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The Famous Five: Heroes for Today
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Ryan's Wells

Reading: Nellie McClung on Women Voting


Detail of statue of Louise McKinney by Barbara Paterson, on Parliament Hill in OttawaPolitics has much that is objectionable, but I see no good reason why it should not be conducted as a clean game. It can be cleaned up, but it never will be till the average citizen has a different attitude towards citizenship and public service, and women should contribute very much to this change. Not 'What can I get out of it?' but 'What can I put into it?' must be the thought of the citizen.

                                                        —Louise McKinney

In setting an example for other women to follow, the Famous 5 expressed that women must take direct political action to achieve their desired reforms. Instead of being satisfied with their present status, women were called upon to exercise their right to vote and run for political office. As Nellie McClung wrote in In Times Like These

    "Perhaps the greatest enemy there is and has ever been to progress is the comfortable woman. Why? Because she accepts as her right, her sheltered, pampered position and she uses it to minister to her own comforts rather than to those of others."

Despite such calls to action, many Canadian women were apathetic toward politics. Having achieved prohibition and female suffrage, no issue rallied masses of women to the same extent. They became divided along party lines, thus reversing their influence as a voting bloc. Emily Murphy became a strong Conservative supporter, while Louise McKinney was elected as a member of the Non-Partisan League in 1917. Nellie McClung and Irene Parlby opposed each other in the Alberta Legislature, McClung as a member of the Liberal party and Parlby as a Cabinet Minister in the United Farmers of Alberta government.

The rise of dictatorships in Germany and Italy during the mid-1930s raised concerns about the return of war, but it did not motivate women to lead in the condemnation of these regimes. This concerned women like Irene Parlby, who believed that the very foundation of democracy had been undermined in these countries and even in Alberta by "the increasing drift towards defiance of constitutional authority." Not until Canada joined Britain in the Second World War did women again become involved in public life as factory workers and servicewomen.

Even after the war, most women showed little interest in politics. Was it because they did not want to become involved, or were social pressures holding them back? Whatever the main reason, women's involvement in Canadian federal and provincial politics was limited until the 1970s. The international peace movement during the late 1960s certainly involved women, but not to any great extent in politics.

The modern feminist movement beginning in the early 1970s helped raise women's public participation to levels seen during the height of the prohibition and female suffrage campaigns. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau responded by appointing the first Minister Responsible for the Status of Women in 1971. A record of nine female candidates were elected to Parliament in 1974. By 1979, 12 women were serving in the Senate. Still, these women only comprised a small percentage of federal politicians.

As of January 2002, the Canadian Senate had 33 female members, and the House of Commons had 62. Similar to most politicians, they tend to vote along party lines. When issues concerning women such as abortion or domestic violence are raised, Canadians are about as likely to hear from male politicians as these women.

Video: "Great Grand Mother"
Women's organizations demanded a number of social reforms, including equal pay for equal work, prohibition and female suffrage. "Getting into politics was just housekeeping on a national scale." Watch Now
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