Women's Rights in the 1920s
Please use this organizer to develop your notes on famous Canadian Women's Rights champions from the 1920s.
"The best way a woman magistrate, or any other woman can be a saviour is not to stoop and save, but to stand by the girl and let her save herself". (Emily Murphy, 1927)
“Never retreat, never explain, never apologize – get things done, and let them howl.” I was a nervy person, and I had to be in order to get things done in a man’s world. My name is Nellie McClung.”“I was born on a farm in Chatsworth, near Owen Sound, Ontario, in 1873. When I was seven years old, my family moved to Manitoba. At age sixteen, I finished teacher’s college and I obtained a job teaching in Manitou, Manitoba. I boarded at the home of Reverend James and Annie McClung. Annie was a very strong believer in women’s rights and women’s suffrage. Suffrage means the right to vote. Annie became my mentor or personal guide. In the home, I also found myself falling in love with Annie’s son, Wes. He became my husband and biggest supporter. Together we had five children.”
“I was a member of the Methodist Church and the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The Methodist religion is an evangelical Protestant religion that is concerned with social welfare and public morals. The WCTU was dedicated to the abolition of alcohol abuse. Many women suffered from alcoholic husbands who were the only bread-winners in the family. If a husband spent most of his paycheck on alcohol, the wife and children suffered a great deal. Also, some drunken husbands physically abused their wives. The WCTU wanted to stop the sale of alcohol in Canada. This is called prohibition. The term comes from the verb 'to prohibit', which means ‘to stop’.”
“In 1911, Wes and I and our family moved to Winnipeg. I continued to work for women’s equality. I accompanied Manitoba Premier Rodmond Roblin through the city's sweatshops to demonstrate the terrible working conditions many women faced. Sweatshops were poorly ventilated shops in which women did sewing and were paid a small price for each item they finished. This is called “piece work,” and for a great deal of “sweat”, women received very low wages – often only seven dollars a week.“
“Premier Roblin and other male politicians did not want to give the vote to women. They argued that women were too “dainty” and “nice” to get involved in politics. They said that women did not know enough about politics, and that if women received the vote, there would be arguments between husbands and wives that could lead to divorce. They also suggested that if a wife wanted to vote for a certain candidate, she could “persuade” her husband to vote for that person. In any event, women were better if they kept their minds on cooking, cleaning, and raising children. The men would look after politics.”
“This kind of reasoning drove me crazy! I decided to make fun of these arguments by organizing a mock “Women’s Parliament” at a Winnipeg theatre in 1914. In the play, all the women had the vote and the men did not. I played the Manitoba premier, and when men came to ask me for the right to vote, I said things like, “You are such a pretty boy, why would you want to spoil your life by voting?” or “You men look after feeding the pigs, and we women will look after politics.” The sold-out audiences loved the fun. Two years later, Manitoba became the first provincial government to give women the suffrage in provincial elections. By 1920, women would be allowed to vote in federal elections.”
“During this time, I also published some two dozen books and went on speaking tours across Canada, the United States and England. I was a popular public speaker on issues such as prohibition and women's suffrage. When Wes was moved in his job as a pharmacist, I moved with him to Calgary, Alberta. I was elected as a member of the Alberta legislature in 1921, and I sponsored legislation such as dental and medical care for school children, married women's property rights, and mothers' allowances.”
“I had watched as Emily Murphy pressured the Alberta government to pass the Dower Act, which protected a wife’s right to one-third of her husband’s property. In 1916, Emily Murphy was appointed as a magistrate or judge in Edmonton. She thus became the first female magistrate in the entire British Empire.”
“I teamed up with Emily Murphy and three other women to fight for the right of women to be appointed to the Canadian Senate. The British North America Act, Canada’s constitution, stated that the prime minister shall appoint “persons” to the Senate. We were told by the government and the Canadian Supreme Court that the word “persons” meant men only. In other words, women were not “persons.” The five of us took the case to a legal committee of the Parliament of England. This committee decided in 1929 that “persons” included female persons, and thus, because of the work of the “Famous Five”, as we were known, women could now be appointed to the Senate.”
“Prime Minister Mackenzie King appointed Cairine Wilson as the first woman senator in 1930. In the last years of my life, Wes and I lived in Victoria, British Columbia. At the time of my death in 1951, I could look back with pride on my many accomplishments.”
AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON
“Praise the Lord and open your hearts to salvation! Alleluia! My name is Aimee Semple McPherson.”“I was born on a farm not far from Woodstock, Ontario, in 1890. My father, Jim, was a 50-year old farmer, and my mother, Minnie, was a 14-year-old servant girl whom my dad had married after his first wife died.”
“As a child, I loved to read, and by the age of 15, I was the best public speaker in the region. When I was 17, I met the most handsome and most intelligent man. He was Robert Semple, a young travelling evangelist, who came to town to preach the word of Jesus Christ. I fell madly in love with him, and we married six months later. Robert believed that we should take the gospel message to China, and so we did. In that country, Robert was stricken by dysentery (a bacterial disease that causes severe diarrhea and high fever) and he died. One month after his death in 1910, our daughter was born, whom I named Roberta Star (after her dad and as the star of new hope).”
