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The Famous Five: Incredible Women in Alberta’s History

Five famous Albertan women who changed the world.
Image by Conchi Revuelto from Pixabay

Known as the Famous Five, Albertans Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, and Henrietta Muir Edwards changed life for women in Canada. This group of formidable advocates pushed all levels of government for a wide range of women’s and children’s rights. Their most famous accomplishments included the change to the British North American Act to include women as persons rather than property and securing the right for some women to vote across the country (Persons Case). They also changed ownership laws so husbands could no longer sell their homes without their wife’s permission (Dower Act) and pushed for increased access to healthcare.

Unfortunately, the Famous Five were not known for advocating for all women. They are also known for their racist and elitist beliefs, including eugenics and forced sterilization. In fact, it wasn’t until 1965 that Indigenous women were allowed to vote in Alberta.

Nellie McClung, 1873 – 1951

Nellie McClung was Canada’s most famous suffragist. She was an author, speaker, teacher and human rights advocate who served as an Alberta MLA from 1921 to 1926. McClung was a key player in securing the vote for some Canadian women, starting in Manitoba in 1916. She also encouraged the BC government to allow Japanese Canadians to vote in the 1930s and pushed the federal government to allow Jewish refugees into Canada in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Louise McKinney, 1868 - 1931

Louise McKinney was elected to the Alberta legislature in 1917, which made her the first woman to hold this position in Canada as well as in the entire British Empire. She was a strong advocate for temperance and believed that women should have more influence over the country’s laws, including prohibition. In addition to being an MLA from 1917 until 1921, McKinney was also a teacher and a lay preacher.

Emily Murphy, 1868-1933

Emily Murphy, who described herself as a rebel, was an author and activist. In 1916, Murphy and members of the Edmonton Local Council of Women had been banned from attending the trials of women who were arrested for prostitution because the trials were “not fit for mixed company.” Murphy demanded a separate women’s court over which the Attorney General appointed her magistrate. This made her the first woman magistrate in the country as well as in the British Empire.

Irene Parlby 1868-1965

Irene Parlby was Alberta’s first cabinet minister and the second in the British Empire. She served in the legislature from 1921 until 1935. Parlby went on to represent Canada at the League of Nations in Geneva in 1930 and to become the first woman to receive an honourary doctorate from the University of Alberta in 1935. Parlby was a strong advocate for women’s property rights, extended dental and medical services and a minimum wage for women.

Henrietta Muir Edwards 1849-1931

Henrietta Muir Edwards was an artist, publisher, and advocate. Along with her sister, she produced the first magazine in the country for working women called Woman’s Work in Canada. Muir Edwards was an advocate for women’s rights, including women in prison, and she helped to create the National Council of Women of Canada as well as the Victorian Order of Nurses.

The work of the Famous Five paved the way towards the increased gender equality that we experience today. Modern women’s rights advocates are still tirelessly working towards the dream of equality that these five women envisioned a century ago.

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