The Valiant Five

From Academic Kids

The Valiant Five or The Famous Five were five Canadian women who, in 1927 asked the Supreme Court of Canada to answer the question, "Are women persons?" The case came to be known as the Persons Case.

The women, all of whom were from Alberta, were:

Specifically the question was whether Section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867, included the possibility of women becoming senators: "The Governor General shall... summon qualified Persons to the Senate; and ... every Person so summoned shall become and be a Member of the Senate and a Senator."

Only men had been appointed to the Senate thus far. For years, pressure had grown for women to be appointed to the Senate. Among other reasons, until 1970 the Senate approved divorces.

In Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General) [1928] S.C.R. 276, The Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously that the word person did not include women. The stated grounds included:

  • the framers of the Act, in 1867, could not have had it in mind to permit women senators, since women did not participate in politics at that time;
  • the act exclusively used the word "he" to refer to senators.

The five women refused to give up and appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London—effectively Canada's highest court at that time. On October 18, 1929, the committee ruled that Canadian women were indeed persons and were competent to serve in the Senate. In their decision (Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General) [1930] A.C. 124 (P.C.)), the Privy Councilors called the exclusion of women from public office "a relic of days more barbarous than ours." Because the Judicial Council was a final court of appeal for the British Empire as a whole, this decision set a precedent for jurisdictions over the world. However, because the Council did not hear appeals from within the British Isles, the decision was non-precedental for the British House of Lords. The right of women to sit in the House of Lords remained a point of legal and political controversy long after.

Four months later, Cairine Wilson became the first woman to sit in the Senate.

Along with Th鲨se Casgrain, the Five have been commemorated on Canada's newest fifty-dollar bill.

The Famous Five have also been commemorated with a statue on Canada's Parliament Hill.

Opinions on the Famous Five vary considerably. Many feminists laud them as trailblazers for women. Others are disturbed by the opinions of some of the women on other issues, such as non-white immigration. Some might well question the overall significance of the decision, noting that by the 1920s the Canadian Senate was a largely powerless body. However, the precedent did establish the principle that women could hold any political office in Canada. Moreover, the Five clearly did devote their energies to increasing women's participation on legislative bodies with greater power: Two became members of the Alberta Legislature and one a member of the House of Commons.

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