From “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 this year on Aug. 26 — a date known since 1970 as Women’s Equality Day.

Meanwhile, the 27th of August marked 93 years since Canada’s “Famous Five” — 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 — embarked on a case that would have women deemed “persons” under the law and, thus, be able to serve as Senators.

And Oct. 18 — Persons Day — commemorates the 91st anniversary of the day in 1929 when Canada’s highest court of appeal legally enshrined women as “persons” under law.

The government of Canada notes that, “This gave some women the right to be appointed to the Senate of Canada and paved the way for women’s increased participation in public and political life. Though this decision did not include all women, such as Indigenous women and women of Asian heritage and descent, it did mark critical progress in the advancement of gender equality in Canada.”

It wasn’t long after the Persons Case that Canada appointed its first female senator — only four months, in fact. In February, 1930, 45-year-old Montreal-born Cairine Wilson became Canada’s first female senator. As the government of Canada notes, Wilson “distinguished herself as an advocate for human rights, speaking out against Hitler and arranging to bring Jewish orphans to Canada,” during the Second World War before going on to serve as Canada’s first delegate to the United Nations (1949) and Canada’s first female Deputy Speaker of the Senate (1955).  She also co-founded and served as president of the National Federation of Liberal Women of Canada, among her many accomplishments.

Meanwhile, the Honourable Dr. Lillian Eva Quan Dyck became Canada’s first female First Nations senator in 2005, serving her home province of Saskatchewan until August of this year. In fact, while Dyck is a member of the Cree Gordon First Nation on her mother’s side, her father is Chinese, which also makes her the first Canadian-born person of Chinese descent to become a Canadian senator.     


Why Persons Matter


The Famous Five’s legacy is that no political office in this country is closed to woman — the PMO included. And, of course, Canada has 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 just 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, 52, has already achieved the closest Canadian equivalent to vice president. And with her appointment to Finance Minister this past August — 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.


Representation Matters


Of course, it’s not just Canadian women continuing to break political glass ceilings. 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.

Harris, though, 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.