Anniversary of the Famous Five “Persons Case”

On October 18, 1929, the Judicial Committee of England’s Privy Council, which was the highest court of appeal for Canada at the time, ruled unanimously that the meaning of the word “persons” in Section 24 of the British North America Act of 1867 included women.

The Status of Women Canada website has a history of the Famous 5 case:

“In 1927 Emily Murphy and four other prominent Canadian women – Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards – asked the Supreme Court of Canada to answer the question, ‘Does the word person in Section 24 of the B.N.A. Act include female persons?’ After five weeks of debate and argument the Supreme Court of Canada decided that the word ‘person’ did not include women. The five women, nicknamed ‘The Famous Five’, were shocked by the Supreme Court decision but did not give up the fight. Instead they refused to accept the decision and took the Persons Case to the Privy Council… On October 18, 1929, Lord Sankey, Lord Chancellor of the Privy council, announced the decision of the five Lords. The decision stated ‘that the exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours. And to those who would ask why the word ‘person’ should include females, the obvious answer is, why should it not?’.”

Library and Archives Canada has published a special Famous 5 online exhibit with historical background and correspondence and official documents on the case as well as a bibliography of suggested readings.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Archives have prepared material on the case (N.B. : the CBC did not exist in 1929, so the material includes a few weblinks as well as a clip of former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson in 2000)

The Governor General has set up the Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case. This year’s awards were handed out at an official ceremony today at which the current GG Michaëlle Jean said “Don’t forget, ladies and gentlemen, that the rights of our mothers and grandmothers were hardly the same and that we owe our freedom of action to the women who came just before us.”

Cross-posted to the Library Boy blog.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the great reminder, Michel-Adrien! The Persons Case and the Famous Five are important to all Canadians.

    Cheers,
    Connie

  2. Interesting that the men involved in the case go unmentioned although McClung herself said:
    “Ladies, hang Lord Sankey’s picture on the wall of the Community Rest Room with Newton Wesley Rowell’s beside it, and let these names and the names of the other Lords of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council be kept in perpetual and grateful remembrance … “