The Famous 5 Women
Emily Murphy. Nellie McClung. Henrietta Muir Edwards. Louise McKinney. Irene Parlby. Five Alberta women 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. Three served as Members of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta — among the first female elected officials in the entire British Empire. 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.
Emily Murphy 1868 - 1933
“I believe that never was a country better adapted to produce a great race of women than this Canada of ours, nor a race of women better adapted to make a great country.”Emily Murphy
A prominent suffragist, reformer and writer, Emily Murphy 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 they were abandoned. Her efforts helped create The Married Women’s Protective Act, passed in Alberta in 1911. Her tireless activism as a judge and advocate on behalf of the social welfare of 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 government deemed women not to be “qualified persons” as required for Senate appointments. Emily was tough, no nonsense and never backed down. 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 other equally brilliant, equally determined women to fight it. 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 — Born in Cookstown, Ontario, March 14.
- 1887 — Married Rev. Arthur Murphy and had two daughters, Kathleen and Evelyn, as well as two other children who died in childhood.
- 1889 — Family moved to England where Emily began her career as a writer under the pseudonym ‘Janey Canuck.”
- 1901 — Moved to Swan River, Manitoba and wrote magazine articles.
- 1907 — Moved to Edmonton, Alberta. Began her social activism.
- 1910 — First female appointed to Edmonton Hospital Board.
- 1916 — Appointed first female magistrate in the British Empire.
- 1922 — Wrote The Black Candle, a book concerning the opium trade in Canada.
- 1927 — Enlisted the support of four other influential women in a petition to the Supreme Court of Canada to allow women to become Senators-the Persons Case.
- 1933 — Died suddenly in her sleep at 65 years of age, October 17.
Louise McKinney 1868 – 1931
“What, after all, is the purpose of a woman’s life? The purpose of a woman’s life is just the same as the purpose of a man’s life: that she may make the best possible contribution to the generation in which she is living.”Louise McKinney
Louise McKinney was a lifelong organizer and staunch supporter of the Women&rsuo;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 lead to women getting the vote in Alberta, and 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 ensured a women the right to prevent the sale or mortgage of her home without her knowledge.
In 1917, Louise was elected to the Alberta Legislature. This made her the first woman elected to sit as a Member of any Legislative Assembly in the British Empire.
- 1868 — Born in Frankville, Ontario to a farming family on September 22.
- 1886 — Taught school in the Frankville area.
- 1893 — Moved to North Dakota and began organizing for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).
- 1896 — Married James McKinney and had one child, Willard.
- 1903 — Moved to Claresholm, Alberta and travelled throughout western Canada organizing 20 WCTU chapters.
- 1917 — Ran as an independent candidate in the first election in which women could run for office and vote. Was elected along with Nursing Sister Roberta MacAdams. She was sworn in first and thus became the first woman to sit as an elected official in the British Empire.
- 1921 — Was defeated from re-election because of her opposition to drinking and smoking.
- 1925 — One of four women to sign the Basis of Union, which formed the United Church.
- 1931 — Died suddenly in Claresholm, on July 10 at 63 years of age.
Nellie McClung 1873 – 1951
“Canada is destined to be one of the great nations of the world and Canadian women must be ready for citizenship.”Nellie McClung
Nellie McClung was a novelist, reformer, journalist, and suffragist. Feisty and charismatic, Nellie had a way of winning over even her opponents with her wit and style. 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 in 1916.
Her move westward to Alberta naturally coincided with both Alberta and Saskatchewan giving women the vote soon after. Nellie became a Liberal MLA for Edmonton (1921-1926) where she often worked with Irene Parlby (even though she was in the other party) on issues affecting women and children. Nellie was the first female Director of the Board of the Governors of the CBC. Her national esteem led to her being chosen as a delegate to the League of Nations in Geneva in 1938.
- 1873 — Born in Chatworth, Ontario, October 20.
- 1880 — Moved to Manitoba.
- 1896 — Married Wes McClung and had five children: Jack, Horace, Florence, Paul, and Mark.
- 1908 — Wrote Sowing Seeds in Danny, her first and most popular novel. She subsequently wrote 14 additional books.
- 1911 — Began to champion the right of women to vote and run for office. She was also a supporter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
- 1914 — Wrote and starred in a mock Parliament which asked, “Why Should Men Have the Vote?”
- 1921 — Elected Liberal MLA, Edmonton.
- 1936 — First woman appointed to the Board of Governors of the CBC.
- 1938 — Went to Geneva as a Canadian representative to the League of Nations.
- 1951 — Died at age 78 in Victoria, BC on September 1.
Henrietta Muir Edwards 1849 – 1931
“If women had the vote there would be no need to come twice asking for better legislation for women and children, no need to come again and again for the appointment of women inspectors where women and children are employed; we would not ask in vain for the raising of the wage or consent.”Henrietta Muir Edwards
The eldest of the Famous 5, Henrietta Muir Edwards was an artist as well as a legal expert and women 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.
- 1849 — Born to a privileged family in Montreal, Quebec, on December 18.
- 1875 — Published Canada’s first women’s magazine called Women’s Work in Canada.
- 1876 — Married Dr. Oliver Cromwell Edwards and had three children: Alice, Muir, and Margaret.
- 1883 — Moved to Fort Qu’Appelle , Saskatchewan.
- 1893 — Together with Lady Aberdeen, established the National Council of Women.
- 1897 — Helped Lady Aberdeen found the Victorian Order of Nurses.
- 1903 — Family settled in Fort Macleod.
- 1910 — Lobbied for the first version of the Dower Act in Alberta.
- 1917 — Published handbooks titled, “Legal Status of Women in Canada” and “Legal Status of Women in Alberta.”
- 1931 — Died at 82 years of age in Fort Macleod, November 10, buried in Edmonton.
Irene Parlby 1868 – 1965
“If politics mean…the effort to secure through legislative action better conditions of life for the people, greater opportunities for our children and other people’s children…then it most assuredly is a woman’s job as much as it is a man’s job.”Irene Parlby
An aristocratic English woman who became a Western Canadian farmer’s wife, Irene Parlby was firm advocate for rural farm women in 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 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.
- 1868 — Born in England to an aristocratic family on January 9.
- 1897 — Travelled to Lacombe, Alberta to visit friends.
- 1898 — Married Walter Parlby and had one son, Humphrey.
- 1916 — Organized and became first President of the United Farm Women’s Association.
- 1920 — Appointed to the University of Alberta’s Board of Directors.
- 1921 — Elected to the Alberta Legislature as a United Farmers of Alberta candidate from Lacombe.
- 1921 — Appointed as the first female Cabinet Minister in Alberta and second in the British Empire. She was a Minister Without Portfolio.
- 1925 — Successfully sponsored the Minimum Wage Act for Women.
- 1930 — Represented Canada at the League of Nations in Geneva.
- 1935 — First women to receive an Honourary Doctorate of Law from the University of Alberta.
- 1965 — Died in Alix, Alberta at age 97 on July 12.