History Series: Women's Suffrage & the Persons Case

It has been a long battle for women to be seen as equals, and we are still fighting for equal opportunities and fare wages. In the 1800’s women fought for their right to vote in federal elections, but amendments were written by men in such a fashion to prevent this right. Women’s right to vote started slowly; in some provinces, in local elections and often only if the woman owned property. In 1918, White women gained the right to vote in federal elections, with provincial stipulations; the law became universal in 1920. Minorities and First Nations were neglected this right for decades more.

Suffragists were primarily White, middle-class women, but it was also supported by various activists and Black abolitionists. One such woman was Mary Ann Shadd. Shadd came to Canada via the Underground Railroad as an educated woman and an activist. She established an integrated school for Black refugees in Windsor, Ontario (then Canada West). Mary Ann Shadd promoted emigration to Canada, and through such efforts became the first Black woman in North America to publish a newspaper. Years later, she returned to the United States and eventually became one of the first Black women to complete a law degree.

The women’s suffrage movement often included campaigns for the right to run for office. Suffrage addressed issues deeper than the right to vote; the core issues of justice, basic human rights and improvements in health care, education and job opportunities.

The Famous Five: Persons Case

In 1927, the Famous Five – Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise Crummy McKinney, Irene Parlby – brought forth the Persons Case to the Supreme Court of Canada.  Women were not legally recognized as persons under the British North America Act of 1867. Thanks to the success of this case, the first woman, Cairine Wilson, was appointed to the Senate of Canada in 1930.

Reactions to the Famous Five have varied in more recent years, but their contributions to the progress of women’s rights cannot be denied. You can visit a bronze statue in their likeness called ‘Women Are Persons’ downtown Ottawa. This monument is the first on Parliament Hill to honour Canadian women. It showcases the Famous Five as ordinary women, not on pedestals but enjoying tea and the 1929 news headline, ‘Women Are Persons’.  



  • Thanks, Hayley Lowery for ottawariverlifestyle.com

    Hayley Lowery
  • Thanks for sharing this rich and important Canadian history of the women’s suffrage movement.

    Bev Johnson

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