Joan Burrows says most younger Canadians these days have no idea who her great-aunt Aggie is or what she accomplished 100 years ago. But she gets lots of opportunities to share.
“If a clerk gives me a $10 bill and I say to her, ‘Do you know who this lady is?,’ they don’t know,” Burrows said.
“And then I do a little history lesson.”
Agnes Macphail’s image was printed on a commemorative $10 bill in 2017, on Canada’s 150th birthday. This year marks 100 years since she was elected to the House of Commons — the first woman elected as a federal member of Parliament.
It was hardly the last of her accomplishments.
Macphail was born into a farming family in Dundalk, Ont., in 1890 and fought to be allowed to stay in school beyond age 14.
She went on to become a teacher, but her strong opinions — and strong public speaking — led her to politics when she joined the United Farm Workers of Ontario and its offshoot, United Farm Women of Ontario, just as the country was about to face a deep economic depression after the First World War.
Macphail became a supporter of farming co-ops and wrote a column for the local newspaper as a farmers’ advocate.
“She really felt the farmers were getting a raw deal, particularly from what she called ‘the big interests,’ which we would call corporate Canada,” said Joan Sangster, the author of several books about women’s history and politics. “And she wanted to do something to make their voices heard in politics.”
Party got cold feet upon her nomination
Thanks to her advocacy, she was tapped to run for the Progressive Party of Canada — which was connected to the United Farmers movement at both the federal and provincial levels — in the 1921 election.
Women had won the right to vote federally just three years earlier, but Macphail managed to win the nomination in her riding against two-dozen men. She was pleased, but her own party got cold feet.
“The riding executives met with her and tried to get her to step back,” Sangster said, “probably because they thought a woman couldn’t win.”
Macphail instead spent the next weeks campaigning across her Ontario riding of Grey Southeast — a region today covered mostly by Bruce—Grey—Owen Sound and Simcoe—Grey.
Sangster says there was a lot of antipathy toward women in politics, but Macphail prevailed and was elected on Dec. 6, 1921.
“We know that she won by quite a large margin,” said Johanna Mizgala, curator of the House of Commons. “But there wasn’t a high turnout of women [voters], so that’s significant to me — because it also means that the men voted for her, too.”
Push for prison reform
Macphail’s work as an MP focused almost entirely on helping those she saw as the underdog: farmers, miners, the average worker and, later, people in prison. The latter would become a cornerstone of her legacy.
“She was one of those rare individuals in Parliament that people listened to,” said Veronica Strong-Boag, a longtime Canadian historian of women. “Misogynists and anti-feminists in general, and opponents of the labour movement and opponents of prisoners’ rights, knew they had to listen to her because she put the stuff on the agenda.”
After a riot at Kingston Penitentiary in 1923, Macphail started looking into conditions behind bars.
LISTEN | CBC Radio’s The House explores the history of Macphail and politicians reflect on 100 years of women in Parliament
16:04100 years of women in Parliament
“She’d seen the prisons and was appalled. And just felt the sentences were too long, and haphazardly given,” said Rachel Wyatt, a Victoria playwright and author of Agnes Macphail: Champion of the Underdog. “It just appalled her the way they were treated. So she decided she had to do something.”
Sangster says Macphail’s defence of prison reform was seen as “somewhat either unseemly or overly sentimental by her opponents.”
But her efforts eventually contributed to the creation of the Royal Commission to Investigate the Penal System of Canada in 1936.
The two-year investigation exposed poor conditions and practices, and the resulting report, published in 1938, would become the backbone of eventual nationwide prison reform, shifting the focus from one primarily of retribution toward rehabilitation.
Macphail’s role in that reform was later showcased in a Historica Canada Heritage Minute.
Fight for equality
From the start of her nearly 20-year tenure in Ottawa, Macphail also fought for the equality of men and women.
“She made no bones about the need to improve the condition of women so that they were treated as men were treated,” said Terry Crowley, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Guelph and author of Agnes Macphail and the Politics of Equality, “and that there shouldn’t be all of these attempts to differentiate between the two sexes.”
One of her first opportunities to make that argument in the House was during debate over the Elections Act in March 1922, as a newly minted MP. Large numbers of women had been unable to vote in 1921 because of how electors’ lists were compiled, and the parliamentarians were debating whether changes should be made.
“I think women just want to be individuals, as men are individuals — no more, no less,” Macphail said that day. “And so I would like to see that principle embodied in the law ….”
The act would eventually be amended in 1929, making it easier for women to be registered.
Views on eugenics
Though never a member of the Famous Five, who fought for women’s rights in Canada, Macphail shared the group’s views on women’s suffrage, as well as some of its views on who should be allowed to procreate — and more specifically who should not: the poor, unemployed, disabled and, more often than not, those who were not white.
The belief was not uncommon at the time and, according to Sangster, was shared by many feminists — as well as other progressive policy-makers as a whole, Crowley said.
While historians do not believe Macphail was a strong proponent of the movement, there is a record of her voicing her support for it before a gathering of the United Farm Women, saying, “I just wonder how much longer we’re going to allow sub-normal people to produce their kind. It is a blasphemy of the worst kind. You farmers — would you want the worse type of your cattle to be seed-bearers?”
It was a view that seemed on the surface to run counter to Macphail’s fight for the rights of the less privileged, and Strong-Boag says it was not an area she commented on extensively. “I think she would have thought more in terms of the human race than any supposed division of humanity among different races. So it wasn’t a big issue for her.”
Macphail went on to join the Ginger Group, a collection of MPs who split from the Progressive Party in 1924 and whose members eventually founded the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, or CCF. It merged with the Canadian Labour Congress in 1961 to form the New Democratic Party.
After losing re-election in 1940, Macphail served as a member of the Ontario Legislature, one of the two first women elected there, and was instrumental in getting the province’s first equal pay legislation passed.
Just before her death in 1954, she was being considered for a seat in the Canadian Senate.
Written by Stephanie Hogan. Interviews by Jennifer Chevalier and Tracy Fuller.
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