From The Right to Vote and “The Famous Five” to Today, Women Are Still Shattering Political Glass Ceilings

Famous Five

Nellie McClung, member of The Famous Five, between circa 1905 and 1922. Photo: National Archives of Canada

A century ago, the fight for gender equality was in full swing on both sides of the border. In the U.S., women gained the right to vote 100 years ago today (Aug. 26) — known since 1970 as Women’s Equality Day. Meanwhile, tomorrow marks 93 years since Canada’s “Famous Five” would embark on a case that saw women deemed “persons” under the law and able to serve as Senators.

They were heady days. A century later, women are still fighting and marking firsts in the political arena.

Stateside, 55 year-old Kamala Harris stands poised to become the first female American Vice President, should she and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden win in the November election  — an election Harris, an African and South Asian American, may have faced barriers simply voting in just 55 ago.

While women were added to the American electorate with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, African-American women continued to face everything from lengthy voter registration to special constitutional testing and even the threat of arrest for registering to vote in parts of the American South. It wasn’t until 1965 — during the height of the American civil rights movement — that the Voting Rights Act was passed, making racial discrimination against voters illegal.

 

Representation Matters

 

Harris is no stranger to firsts. A prosecutor by trade, she was California’s first woman of colour elected as attorney general in 2010. Then, in 2016, she was elected Senator of Illinois and became the first South Asian American to serve in the Senate. Now she is the first African-American, the first Asian-American and only the third female vice presidential running mate on a major party ticket in history.

Of course, here in Canada we’ve had a woman at the top — even if it did feel like the briefest of political moments — with Kim Campbell in June of 1993 taking over as PC party leader and prime minister from the outgoing Brian Mulroney. Her claim on the top job was short-lived, though, as her party was defeated in a federal election six months later.

But if any woman can once again ascend, Chrystia Freeland — Minister of Everything, as she’s been dubbed by media — is surely our next hope.

As deputy prime minister, Freeland, 55, has already achieved the closest Canadian equivalent to vice president. And with her recent appointment to Finance Minister — the first woman to hold the cabinet position — she’s in a very good position for a run at the top spot. In fact, there’s precedence for it — Charles Tupper, R. B. Bennett, John Turner, Jean Chrétien, and Paul Martin all became prime minister after previously serving as minister of finance.

 

Why Persons Matter

 

The Famous Five, meanwhile, filed their petition to see women deemed “persons,” and thus able to serve in the Canadian Senate, with the Supreme Court on August 27, 1927. The five women were: Emily Murphy, the British Empire’s first female judge; Irene Marryat Parlby, political activist and first female Cabinet minister in Alberta; Nellie Mooney McClung, a suffragist, author and member of the Alberta Legislature; Louise Crummy McKinney, the first woman elected to the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, or any legislature in the British Empire; and Henrietta Muir Edwards, author and a founding member of the Victorian Order of Nurses.

Their legacy is that no political office in this country is closed to woman — the PMO included. And who knows, on the centenary of that landmark case maybe we’ll see another woman at the helm. Someone has to come second in the record books, after all.