This Week in History


Canada's First Female MP

For the week of Monday March 22, 2004

On March 24, 1890, Agnes Campbell Macphail was born in a small log cabin in Grey County, Ontario. Known for her intelligence, quick wit and sharp tongue, Agnes led an active life and dreamed of a career as a schoolteacher. As debates with men on government policies opened her eyes, she turned towards a career in politics.

Agnes Campbell Macphail, MP
© LAC / PA-127295
The 1918 Women's Franchise Act granted women the right to vote in federal elections and was followed in 1919 by another act permitting women to sit in Parliament. In 1921 four daring females entered the general election. On December 6, 1921, the men and women of South East Grey made Canadian history by electing the first female Member of Parliament (MP) – Agnes Macphail!

Agnes quickly proved she was a strong woman capable of representing the voters. She devoted her early political career to the plight of rural farmers and engrossed herself in political organizations such as the United Farmers of Ontario. She briefly sat as a member of the Progressive Party before becoming an independent MP. Agnes was outspoken in the cause of peace, disarmament, penal reform and equal rights. She was also the first woman appointed to the Disarmament Committee of the League of Nations.

Agnes Macphail and Eamon Park, Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) Members of the Provincial Parliament
© LAC / PA-120742
Agnes' stay in the House of Commons lasted 19 years, from her election in 1921 until her defeat in 1940. Many of her fellow members greeted her arrival on Parliament Hill with curiosity and resentment. She was doubly isolated as a woman and a radical agrarian. The press focused more on her appearance than her speeches and branded her an "austere, sharp-tongued spinster." She was elected to the Ontario legislature in 1943 and served periodically for the next few years as an independent and a representative of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) despite failing health. During this period, she was responsible for Ontario's first equal pay for equal work legislation in 1951. Her defeat in 1951 was the final blow. She became depressed and was unable to maintain her active lifestyle.

On February 11, 1954, Agnes Macphail suffered a heart attack in Toronto. She died before the announcement of her appointment to the Canadian Senate. Men and women all over Canada mourned the vivacious and outspoken former MP – privately and in print. For her role as the first female Member of Parliament, Agnes Campbell Macphail was designated a person of national historic significance in 1985.

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