Emily Murphy. Nellie McClung. Henrietta Muir Edwards. Louise McKinney. Irene Parlby.
These five Albertan women were drawn together by the tides of history and a shared idealism. Each was a true leader in her own right: one a police magistrate, another a legal expert who founded the National Council for Women, and three served as Members of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta. And they did all this before they were even fully defined as "persons" under Canadian and British law.
Separately, these five women were champions of the rights and welfare of women and children. They worked hard and courageously in the face of the prejudices and resistance of the day. Together, they formed an unstoppable force that changed the world for women in Canada and in all Commonwealth countries.
1868, Cookstown, ON – 1933, Edmonton, AB
A prominent suffragist, reformer and writer, Emily Murphy (born Emily Gowan Ferguson) became the first female magistrate in the British Empire in 1916. Before that, she championed the right of wives to share ownership in their husband’s property — giving them and their children security in case of abandonment. Her efforts helped create The Married Women’s Protective Act, passed in Alberta in 1911. Her tireless activism as judge and advocate of social welfare for women and children earned Emily widespread respect across the nation.
This led to many organizations and individuals calling for her appointment to the Senate. This was not possible, however, because the federal government deemed that women were not “qualified persons” as required for Senate appointments. But Emily was a tough, no nonsense woman who never backed down from a fight... In fact, one of her trademark quotes was “Whenever I don’t know whether to fight or not, I fight.” Naturally, she saw the Senate issue as an injustice against all women. So she enlisted the help of four equally brilliant and determined women to challenge this unfair bias.
Emily Murphy died suddenly in her sleep in 1933 at the age of 65. Though she won an important victory for women’s rights throughout the British Empire, she never realized her dream of becoming a Senator.
1868, Frankville, ON – 1931, Claresholm, AB
Louise McKinney (born Louise Crummy) was a lifelong organizer and staunch supporter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The WCTU was a worldwide organization that sought to protect women and children, particularly by eliminating what they saw as the destructive influence of alcohol.
Determined, hardworking and outspoken, Louise’s activism helped give women the right to vote in Alberta, and led to the Prohibition of alcohol in 1916 (which was later repealed in 1923). She also championed the first Dower Act in Alberta — a bill that gave women the right to prevent the sale or mortgage of their homes without their knowledge.
In 1917, Louise was elected as an Independent to the Alberta Legislature. This made her the first woman elected to sit as a Member of any Legislative Assembly in the British Empire.
1873, Chatsworth, ON – 1951, Victoria, BC
Nellie McClung (born Nellie Letitia Mooney) was a novelist, reformer, journalist, and suffragist. Feisty and charismatic, Nellie had a way of winning over opponents with her wit and humour. But beneath that charm was an iron determination. She led the fight to enfranchise North American women, and her efforts led to Manitoba becoming the first province to grant women the right to vote and run for office in 1916.
Her move westward to Alberta naturally coincided with both Alberta and Saskatchewan granting women the right to vote soon afterwards. Nellie became a Liberal MLA for Edmonton (1921–1926) where she often worked with Irene Parlby (despite representing different political parties) on issues affecting women and children. Nellie was the first female Director of the Board of the Governors of the CBC. In 1938, she was chosen as a delegate to the League of Nations in Geneva.
Henrietta Muir Edwards
1849, Montreal, QC – 1931, Fort MacLeod, AB
The eldest of the Famous Five, Henrietta Muir Edwards (born Henrietta Louise Muir), was an artist as well as a legal expert. Women and men alike often came to her for help with legal issues affecting women and children. In 1893, she helped found the National Council of Women of Canada — an organization that continues, to this day, to work to improve the quality of life for women, families and society.
Thoughtful, caring and determined, Henrietta believed, among other things, that women should not be slaves to fashion as it distracted from more important goals. She steadfastly refused to wear corsets. In addition to her work with the NCWC, she published Canada’s first women’s magazine and established the prototype for the Canadian YWCA. She also helped found the Victorian Order of Nurses in 1897.
1868, London, England – 1965, Red Deer, AB
An aristocratic English woman who became a Western Canadian farmer’s wife, Irene Parlby (born Mary Irene Marryat) was a firm advocate for rural farm women of Alberta. She organized and became the first President of the United Farm Women’s Association in 1916.
Elegant, charming and quietly determined, Irene was a reluctant politician. Nevertheless, she was elected to the Alberta Legislature in 1921 as a member of the governing United Farmers of Alberta party. She became the first female cabinet minister in Alberta (and the second in the entire British Empire). Irene used her influence to champion for the rights and welfare of women and their families.
In 1930, she was asked by Prime Minister R.B. Bennett to stand as one of three Canadian delegates to the League of Nations meeting in Geneva.