Val's Book Reviews
The Driving Force
The Famous Five: Canada’s Crusaders for Women’s Rights
by Barbara Smith
Victoria: Heritage House, 2019
$9.95 / 9781772032338
In this very important book, Barbara Smith tells the in-depth stories of five women — Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby and Henrietta Muir Edwards — who collectively changed history for Canadian women.
Her story begins on August 27, 1927 when Emily Murphy was preparing to welcome visitors to an afternoon tea at her home in Edmonton. Emily had hosted many such teas in the past but this one would be very different. It would in effect change the course of history.
All the women she had invited had already been very active in women’s and human rights in Canada and especially in the Temperance Movement prior to that meeting. All lived in Alberta although not one of them was born there. Three were born in Ontario, one in Quebec and one came from Britain via India and Ireland. Henrietta Edwards was the eldest and Nellie McClung the youngest and all five women were married with children.
The five women were also devout Christians, accomplished public speakers, feminists, activists and social reformers, but it was Emily Murphy who was the real “driving force in the campaign to have women recognized as “persons” under the terms of British North America (BNA) Act and thereby be granted the right to be appointed to the Senate,” and she knew that these particular women were the ones who could achieve that. Because of Emily Murphy’s strong leadership some historians have referred to the women as “The Famous One plus Four.”
But perhaps the most famous of the five was Nellie McClung because of her many books, but Smith has probed deeply into all the lives of these remarkable women and their many achievements over the years. Their tea with Emily Murphy in August of 1927 was the beginning of their joint fight for justice for women everywhere in the eyes of the law and to allow women to be viewed as “persons” under the law.
On that day Murphy requested the other four women to sign a letter to the Governor General in which she had included a copy of Section 60 of the Supreme Court Act of Canada. Prior to that time, the Senate had always ignored women’s requests to be admitted to the Senate of Canada. This latest letter would eventually change things but as Nellie McClung is quoted later as saying:
It has been a long task; it has been an epic story, this rise of women. They had to begin from far down. Women had first to convince the world that they had souls and then that they had minds, and then it came along to this political entity…. And the end is not yet.
All of the stories are fascinating and Smith has done an excellent job of recounting them to her readers. The women’s many deeds and achievements are documented in a very readable fashion.
Smith’s book also includes an excellent timeline from 1834 to 1965 when the last of the famous five (Irene Parlby) died.
Included also are additional Notes on each chapter plus Bibliographical Essays and References on each of the women, three of whom were authors with Nellie McClung being the most prolific.
Some of McClung’s last books were written from her home (Lantern Lane) in the Gordon Head area of Victoria on Feltham Avenue. In Victoria she is honoured in the name of a nearby library and her house is now a heritage site. An excellent Bibliography for further reading rounds out the book.
Today there are still many reminders left of these incredible women. Statues of them stand in Ottawa, Edmonton and on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg.
Barbara Smith is the author of over thirty books, most of which are ghost stories inspired by true events (including one here reviewed by Caileigh Broatch — ed). She was also featured on the Discovery Channel’s Hunt for the Mad Trapper.
Born and raised in Toronto, Smith has lived most of her life in Edmonton before settling on Vancouver Island in 2006. This book is one of a collection of Amazing Stories published by Heritage House and is well worth reading.
Link to Original Review
“The Ormsby Review, named for pioneering historian and UBC professor Margaret Ormsby, is a remarkable and comprehensive online review of more British Columbia books than you ever imagined existing — the west coast publishing market is lively. It covers fiction, poetry, politics, memoir and much else, as well as a lot of local and west coast history.” – Christopher Moore, September 14, 2020.
Editor and Publisher: Richard Mackie
Mission Statement: The British Columbia Review, formerly The Ormsby Review, is a lively and inclusive Vancouver-based online journal devoted to the literature, arts, culture, and society of British Columbia. Our mandate is to review books by BC-based writers wherever they choose to publish them. We review books from the member publishers of the ABPBC (Association of Book Publishers of BC), but we also review books that are privately printed, self-published, or published by BC writers at publishing houses elsewhere in Canada or abroad. When possible, we also find BC reviewers. Our accessible and authoritative reviews and essays, written by experts in their fields, are packaged as illustrated magazine articles.
The British Columbia Review works with writers, publishers, and literary professionals across Canada to promote books published by BC writers or about British Columbia in all its diversity. We include books by all authors, regardless of race, age, ability, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, ethnicity, religion, political belief, marital or family status, and/or status as Indigenous, Métis, or Inuit.
The editorial offices of The British Columbia Review are located near Commercial Drive in East Vancouver, in the traditional, unceded, and sometimes overlapping territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Wauuth peoples. Indigenous British Columbia, the land on which we live and create, extends over a large area comprising three culture areas, eight language families, and 32 distinct languages. We endeavour to review all books by and about Indigenous BC. Those reviews can be accessed directly here.