Famous 5 Foundation: The Famous Five: The Women

Originally posted by the Famous 5 Foundation.

Emily Murphy. Nellie McClung. Henrietta Muir Edwards. Louise McKinney. Irene Parlby.

These five Albertan women were drawn together by the tides of history and a shared idealism. Each was a true leader in her own right: one a police magistrate, another a legal expert who founded the National Council for Women, and three served as Members of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta. And they did all this before they were even fully defined as "persons" under Canadian and British law.

Separately, these five women were champions of the rights and welfare of women and children. They worked hard and courageously in the face of the prejudices and resistance of the day. Together, they formed an unstoppable force that changed the world for women in Canada and in all Commonwealth countries.

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.

— Emily Murphy

1868, Cookstown, ON – 1933, Edmonton, AB

A prominent suffragist, reformer and writer, Emily Murphy (born Emily Gowan Ferguson) became the first female magistrate in the British Empire in 1916. Before that, she championed the right of wives to share ownership in their husband’s property — giving them and their children security in case of abandonment. Her efforts helped create The Married Women’s Protective Act, passed in Alberta in 1911. Her tireless activism as judge and advocate of social welfare for women and children earned Emily widespread respect across the nation.

This led to many organizations and individuals calling for her appointment to the Senate. This was not possible, however, because the federal government deemed that women were not “qualified persons” as required for Senate appointments. But Emily was a tough, no nonsense woman who never backed down from a fight... In fact, one of her trademark quotes was “Whenever I don’t know whether to fight or not, I fight.” Naturally, she saw the Senate issue as an injustice against all women. So she enlisted the help of four equally brilliant and determined women to challenge this unfair bias.

Emily Murphy died suddenly in her sleep in 1933 at the age of 65. Though she won an important victory for women’s rights throughout the British Empire, she never realized her dream of becoming a Senator.

Emily was a product of the white English Victoria era and whilst being dedicated to making changes to improve life particularly for women, she opposed changes others were bringing. She advocated sterilization as a way to lessen the struggle for survival but then when others advocated it be used to control races, she agreed with this idea.

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.

— Louise McKinney

1868, Frankville, ON – 1931, Claresholm, AB

Louise McKinney (born Louise Crummy) was a lifelong organizer and staunch supporter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The WCTU was a worldwide organization that sought to protect women and children, particularly by eliminating what they saw as the destructive influence of alcohol.

Determined, hardworking and outspoken, Louise’s activism helped give women the right to vote in Alberta, and led to the Prohibition of alcohol in 1916 (which was later repealed in 1923). She also championed the first Dower Act in Alberta — a bill that gave women the right to prevent the sale or mortgage of their homes without their knowledge.

In 1917, Louise was elected as an Independent to the Alberta Legislature. This made her the first woman elected to sit as a Member of any Legislative Assembly in the British Empire.

Whilst an MLA, she urged the adoption of social welfare measures for immigrants and widows. Louise was defeated in 1921 and became one of four women to sign the Basis of Union which created the United Church of Canada.

If women had the vote there would be no need to come twice asking for better legislation for women and children.

— Henrietta Muir Edwards

1849, Montreal, QC – 1931, Fort MacLeod, AB

The eldest of the Famous Five, Henrietta Muir Edwards (born Henrietta Louise Muir), 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 — an organization that continues, to this day, to work to improve the quality of life for women, families and society.

Thoughtful, caring and determined, Henrietta believed, among other things, that women should not be slaves to fashion as it distracted from more important goals. She steadfastly refused to wear corsets. In addition to her work with the NCWC, she published Canada’s first women’s magazine and established the prototype for the Canadian YWCA. She also helped found the Victorian Order of Nurses in 1897.

Together with her husband, Dr. Oliver Edwards, Henrietta lived on several reservations in Saskatchewan and Alberta and in recognition for her wise and compassionate advice, she was given the name, Otter Woman.

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.

— Irene Parlby

1868, London, England – 1965, Red Deer, AB

An aristocratic English woman who became a Western Canadian farmer’s wife, Irene Parlby (born Mary Irene Marryat) was a firm advocate for rural farm women of Alberta. She organized and became the first President of the United Farm Women’s Association in 1916.

Elegant, charming and quietly determined, Irene was a reluctant politician. Nevertheless, she was elected to the Alberta Legislature in 1921 as a member of the governing United Farmers of Alberta party. She became the first female cabinet minister in Alberta (and the second in the entire British Empire) but was not given a portfolio because of misogyny. Nonetheless, Irene persuaded the Minister of Health to establish traveling medical clinics, the Minister of Education to create distance learning and other Ministers to make significant changes or bring in new programmes for rural Albertans; thus becoming known as the Minister of Cooperation.

In 1930, she was asked by Prime Minister R.B. Bennett to stand as one of three Canadian delegates to the League of Nations meeting in Geneva.

Canada is destined to be one of the great nations of the world and Canadian women must be ready for citizenship.

— Nellie McClung

1873, Chatsworth, ON – 1951, Victoria, BC

Nellie McClung (born Nellie Letitia Mooney) was a novelist, reformer, journalist, and suffragist. Feisty and charismatic, Nellie had a way of winning over opponents with her wit and humour. But beneath that charm was an iron determination. She led the fight to enfranchise North American women, and her efforts led to Manitoba becoming the first province to grant women the right to vote and run for office in 1916.

Her move westward to Alberta naturally coincided with both Alberta and Saskatchewan granting women the right to vote soon afterwards. Nellie became a Liberal MLA for Edmonton (1921–1926) where she often worked with Irene Parlby (despite representing different political parties) on issues affecting women and children. Nellie was the first female Director of the Board of the Governors of the CBC where she advocated for women to become the active professionals and not just the assistants to the decision-makers. In 1938, she was chosen as a delegate to the League of Nations in Geneva and was one of few Canadians advocating for suffrage for Asian Canadians. Like other progressives, Nellie also supported the idea of sterilization to make life easier and no doubt would be appalled at how it evolved.

Original article can be found here.