Every day, hundreds of Ottawa visitors are drawn to a monument on Parliament Hill that depicts five larger-than-life women in a circle, seemingly engaged in animated discussion.
Together, these sculptures of Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, Henrietta Muir Edwards and Louise McKinney honour the ‘Famous 5’: a small group of Alberta women who in 1929 successfully petitioned for women to be considered “persons” in the section of the British North America Act concerning appointments to the Senate. The decision opened the door for Canadian women to vote, hold public office, and obtain university degrees. It wasn’t until 1960, however, that all women—including aboriginal and Asian women—were allowed to vote in federal elections.
October 18, 2015 marked 86 years since the 'Persons Case', and 15 years since the ‘Famous 5’ statue was erected outside Canada’s Parliament.
Isabel Metcalfe is the chair of Famous 5 Ottawa, the organization that raised the funds and obtained permission from the government to erect the Famous 5 Ottawa monument. Here she discusses what was involved in bringing the Famous 5 home to Parliament — a place they were denied access for most of their lives.
What have you learned through your involvement with Famous 5?
I learned about the muscle power of women. We got this through in record time. Our first meeting was held in August 1997 and we got that monument on Parliament Hill in October 2000.
What is significant about the monument’s placement on Parliament Hill?
It’s near the doors of the Senate, where they so wanted to be. It’s near Sir John A MacDonald, who was the founding father of confederation and who excluded women from the British North America Act. It’s near the British Privy Council who heard the Persons Case and who said yes, women are persons. It’s near Mackenzie King, who was the Prime Minister of Canada that allowed [the Five] to move their petition forward when they were turned down by the Supreme Court. That was the placement we needed to be in historically.
What do you personally admire about the Famous 5?
I admire their brains. These women were smart. I mean, Emily [Murphy] wanted to be in the Senate, and no Prime Minister would name her. She was the one that put the question [‘are women persons?’] to the Supreme Court of Canada, and when they said she wasn’t a person either she conceived of bringing it to the British Privy Council. She gathered together those women, they did all the research -- they got the Government of Canada to cover their legal bill! I think they were clever, clever women.
What do you think is the next frontier for Canadian women?
Equal pay for work of equal value. We’re still not there.
Do you see any women in public life today who might go down in history as one of the next ‘Famous 5’?
I think Elizabeth May is a remarkable woman. She founded a political party, she’s in the Parliament of Canada -- she is like the Famous 5, she’s clever, breaking all the rules. She wasn’t included in the debates during this election, so she tweeted. Like Emily, she didn’t take no for an answer.