Winners write history. More accurately, history is about which stories are told and survive. Our province has great herstory (intentional spelling). Alberta’s “Famous Five” changed the law in the groundbreaking Persons Case. This resulted in a shift not only in Alberta and Canada but globally throughout the British Empire.
Studies prove diversity in decision-making brings greater success. The United Nations reports women should hold at least 30% of elected seats for a government to reflect women’s concerns. If you are interested in participating more fully in the democratic process, consider running for office on October 16, 2017. Alberta’s General Election takes place then and municipalities elect new councils.
History Saw Women Legally Recognized as Persons
Canadian history documents that in mid-19th century, full citizenship was legally limited to men. By the end of the century, laws across the country mandated near-universal, white male citizenship at the federal and provincial level, explicitly excluding female voters. The reason women are able to vote today is due to the Suffrage Movement arising during this period. Women united and began to agitate for the vote as well as social reform. They changed herstory.
Suffragettes boldly campaigned, marched and petitioned so today women across this great land enjoy the privilege and have the right to make their own choices, share their opinions, vote, work, and more freely pursue their dreams. This law changed less than 100 years ago.
On October 18, 1929, a landmark legal decision for Canadian women took place. Women were legally recognized as “persons” under British common law. The decision was made necessary because The British North America Act, which governed Canada at the time, used the word “persons” when it referred to more than one person and the word “he” when it referred to one person. Those who wanted to keep women from being appointed as judges and senators claimed women were ineligible for these positions because they weren’t recognized as persons under the law.
Five Canadian women did not agree and petitioned for change. The Supreme Court of Canada turned these Albertans down saying “persons” did not include women. They persisted and took their petition to the Privy Council of Britain, Canada’s highest court at the time. The Privy Council ruled “the exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours”.
Nellie McClung, one of the Famous Five, stated “Women are going to form a chain, a greater sisterhood than the world has ever known.”
Herstory Still Goes On
On January 21, 2017 millions of women gathered for the Women’s March. This happened despite differences of location, nationality, faith, socio-economic status, age, and partisan affiliations. They marched for different reasons yet were united in empathy and respect for women globally. Participation occurred on all seven continents. It is perhaps the largest activist march ever.
These people marched in the footsteps of others. They saw past privilege and beyond themselves. Participants respected and heard divergent voices. Common values, such as family and freedom, brought them together. The unique individuality existing in each was honoured and embraced. Some were uncomfortable and felt unsafe, yet participated as they recognized the significance of this moment in time. They left stronger, more confident and willing to let others feel uncomfortable with the fact these women are “on fire.”
Henrietta Muir Edwards, another member of the Famous Five, was 78 years old when the petition was signed and forwarded to Ottawa. Your most important work is always ahead of you, whatever your age, never behind you.
Some women are lost in the fire. Some are built from it. If you’re one of the later and interested in knowing more: Check out #ReadyForHer, Alberta’s on-line guide for women running for office or feel free to contact me.
Originally published in The Newsy Neighbour – February 2017