Electoral Insight – New Ways of Building Democracy
Agnes Macphail: The First Woman Elected to Canada's House of Commons
Co-Editor, Electoral Insight, Elections Canada
"Do not rely completely on any other human being, however dear. We meet all life's greatest tests alone."
– Agnes Macphail
The unveiling of a commemorative bust of Agnes Macphail in the Parliament Buildings in March 1955. Pictured, left to right, are: Margaret Aiken, Member of Parliament; Charlotte Whitton, Mayor of Ottawa; Cairine Wilson, the first woman appointed to Canada's Senate; and Secretary of State Ellen Fairclough, Canada's first female cabinet minister. The commemorative bust is located in the antechamber of the House of Commons.
In the 1921 federal general election, fifty-four years after Confederation, Agnes Macphail made history by becoming the first woman elected to Canada's House of Commons. That election was the first in which all Canadian women (at least 21 years of age) had the right to vote and to stand as candidates. While the suffragette movement had opened the door for Macphail, it was her own determination and the voters of the rural Ontario riding of Grey South East that put her in the Commons. She would be re-elected to Parliament four times and serve for more than eighteen years. Later, she would be one of the first two women elected to the Ontario legislature.
Macphail did not come from a family of wealth or great influence. She was a farmer's daughter and a country schoolteacher. She did not run for one of the old mainline political parties. She never got elected on the coattails of a popular leader of a national party. Macphail started out wanting to represent the interests of the farmers of her region and to seek equality for women. Later, she would also champion the rights of miners and prisoners and play a role in the political negotiations that led to the 1926 introduction of old-age pensions in Canada.
Agnes Campbell Macphail was born of Scottish descent in a three-room log house on March 24, 1890, in Proton Township in Grey County, in Ontario's rural Protestant heartland. She was the eldest of three daughters. At the age of 14, although she was a bright student and wanted very much to be a schoolteacher, it appeared her formal education was over. Her parents felt they could not afford the tuition and board for her to attend the high school in Owen Sound and needed her to work on the family farm.
In his book, Agnes Macphail and the Politics of Equality, Terry Crowley wrote, "the teenager brooded incessantly over the cruel fate she suffered by being born female .... Even as a youth Agnes was resentful that women's life cycles were governed by childbirth. Was it not possible, she wondered, for women to live their own individual lives as complete persons in addition to bearing children or in place of their maternal role?"
It took her two years, but Agnes finally convinced her family to let her go to high school and she made up for lost time by graduating in half the normal time. She became captain of the girls' basketball team and led discussions in the Literary Society. The biography Ask No Quarter describes her as "a rather tall, slim girl at that time, with high colouring and bright eyes and, as always, very attractive to boys." But the town girls mocked Macphail's plain country dresses and, for the first time, she felt different and alone.
Agnes Macphail went to normal school in Stratford and then taught at several rural, one-room schools. She brought the books of another Grey County native, Nellie McClung, into the classroom, so the students could learn about her campaign for women's rights. (For more on McClung, see the June 1999 edition of Electoral Insight.) One of her schools was in Kinloss, Ontario, and it was there that Macphail discovered politics. She lived with the owners of a store, where the local Liberals and Tories dropped in to debate the major issues of that time, trade and tariffs. The 1911 election was fought on the question of reciprocity with the United States. Canadians were bitterly divided. When the Borden Conservatives replaced the Laurier Liberals, farmers felt their hopes for lower tariffs and more markets for their products had been shattered too. That election made a deep impression on Macphail, and she became increasingly convinced that farmers could not rely on the existing parties and must take political action themselves.
Her intense interest in farm politics led her to become an organizer for the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO). Her early speeches championed the farmers' cause. "There is only one thing that will check the movement [of farmers from the land] and that is stated in one word, and that word is MONEY. Farmers work 12 hours a day to feed people who work eight hours and still some people call that a square deal. Farmers occupy the same position today economically that the Indian did years ago in trading his furs at the Hudson's Bay post. The dealer, not the producer, fixes the price, both in buying and selling." Her parents were said to be appalled with her new public role, but that didn't stop Agnes Macphail.
