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first woman MP in 1921 Agnes Macphail

by Pat Staton | October 9, 1997

On December 6, 1921, at the age of 31, Agnes Campbell Macphail was the first woman in Canada elected as a Member of Parliament. Her election as a Progressive was less than two years after many women were granted the right to vote and hold office federally, and after her first political speech. For 15 of the 19 years Agnes served in Parliament, she was the only woman out of 244 members. She was defeated in 1940, a year after the start of the Second World War, possibly because her pacifist views were not well received with the country at war.

In 1943, she was one of the first two women elected as members of the Ontario Legislature. Representing the Toronto riding of York East for the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), she was defeated in 1945, re-elected in 1948 and defeated in 1951. She died in 1954.

The fact that she was the “first woman” has assured her place in Canada’s history books. These remarkable achievements, however, give us only a glimpse of her strength, her diligence, her farsightedness.

When I first came to the House of Commons and walked out into the lobby, men sprang to their feet. I asked them to sit down since I’d come to walk around. I didn’t want them doing me favours. I figured I was going to have trouble enough. I was right. I found that I couldn’t quietly do my job without being ballyhooed like the bearded lady ... I was a curiosity, a freak. And you know the way the world treats freaks.

Agnes never was prepared to let society’s view or treatment of women determine her direction or her actions. She fought to do the work allocated to men and boys on the family farm, she fought to go to high school (which required money from her family, as she had to board in Owen Sound and pay tuition) and she developed an approach to teaching that was designed to involve her students in the wide world around them. Although she always respected farmers and the rural way of life, and worked hard in her political life to support both, she did not want to be a farmer’s wife. She said she never married because “[T]he person could not be subjected.” Marriage would have meant the end of any career in teaching or politics.

Agnes Macphail understood communities under stress - whether it was farmers or miners in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, or prison inmates or people living in the aftermath of war. She took action on what she learned. Her firsts were not limited to her elections. She was Canada’s first woman delegate to the League of Nations in 1929, where she served on the Disarmament Committee. She was instrumental in the appointment of the Archambault Commission in 1935, which studied Canada’s prisons.

When I hear men talk about being the angel of the home I always, mentally at least, shrug my shoulders in doubt. I do not want to be the angel of any home: I want for myself what I want for other women, absolute equality. After that is secured, then men and women can take turns being angels.

I believe the preservation of the home in the future lies almost entirely in the hands of men. If they are willing to give women economic freedom in that home, if they are willing to live by the standard they wish women to live by, then home will be preserves. If the preservation of the home means the enslavement of women, economically or morally, then we had better break it.

From the beginning of her political career, Agnes recognized that women were a unique community, with unique needs. She spoke out for women’s equality wherever and whenever she could, integrating her feminism with her other beliefs on democracy, social justice and equality. One biographer, Terry Crowley, has noted: “... during the late 1920s Agnes Macphail emerged as the country’s foremost advocate of human rights based on fundamental human rights ... To Macphail, feminism implied a willingness to human rights first, to tackle women’s special concerns as well as the questions that men confronted, and to challenge stereotypes with humour.” She fought for women to have equal access to divorce, for family allowance and old age pensions, and for pay equity.

Most of the women who have offered themselves for public office over the years have done so, I believe, more because of the “dirt” than in spite of it. They have been women with convictions, about education, welfare, peace, temperance, or just plain social and economic justice.

Whatever is dirty, it is women’s job to clean up, or drive some man to clean up, and that goes for everything from cellar to Senate.

resources for this story

  • Agnes Macphail and the Politics of Equality, by TERRY CROWLEY, James Lorimer and Company, p. 90 | 1990
  • Women Changing Canada, by JAN COOMBER and ROSEMARY EVANS, Oxford University Press Canada. This book includes more information on Canadian society generally during Agnes Macphail’s life. | 1997
  • The National Library of Canada has an electronic exhibition inspired by Women’s History Month (October of each year) called “Celebrating Women’s Achievements.” New for 1997, this exhibition includes Then and Now: Women in Canadian Legislatures, which has info on Agnes Macphail and all of the other women who were the “firsts” to hold federal or provincial office.
  • The Lady From Grey County (#0177 149), and a shorter version of this film entitled Canada’s First Woman M.P. (#0186 005) are available from the National Film Board of Canada, or check your local library.
  • County of Grey-Owen Sound Museum has a display containing personal items once owned by, and information on, Agnes Macphail. Email museum@greycounty.on.ca, or telephone (519)376-3690, to learn more about the museum and its collections, including the “Eminent Women of Grey County.”

other relevant books:

  • Toeing the Lines: Women and Party Politics in English Canada, by SYLVIA B. BASHEVKIN, Oxford University Press | 1993
  • Agnes Macphail: Reformer, by DORIS PENNINGTON, Simon & Pierre | 1989
  • More Than a Rose: Prime Ministers, Wives and Other Women, by HEATHER ROBERTSON, Seal Books, c. 10 | 1991
  • Women and Political Power in Canada, by SYDNEY SHARPE, HarperPerennial | 1995

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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