Visionaries of the West – The Famous Five



By Debbie MacRae

Welcome to our inaugural blog, honoring the Trail Blazers of our past. The Wild West has an infamous history synonymous with cowboys, horses, daring courage, conflict, outlaws, law-makers and law-breakers. Woven into this tapestry of the “wild” are many intriguing characters. Many men and equally intriguing, women of the west, forged through many barriers to create the country of Canada we now call home.

Interestingly enough, it was only 90 years ago that women in Canada were not considered to be “persons.” This is why we kick off our Trail Blazers blog segment with a tribute to the Famous Five (also called \”The Valiant Five\”) – a group of Canadian women\’s rights activists that included Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby.

In 1917, the Supreme Court of Alberta ruled that women were persons, but when Emily Murphy put her name forward as a candidate for Canadian Senator, the Canadian Prime Minister at the time, Robert Borden, rejected a petition of nearly 500,000 Canadians, stating he could not, on the basis of an 1876 British common law ruling that stated that “women were eligible for pains and penalties, but not rights and privileges.”

Enter the Famous Five. It took another ten years but on August 27, 1927, Emily Murphy asked four other prominent Alberta women to join her in a petition to the federal government on the issue of women’s status. Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, and Henrietta Muir Edwards joined Emily at her house for tea. That site would later become part of the campus of the University of Alberta.

The question posed was: Does the word “Persons” in section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867, include female persons? The matter became known as the “Persons” Case.

It was debated on March 14, 1928, with the Supreme Court of Canada eventually ruling that women were not “qualified persons” as it related to Section 24 of the BNA Act. Mary Ellen Smith (the first woman to ever be elected to legislature in British Columbia), reacted to the news by saying, \”The iron dropped into the souls of women in Canada when we heard that it took a man to decree that his mother was not a person.”


The Famous Five, undaunted, appealed to the Privy Council in England, the only authority higher than the Supreme Court of Canada. On October 18, 1929, only 88 years ago, Lord Sankey arrived to a packed London courtroom to declare that women were indeed persons and, as a result, could become Senators. He went on further to state, “The exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours.”

In 1921, Irene Parlby was elected to the Alberta Legislature for the riding of Lacombe, holding the riding for 14 years. Appointed as minister without portfolio, she was the first woman Cabinet minister in Alberta. She would become the first president of the United Farm Women of Alberta, which organization would initiate changes in legislation affecting credit for young farmers and ranchers, initiate mothers’ allowances and widows’ pensions for farmers and ranchers, and develop provincial departments of health, municipal hospitals, Farm Young People’s week at the U of A, and Farm Women’s Week at Olds Agricultural College, not to mention the first Egg and Poultry Pool established in Canada.

Henrietta Muir Edwards was an artist as well as a legal expert. Women and men alike often came to her for help with legal issues affecting women and children. In 1893, she helped found the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC) — an organization that continues, to this day, to work to improve the quality of life for women, families and society. In addition to her work with the NCWC, she published Canada’s first women’s magazine and established the Canadian YWCA.

Nellie McClung was active in many organizations. She founded the Winnipeg Political Equality League and the Federated Women\’s Institutes of Canada—\”the largest adult education movement in Canada\”—and the Women\’s Institute of Edmonton, of which she was the first president. She was active in the Canadian Authors\’ Association, the Canadian Women\’s Press Club, the Methodist Church of Canada, the Calgary Women\’s Literary Club, among others.

She sat as a Liberal member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta from 1921 to 1926, in opposition to the government of the United Farmers of Alberta. Her opportunity to press for women\’s rights was limited at this time because women were not taken seriously.

Louise McKinney was a Canadian politician and women\’s rights activist from Alberta, Canada. She was the first woman sworn into the Legislative Assembly of Alberta and the first woman elected to a legislature in the British Empire. She served in the Alberta legislature from 1917 to 1921 as a member of the Non-Partisan League. (It was later that she became one of the Famous Five). A former schoolteacher and temperance organizer, she came to Alberta in 1903 as a homesteader.

Emily Murphy was a Canadian women\’s rights activist, jurist, and author. In 1916, she became the first female magistrate in Canada, and in the British Empire.

With the Famous Five, we introduce to you to a compilation of stories, intrigue, courage and historical fact woven by the captivating characters of our western past in our Trail Blazers feature.


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