women, author, and a founding member of the Victorian Order of Nurses).
Louise McKinney: “What, after all, is the purpose of a woman’s life? The purpose of a woman’s life is just the same as the purpose of a man’s life: that she may make the best possible contribution to the generation in which she is living.”
Henrietta Muir Edwards: “If women had the vote there would be no need to come twice asking for better legislation for women and children, no need to come again and again for the appointment of women inspectors where women and children are employed; we would not ask in vain for the raising of the wage or consent.”
Emily Murphy: “I believe that never was a country better adapted to produce a great race of women than this Canada of ours, nor a race of women better adapted to make a great country.”
Nellie McClung: “If politics mean…the effort to secure through legislative action better conditions of life for the people, greater opportunities for our children and other people’s children…then it most assuredly is a woman’s job as much as it is a man’s job.”: “Canada is destined to be one of the great nations of the world and Canadian women must be ready for citizenship.”
Irene Parlby: “If politics mean…the effort to secure through legislative action better conditions of life for the people, greater opportunities for our children and other people’s children…then it most assuredly is a woman’s job as much as it is a man’s job.”
Opinions regarding the Valiant/Famous Five vary. Many laud them as trailblazers for women. Others, while acknowledging the same, are disturbed by the opinions of some of the women on other issues, such as non-white immigration and their successful campaigns to have eugenics legislation introduced in Canadian provinces.
The five women were activists in a variety of areas in their pursuit to better the conditions for women and children. Emily Murphy dealt with single mothers and issues of child support, child welfare, and adoption by lobbying for women’s rights. Nellie McClung favored free medical and dental treatment for school children as well as mothers’ allowances and better property rights for women. She was open to divorce and birth control but opposed the sale and use of liquor. Louise McKinney believed strongly in the “evils of alcohol” and pushed to enact prohibition measures. She supported reasonable measures for social welfare and health as well as introducing bills intended to make prohibition more effective, to improve the lot of immigrants and bring better security to widows. Irene Parlby in her position as cabinet minister in Alberta pursued these goals expressed by McKinney. Henrietta Edwards worked with property law and sought to protect women and children.
Agree or not with each of their individual pursuits and beliefs, I think we can still acknowledge them as the trailblazers we needed at the time, and whom we might emulate in many respects today.
I salute you, ladies.