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The Famous Five are Persons ... and Senators!

For the week of Monday October 5, 2011

On October 8, 2009, the Canadian Senate celebrated the 80th anniversary of the success of the ‘Persons’ Case by naming the ‘Famous Five’ as honorary Senators. The Famous Five – Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Henrietta Muir Edwards, and Mary Irene Parlby – are remembered for their success in a 1929 court ruling that recognized women as ‘persons.’

Unveiling of a plaque honouring the Famous Five, June 1938
© LAC / C-54523
Prior to this ruling, the word ‘person’ had referred only to ‘male persons’ unless an Act of Parliament specified the inclusion of women. The Famous Five fought for women to be entitled to all the rights of ‘persons,’ including the right to be appointed to the Senate of Canada. Initially, the Supreme Court ruled against their petition, however, the highest court in the British Empire at the time (known as the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council) reversed the ruling and granted women the legal rights of ‘persons!’

While the recognition of women as ‘persons’ allowed women to sit in the Senate, none of the Famous Five ever held the position. The first female Senator was Cairine Wilson, who was appointed in 1930 by then-Prime Minister Mackenzie King, a mere year after the success of the ‘Persons’ Case. Of the Five, Emily Murphy had particularly sought the appointment of Senator but was overlooked when, in 1930, then-Prime Minister R.B. Bennett instead appointed Patrick Burns.

The “Women Are Persons!” statue commemorating the Famous Five in Ottawa 
©Courtesy of the Famous 5 Foundation

In 1938, then-Prime Minister Mackenzie King unveiled a plaque in the Senate chamber commemorating the Famous Five and their significant political and constitutional victory for Canadian women. However, it was not until 2009 that the Senate voted to officially name the women as honorary senators. The idea came from Calgary journalist Catherine Ford, who initially suggested the appointment in 1997. In 2009, the motion was brought forward by Senator Ethel Cochrane and 10 days before the 80th anniversary of their triumph the Famous Five became the first Canadian women to receive honorary appointment as Senators. This posthumous appointment is particularly exciting as it marks a dream come true for Emily Murphy, who unfortunately passed away in 1933 without seeing her hope of becoming a Senator realized.

In addition to their honorary appointment, Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Mary Irene Parlby and Henrietta Muir Edwards have been nationally commemorated for their contributions to the women’s movement for social reform. In 1997, the ‘Persons’ Case was designated an event of national significance. For a more detailed account of the ‘Persons’ Case, visit the archived This Week in History article titled: Women Are Persons... Aren't They?  Other stories on the Famous Five include: Birthday of Activist Emily Murphy, "The Woman's Minister", Winnipeg Women Hold "Mock" Parliament, One of Five But Not The Least! and A Person of Principle.

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