It seems hard to believe, but when my grandmother was born, she wasn’t considered a person.
She was 32 years old before that distinction was legally acknowledged for her. Thirty-two years old. And it wasn’t just handed out, like a forgotten birthday card. It required a fight.
This year’s Person’s Day (October 18) marks the 85th anniversary of the 1929 court decision that declared women “qualified persons” under the law. The Person’s Case, as the ruling came to be known, was launched by five Alberta women: Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby, and Henrietta Muir Edwards. It was an eight year battle that began after Murphy, the country’s first female magistrate and judge, ruled on a case and had her judgment questioned by a male lawyer who said that as she was not legally a person, she could not pass sentence. Wanting to clarify women’s status under the British North America Act (now the Constitution Act, 1867), and further her case for appointment to the Senate (in which only a legal person could serve) McClung and her compatriots asked the federal government to declare women as persons who could be considered for all areas of public office.
When the government wouldn’t decide, the “Famous Five” as the women were later called, petitioned the Supreme Court to make a ruling. The court took the view that the drafters of the BNA Act didn’t consider women persons who could be appointed to the Senate. Not willing to accept that ruling, the Famous Five pushed the issue further and asked the prime minister to appeal the court ruling to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain (the Supreme Court’s appeals court at that time). That court ruled that not only were women persons who could be appointed to the senate, but that the country’s constitution was not a rigid document but something that could change and reflect the times and culture of the country.
The details of the Person’s Case are important. We shouldn’t forget that fact that personhood was a judgment made by a court and not something that the government of the day agreed upon. In that respect it was a victory not just for women’s rights, but also for the law. Emily Murphy was, it should be noted, a product of her time, and a woman of privilege. She was white, middle class, and well-educated. Still, she ultimately never got that Senate appointment. But she didn’t worry much about how her advocacy might harm her reputation or limit her prospects. As with many early feminists, she understood that just working hard and waiting for recognition was futile. Those who hold power don’t willingly give up, or even share, their power and privilege. If you want a piece of that pie, you have to fight for it, or reach out and take it. “ The world loves a peaceful man,” Murphy was reputed to have said. “But it gives way to a strenuous kicker.”
That was true for Murphy and it is also true for feminists today at a time when equality has not yet been achieved. I’m not just making this up. The stats and facts bear this out. Canadian women still earn an average of 70 percent of what their male counterparts earn, And that’s a StatsCan figure. Canada ranks 20th in the World Economic Forum’s measure of gender equality — apparently below South Africa and Latvia. We were ranked #35 for wage equality and #41 for women in parliament. The Forum notes that human talent is the most important determinant for a country’s competitiveness and that reducing gender inequality enhances a country’s productivity and growth. You know what that means? It means that as a society we need to recognize that policies and programs that support women and children benefit us all. This includes good, affordable day care, poverty reduction programs, and a broader conception of what equality means. We can’t combat inequality from a gender-neutral standpoint. Women aren’t a special interest group. We make up more than 50 percent of the country’s population. Equality—be it economic, political, or social, it a right and not a gift. The Famous Five understood this. They did not let the government or the Supreme Court’s no-can-do attitude prevent them from asserting women’s rights to equality. They pushed for a clear definition of personhood within the constitution. They were strenuous kickers.
So yay for Person’s Day! Let’s celebrate it as a day of historical importance, but use it as another reminder to keep kicking. The struggle continues.