Prior to 1929, women in Canada were not considered ‘Persons’ —at least not in the fullest legal sense of the word.

Emily Murphy - Famous Five monument in Ottawa, ON.

Emily Murphy - Famous Five monument in Ottawa, ON.

Section 24 of the British North America Act (at that time, Canada’s constitution, the source of its highest laws) said that only "qualified persons" could be appointed to the Canadian Senate. The Canadian government had consistently interpreted this phrase as meaning men only. This was based on historical precedent; when the law was written, it had been intended to mean men and should continue to refer only to men.

Naturally, suffragists like Emily Murphy were outraged. This interpretation suggested women were not "qualified persons". Determined and ready to fight, Emily found a way. She discovered a little known provision in the Supreme Court of Canada Act that said any five persons acting as a unit could petition the Supreme Court for an interpretation of any part of the constitution. So on a fine summer’s day on August 27, 1927, she invited four of the brightest and most determined women activists she knew to her Edmonton home. On Emily’s veranda, the Famous Five signed a letter petitioning the Supreme Court to look into the matter of whether the government could appoint a female senator.

This decision marks the abolition of sex in politics…. Personally I do not care whether or not women ever sit in the Senate, but we fought for the privilege for them to do so. We sought to establish the personal individuality of women and this decision is the announcement of our victory.
— Henrietta Muir Edwards, 1929

The matter quickly became known as the ‘Persons Case. It was debated on March 14, 1928, with the Supreme Court eventually ruling that women were not “qualified persons” as it related to Section 24 of the BNA act. One woman, Mary Ellen Smith from British Columbia, reacted to the news saying, “The iron dropped into the souls of women in Canada when we heard that it took a man to decree that his mother was not a person.”

The Famous Five, however, were not daunted. At the time, there was one authority even higher than the Supreme Court of Canada: The Privy Council in England. So they petitioned the Privy Council to rule on the matter. On October 18, 1929, Lord Sankey arrived to a packed courtroom in London to read the Privy Council’s judgement. To the relief and joy of the Famous Five and women across Canada, the Privy Council said that yes, women were indeed persons and could become Senators.

Sankey took things one step further, saying, “The exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours.” This had reverberations throughout the British Empire (later the Commonwealth), for it clearly asserted that anti-suffragists could no longer suppress women’s rights through clever legal arguments and prejudiced traditions.