Thirty of the 84 current members of the Canadian Senate are women, accounting for almost 36 per cent of the membership. In addition, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named his federal cabinet last November, 15 of the 30 ministers he chose were women — 50 per cent.
It might be difficult to imagine, then, that in 1929, the female proportion of the Canadian Senate was zero per cent. And it wasn’t just because no women had been appointed; they couldn’t be appointed. The law, at least the way it was interpreted by the male leadership at the time, didn’t permit it.
That’s because the British North America Act which formed the core of Canada’s Constitution stated that only “qualified persons” could be appointed to the Senate — and “persons” was taken to mean “men.”
That rankled women leaders of that era. In 1921, women were, for the first time, allowed to vote in the federal election and to run for Parliament. Bringing down the barrier to the Senate was the next target.
But it took perseverance by a group of Alberta women who became known as the Famous Five, and the barrier finally fell on Oct. 18, 1929 when the Privy Council of England ruled that the word “person” did indeed include women.
The ruling opened the door to Cairine Wilson being sworn in as Canada’s first female senator on Feb. 15, 1930, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the Famous Five — Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby.
Persons Day, recognized each Oct. 18, not only pays tribute to that historic event in 1929 and to the efforts of the women who brought it about, but it also serves to highlight the barriers that remain for women.
Certainly women have made tremendous strides since the culmination of the “Persons Case.” Three Canadian provinces are led by female premiers and, as mentioned, 15 federal cabinet ministers are women. The 2015 federal election saw 88 women elected to Parliament, a jump from the previous high of 76 in the previous Parliament. Beverley McLachlin, who hails from Pincher Creek originally, serves as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, and many Canadian women head major corporations and organizations. Beyond our borders, many women have served as their countries’ heads of state, and to the south of us, the latest polls suggest Hillary Clinton is poised to become the first female president of the United States.
In spite of this, women continue to struggle to achieve full parity with men. A report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development showed women in Canada aged 25 to 64 who have less than a Grade 11 education earned just 61 per cent of what their male counterparts earned in 2014. While things were a little better for women with post-secondary education, they were still paid just 72 per cent of what men earned.
The recognition of Persons Day is an opportunity to celebrate the work that has been done to break down barriers that have impeded women in society. But it also serves to remind us that the work isn’t finished yet.