Reason #5 of '101 Reasons Why I Heart Edmonton'

The Famous Five

by emil tiedemann

THE Famous Five were tenacious, galvanizing, revered, and they were necessary! Judge Emily Murphy led Henrietta Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, and Irene Parlby as petitioners in the landmark Persons Case that was brought before the Supreme Court of Canada in 1929. 

Together, these advocates of women’s rights - all living and/or serving in the Edmonton area - helped establish the right of women to be appointed to the Senate, after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that women were not “persons” according to the British North America Act. 

As individuals, they were instrumental in various facets, though namely where women were concerned. They became national treasures, their fame stretching well beyond the border. Here are the stories of the #famousfive:

This mural was painted in 2012 by Edmonton artist Kris Friesen as a way to honour the Famous Five. The mural is located on the side of the Melcor parkade at 100 Avenue and 102 Street.

Henrietta Louise Muir was born into a wealthy and religious Montreal family, and was soon involved in a number of religious organizations. She found herself disenchanted with some of the traditional aspects of her religion, where the exclusion of women was acceptable, leading to her founding of the Working Girls’ Association in 1875. Essentially, it was one of the first YWCAs in the country, providing Montreal girls and women with meals and education. In 1876, she married Dr. Oliver Edwards, and they moved their three children to the Northwest Territories in 1883. They uprooted again to Ottawa, where Edwards co-founded the National Council of Women of Canada in 1893. In 1903, they moved to Fort MacLeod, Alberta, where Edwards became the first woman in Canadian history to be called upon for a review of a public policy with the government. In addition to publishing a pair of books, Edwards was also part of the Persons Case fight in the late 1920s. 

Although she had always wanted to become a doctor, McKinney (née Crummy) ended up a schoolteacher instead, and made her mark as a women’s rights activist and legislator. Born in Frankville, Ontario, McKinney left her teaching position to focus on her work with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, helping to organize its Northwest Territories branch in 1903. That same year, McKinney moved to Alberta as a homesteader and the WCTU’s Alberta-Saskatchewan branch president for some 20 years. Her fight for women’s rights continued when she served as a Non-Partisan League MLA from 1917 to 1921. She would also fight for social welfare measures for immigrants and widows, stronger liquor control, and the Dower Act that fought for women’s property rights, before teaming up with the Famous Five for the infamous Persons Case in the late 1920s. In 1939, the Canadian Government rightfully recognized McKinney as a “Person of National Historic Significance.” 

EMILY MURPHY (1868-1933)
Born into a prominent Ontario family that included two Supreme Court judges and a newspaper owner, Emily Gowan Murphy (née Ferguson) met her future husband, Arthur Murphy, while studying in Toronto, and eventually moved their two daughters to Edmonton in 1907. By that time, she had already adopted a pen name (Janey Canuck) and began publishing some popular books, including Open Trails (1912), Seeds of Pine (1914), and later, the controversial The Black Candle (1922) as “Judge Murphy.” In 1911, Murphy led a successful fight for the protection of a wife’s right to one-third of her husband’s property, known as the Dower Act. She was also active in various professional and volunteer organizations, including the National Council of Women of Canada. She was later appointed Alberta’s police magistrate, in 1916, as the first woman magistrate in the British Empire. Murphy will also be remembered for her concerns over immigration and narcotics. 

The Famous Five and some of their many supporters.

NELLIE MCCLUNG (1873-1951)
Raised on a Manitoba homestead, McClung (née Mooney) did not attend school until she was ten, but had obtained a teaching certificate by 16, and continued to teach until she married druggist Robert McClung in 1896. She became active within the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and took up writing as well, penning the national bestseller Sowing Seeds in Danny (1908), as well as short stories, articles, and more than a dozen other books. In 1915, the mother of five moved from Winnipeg to Edmonton, where she fought for female suffrage, dower rights for women, factory safety legislation, and prohibition. From 1921-26, McClung served as a Liberal MLA in Edmonton, in addition to speaking engagements throughout North America, before gaining worldwide attention as part of the Famous Five. She published her autobiography, Clearing in the West: My Own Story, in 1935, before accepting a position as delegate to the League of Nations in 1938. 

IRENE PARLBY (1868-1965)
Shortly after moving to Canada from her hometown of London, England in 1896, Mary Irene Marryat met and married Walter Parlby, settling in her adopted home of Lacombe, Alberta. In 1913, she helped form the first women’s local of the United Farmers of Alberta, and was appointed minister soon after, responsible for advising the government on issues of concern to children and women, until she retired in 1934. Known as the “Women’s Minister,” Parlby was only the second woman in the entire British Empire to hold ministerial office. During her time in office, Parlby was active in the eugenics movement of Alberta, improving wages for working women, amending women’s property rights, and public health care. In 1930, Parlby served as a member of the Canadian delegation to the League of Nations, shortly after her involvement in the Persons Case. In 1966, the Government of Canada recognized Parlby as a “Person of National Historic Significance.” 


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