“I learned that my mother, Minnie, had moved to New York City to do Salvation Army work, so I joined her there. I met a very handsome accountant, James McPherson, and we were married in 1912. At the local church, I conducted Bible studies and talks about my experiences in China.”
“In the summer of 1915, I started to preach to Pentecostal groups in places like Kitchener and Mount Forest, Ontario. The Pentecostal religion places a large emphasis on knowing the Bible and being possessed by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes I was able to speak in different tongues or languages. When I preached, I felt the word of God shoot like electricity through my body and people loved what I preached. I bought a car and painted the following words on its sides: “Jesus is coming soon – get ready” and “Where will you spend eternity?” I packed a tent in the trunk, and Minnie and I drove our “gospel car” all over Canada and the United States. Sometimes I preached from the back seat of the car, and sometimes from the tent we would put up in a field.”
“I think that the average donation to my ministry was 2 cents per person. But after three years, I was able to save over a million dollars and to use the money to build a beautiful Angelus Temple that would hold 5,000 people, in Los Angeles.”
“I believed that God has given us many gifts and that we should use all of them to bring people to His message. In the Angelus Temple, I used costumes, props, and stage plays to tell the stories of the Bible. I even used a camel onstage. Aside from traditional organ music and choir, I also used a full jazz orchestra. I wrote and produced two religious operas. Services were translated into Spanish for Spanish-Americans. The Temple was always full and people lined up outside. In 1924, my services began to be broadcast on radio, and my popularity grew even more. They called me ‘Sister Aimee’. I was very attractive, and I could do no wrong.”
“In May 1926, I received front page headlines of a different kind. I was kidnapped on the beach and taken to a desert location. My mother ignored a ransom note for $500,000 from the kidnappers, and I finally managed to get away and find help near the Mexican border. I had been missing for one month, and when I got back to Los Angeles, I faced some of the worst lies you can imagine. Some newspapers said that I had arranged my own kidnapping, and that in actual fact, I had been away having an affair with a male radio engineer.”
“By this time I had many enemies. People were jealous of my success, and other churches in Los Angeles were angry that I was taking away their followers. At this time my marriage to James McPherson ended in divorce.”
“In the hard times of the Depression, I opened a soup kitchen at the Angelus Temple and distributed bread and clothing to those in need. I also convinced a group of doctors and dentists to offer their services for free.”
“At the end of the 1930’s, I was involved in more controversies. I quarreled with my mother and my daughter and I stopped speaking to them. In a fit of loneliness, I married an actor. The marriage only lasted three years, but I was heavily criticized for taking another husband while James McPherson was still alive.”
“On September 26, 1944, I preached to a crowd of 10,000 people in Oakland. I was on a high that night. At my hotel, I took some sedatives to get to sleep. I lost consciousness and died. There was talk of suicide, but that just is not true. There was talk that I had stolen money from the Temple, but that also is not true. In fact, my total worth at the end of my life was only $10,000.”
“The little girl from rural Ontario had found fame in the United States, and she had become one of the most important women of the 1920's.”
In 1921, only a year after women were granted the vote in federal elections, teacher and writer, Agnes Macphail, became the first woman to be elected as a Member of Parliament. Her accomplishments were numerous. She advocated tirelessly for workers' rights as well as for workers' pensions. She was also an advocate for women in penal institutions. In 1939, she formed the Elizabeth Fry Society of Canada (named after a British reformer) to advocate for criminal justice reform for women. Macphail was the first Canadian woman delegate to the League of Nations where she worked with the World Disarmament Committee. After many years in federal politics, Macphail entered provincial politics and was elected to the Ontario Legislature in 1935, becoming one of the first two women to achieve that feat. She died in 1954 just as she was about to receive an appointment to the Canadian senate.
Emily Murphy and the 1928 Person's Case
In 1911, Murphy was instrumental in forcing the Alberta legislature to pass the Dower Act that protected a wife's right to one-third share in her husband's property. A mother and author, her passion was women's rights. She was a member of the Canadian Women's Press Club executive and was the first national president of the Federated Women's Institutes of Canada.
A self-taught legal expert, she was appointed as a police magistrate in 1916. During her first day on the bench, she was challenged by a lawyer who informed her that she had no right to be there since women were not considered persons in the eyes of British law.
This launched a ten-year-long battle led by Murphy to have women declared legal “persons” and therefore eligible for appointed positions, including the Senate. Nellie McClung, Henrietta Edwards, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby joined Murphy in her battle. These five women would become known as the “Famous Five”. Turned down by the Supreme Court of Canada, they five took their case to the Privy Council in Britain which ruled in a famous 1929 judgment that women were indeed persons as defined by the British North America Act.
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