In 1929, five Alberta women played a key role in influencing the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council that women were persons under the law. These women were Nellie McClung, suffragette and writer; Irene Parlby, former UFWA president; Emily Murphy, first woman magistrate in Canada; Louise McKinney, and Henrietta Muir Edwards. They became known as the Famous Five (Finkel and Conrad, 2002).
The Famous Five were in favour of various social and political reforms, such as suffrage, and are often historically conceived as progressive. The Famous Five and the women’s movement must be understood within a larger context of reform movement during the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries in Canada. Many reformers had overlapping memberships in various organizations that had similar goals: to prevent social degeneration, to slow down the pace of social change, and most importantly to instill Christian values in society. Historian Carol Bacchi has shown that many of the women involved in the suffrage movement were reformers first, and supporters of the traditional family. That is, they believed that they could use their vote to bring about political changes that were clearly in the “woman’s sphere” i.e.) child welfare, health reform, education, etc. They also believed that giving women the vote strengthened the family, and doubled its political representation. The family represented social order and progress of society, race and nation, thus many maternal feminists were unwilling to challenge the traditional sex roles (Bacchi, 1989).
Eugenics was often framed as an issue that belonged in the “woman’s sphere.” As mothers and bearers of the future, women were seen as preservers of the Anglo-Saxon race. But it must be noted that for first-wave feminists such as Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy, and Louise McKinney, not all women were suited for motherhood and for the care of future generation. Women of British descent, in particular, were seen as the most suitable for such a task, while those deemed “unfit” were not (Moss and Stam, 2013). During a period when many middle class Canadians were concerned about race degeneration, low birth rates, increased immigration, and increased births among the “unfit,” the Famous Five were instrumental in spreading eugenic ideology and campaigning for the adoption of eugenic practices. (Gibbons, 2014; Moss and Stam, 2013)
Emily Murphy, for example, in her work as a magistrate in Alberta reviewed insanity cases before these individuals were transferred to Ponoka Mental Hospital. As Erin Moss and Hank Stam have shown, “she [Murphy] was by profession confronted with many social ills, including “lunacy.” From 1906 on, the magistrate had to be provided with the family history—this is the period when family trees were used by eugenicists to make their case —and a report on the physical condition of the insane person” (Moss and Stam, 2013, p.109). As a result of this experience, Murphy campaigned (through publications and speeches) for eugenic measures as a means of controlling the number of insane and feebleminded individuals. In doing so, she and the other Famous Five members helped garner support for Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act (1928) (Gibbons, 2014; Moss and Stam, 2013).
Finkel, A., & Conrad, M. (2002).
History of the Canadian Peoples: 1867 to the Present. Toronto: Pearson Education Canada Inc.
Gibbons, S. (2014). ‘“Our Power to Remodel Civilization’: The Development of Eugenic Feminism in Alberta, 1909-1921”. CBMH 31, (1), 123-142.
Moss, Erin and Hank Stam. (2013). From Suffrage to Sterilization: Eugenics and the Women’s Movement in 20th Century Alberta. Canadian Psychology, 54(2), 105-114.