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June from Ellen's Corner

Today I had the fun of leaving my farm home for the first time in eleven weeks! It was a doctor’s appointment that took me to town. The last time I drove that way there was ice and snow. Today it was lilac and fruit trees in full bloom. And a gentle much-needed rain was falling.

The doctor’s waiting room was empty (most unusual). The doctor appeared wearing a mask and face shield, handed me a mask with the words “we must continue to stay safe”. My introduction to “the new normal”.

Have you ever thought about the fact that as a Canadian woman you were not considered to be a “person” until 1929?

To us, in 2020 it sounds incredible. And I wonder if all the Women’s Institute members across Canada realize that the first President of the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada was a leader in the struggle to have Canadian women recognized as “persons”.

When representatives of Women’s Institutes across Canada met in Winnipeg in July 2019 they agreed that a national organization could be the voice of rural women right across Canada. The result was the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada. They elected their Officers and Mrs. Arthur Murphy from Edmonton, Alberta, became the first President. She was a well-known author using the pseudonym Janey Canuck.

Just a few years later Emily Murphy, known for her efforts to have women involved in public life, was appointed a Magistrate. When she was about to preside as a judge at her first Court proceedings, the event came to an abrupt halt. It was brought to her attention that according to the law to preside as a judge you had to be a “person” and she did not qualify!

Emily Murphy was a very determined and competent woman, very concerned about the welfare of women.

She began the struggle to ensure that women were “persons” under the law. She was appointed to the Senate but it was never confirmed by the Prime Minister for the same reason, that she was not a “person”.

She invited four more Alberta women to join her in the effort to have women recognized as “persons”. They have become known as “The Famous Five”- Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Edwards.

They worked tirelessly for the change that was needed. They lobbied, raised money, hired lawyers and went to Ottawa to meet with Government officials, only to be turned down. But they wouldn’t give up.

Canada was still one of the colonies of the British Empire and London was the seat of power. So, off to London they went to plead their case with the Privy Council. They were successful and the victory was the Persons Case Act of 1929.

“The Famous Five” led by Emily Murphy were trailblazers in the struggle for equality for women in Canada.

To me, it is amazing and fascinating that these women had the courage and determination to do what they did. It was a time when women’s place was in the home, not women who were convinced that women had to be recognized and accepted as being capable of making a valuable contribution to Society, reaching their potential and goal. Almost 100 years later there is still work to do on equality.

There is much we can learn from Judge Emily Murphy, the first President of the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada is a true role model.


Ellen McLean has been an active WI member for close to seventy years. Throughout those years, she served in many roles including President of the Women's Institutes of Nova Scotia, President of the Federated Women's Institutes of Canada (FWIC) and President of the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW). Testimony to her excellent leadership and service, Ellen received an honorary doctorate degree from St. Francis Xavier University, been inducted to the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame, received the Order of Canada as well as being the first recipient of the Adelaide Hunter Hoodless Women of the Year Award.

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