Saturday, October 20

The mothers of Canadian equality

With wheat ready for threshing and bumblebees on the delphiniums, it was "a perfect day in harvest time," said Nellie McClung, recalling the afternoon she and four other women gathered on Emily Murphy's veranda in Edmonton to sign a petition.

The issue, destined for the Supreme Court of Canada, was whether women were "persons" under the British North America Act – then, in effect, our constitution – and eligible for appointment to the Canadian Senate.

It was the Roaring Twenties and the women were decidedly out-of-sync with Flappers and the intoxicating jazz era. Few could understand why the five, particularly Murphy, who craved a Senate seat, were so determined to win the right to serve in an institution that, even then, was considered outdated and badly in need of reform.

LINK: Toronto Star.

The mothers

Ardent prohibitionists, the five were also proponents of "maternal feminism," a progressive social movement that pressed for equality of the sexes but stressed the importance of family and believed that many of society's problems, including poverty, could be solved by applying a woman's perspective.

Three of them, McClung, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby, were in their sixties. Murphy was in her late fifties.

The fifth, Henrietta Muir Edwards, was pushing 80. All had deep roots in suffragist campaigns that secured voting rights for women. Battling for entry to the Senate would be their last hurrah.

Emily Murphy a.k.a. “Janey Canuck”: Industrious, generous and at times outrageous, Murphy was born into a politically conservative family in Cookstown, north of Toronto. She took a therapeutic approach to her work as a criminal court judge, abolishing the prisoner’s dock in her courtroom and trying to create a more welcoming atmosphere for women and children. However, she was also a product of her times and held some ideas now considered xenophobic and repugnant, subscribing to the notion of sterilization for the mentally ill and linking the illicit drug trade to Chinese immigrants. Three children. Died 1933, age 65.

Nellie McClung: Born near Owen Sound, Ont., she was one of Canada’s best-known early feminists. Fought for birth control and minimum wage. Elected to Alberta Legislature as a Liberal in 1921. Married pharmacist. Five children. Died 1951, age 78.

Louise McKinney: Born Frankville, eastern Ontario. School teacher before winning seat as Alberta MPP in 1917, under pro-farmer Non Partisan League, becoming first female legislator in British Empire. Married fellow temperance advocate. One son. Died 1931, age 63.

Henrietta Muir Edwards: Born to prosperous Montreal family. Accomplished artist best known for miniature portraits. Helped found Victorian Order of Nurses. Moved west with doctor-husband, who worked on southern Alberta Indian reserves. Three children. Died 1931, age 82.

Irene Parlby: After genteel English upbringing, settled in Canada at 26 after meeting fellow Englishman on ranch holiday near Buffalo Lake, Alta. Loved gardening. Won seat for United Farmers of Alberta in 1921 election. Became second woman in British Empire to hold cabinet post. One son. Died 1965, age 97.

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