The Famous Five or The Valiant Five were five Canadian women who, in 1927 asked the Supreme Court of Canada to answer the question, “Are women persons?” in the landmark case Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General).
Canada (2004) 50 Dollars (back) – Famous Five
Canada’s Supreme Court essentially said in a unanimous decision – no they were not “qualified persons” – but this was overturned by the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The case came to be known as the Persons Case. It was first decided that women were eligible to sit in the Senate.
During this period women had earned the right to vote and gender equality issues were a hot political topic. The Famous Five had begun to bring attention to their cause of putting a woman in the Senate. At that time the legal definition of “qualified persons” under the British North America Act (BNA Act 1867) was thought by the Canadian Government not to include women.
In 1928, the Minister of Justice submitted a reference question to the Supreme Court of Canada asking if “the word “Persons” in section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867 include[s] “female persons”.
The women, all of whom were from Alberta, were:
Emily Murphy (the British Empire’s first female judge); Irene Marryat Parlby (farm women’s leader, activist and first female Cabinet minister in Alberta); Nellie Mooney McClung (a famous suffragist and member of the Alberta legislature); Louise Crummy McKinney (the first women elected to the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, or any legislature in Canada or the British Empire) and Henrietta Muir Edwards (an advocate for working women and a founding member of the Victorian Order of Nurses).
The Valiant Five have also been commemorated with a statue on Canada’s Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, a plaque in the antechamber of Canada’s Senate and at the Olympic Plaza in Calgary, located in the women’s home province of Alberta. The City of Edmonton has named five parks in its River Valley Parks System in honour of the “Famous Five”.
Statue in downtown Calgary of The Famous Five. An identical statue exists on Parliament Hill in Ottawa
Opinions on the Valiant Five vary considerably. Many laud them as trailblazers for women. Others are disturbed by the opinions of some of the women on other issues, such as non-white immigration and their successful campaigns to have eugenics legislation introduced in Canadian provinces. Some might well question the overall significance of the decision, noting that by the 1920s, the Canadian Senate was a largely powerless body. The more powerful Canadian House of Commons had elected its first female member (Agnes Macphail) in 1921, well before the Persons Case. However, the precedent did establish the principle that women could hold any political office in Canada. Moreover, the Five clearly did devote their energies to increasing women’s participation on legislative bodies with greater power: two became members of the Alberta Legislature and one a member of the House of Commons.