A local newspaper first suggested Macphail would make the best representative for Grey South East at the next federal election. But the Durham Review also reported that "the idea of a woman sitting in the House of Commons was so new to them that at first some of her most ardent admirers laughed." On September 26, 1921, a farm-labour convention was held in Durham Town Hall, to choose the UFO candidate for Grey South East. Of the two dozen nominees, Macphail was the only female and there was only one woman among all the voting delegates from across the riding. Agnes was a much better speaker than most of her competitors. She won on the seventh ballot. When she reported her victory to her father, his reaction over the telephone was simply, "I am sorry." The morning after, there were many second thoughts. The riding executive eventually asked Macphail to give up the nomination, so a man could run instead. As always, she stood firm and refused.
At the 1921 federal general election, there were 235 ridings in Canada. Only four women ran. None represented the major Liberal or Conservative parties. Macphail's campaign fund totalled about $600, mostly from one-dollar donations. She made no special play for the votes of women. Rather, her fiery speeches, which drew large crowds, were mostly about the plight of farmers and other workers. Meanwhile, from the pulpit, some local Protestant preachers attacked the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, of which Macphail was a member. At the time, it was understood that most women of the riding did not vote for Macphail. The men must have, because she won with the largest plurality in the history of the riding (almost 2 600 votes). The three female candidates in other ridings were not elected.
Macphail was 31 years old when first elected to Parliament and younger than most MPs. She had never been to Ottawa before and, after seeing the Parliament Buildings, said, "they were all I imagined and more. My devotion to Canada was so great, and my nerves so taut at the time, that tears sprang to my eyes." On March 8, 1922, at the opening of the First Session of Canada's 14th Parliament, Macphail took her seat in the House of Commons. The other 234 members were all men. In recognizing the precedent Agnes Macphail represented, the Speaker began, "Madam; Fellow Members of the House of Commons ..."
The 1921 election made history in another way, as well. For the first time, the Liberals and Conservatives no longer held all the seats in the Commons. Sixty-four Progressives were sent to Parliament, nearly all of them farmers from Ontario and the West. Macphail sat with them in the Commons. The Progressives saw themselves not as a political party, but as a group of independents participating in a revolution against the two old parties, which, they charged, were dominated by the interests of business and the wealthy. These newcomers to Ottawa advocated group government in which legislators would make laws through co-operation and without having to follow partisan lines. While they had the second-largest block of seats in the Commons, the Progressives refused to be the Official Opposition.
Macphail's seat was in the front row, but far down on the opposition side. On her first day in the Commons, there were red roses on her desk. But they were actually a prank. Someone was now paying off on an earlier bet that she would not win her riding. In the early months, the newspapers paid excessive attention to her, often ridiculing how she looked and dressed. She resented it when Cabinet ministers replied to her as the first "lady" member. She wanted to be addressed as the "Member for Grey South East," in the same manner as the men were acknowledged. With the eyes of the curious always on her, she sought ways to escape. Instead of using the parliamentary dining room, she began taking her meals elsewhere.
The biography Ask No Quarter says Macphail confessed she was intensely unhappy amid "subtle indications everywhere that the men thought she should have stayed at home. Her reaction was peculiarly her own. She felt the offence deeply, and she fought back. Her tongue took on an edge. She behaved with more asperity than grace." Doris Pennington, in her book Agnes Macphail: Reformer, quotes Agnes as saying "when I was first elected, everything I said was wrong; everything I wore was wrong, everything I did was wrong, to hear comments about them. Bouquets were not thrown at me because I was the only woman in the House. Brickbats were what I got."
Later, as Agnes Macphail became more accustomed to the workings of Parliament and the other members got used to her, she formed many strong and lasting friendships, including some with members of other political stripes.
For the first fourteen of her years in Parliament, Macphail's was the only female voice there. She was rumoured on several occasions to have been offered a Cabinet post by Prime Minister Mackenzie King, if she or the Progressives would join his Liberals. But she preferred to keep her independence and not have to follow the official line of a governing party.
And what did she accomplish in almost two decades on the opposition benches? Macphail constantly challenged the dominant assumption of the time that women were destined only to be wives and mothers. She pushed for gender equality and believed it could best be achieved through social and economic reforms. She fought for equal pay for equal work and opposed minimum wage laws for women. She usually opposed anything that she thought represented special treatment for women.
In her first major speech in the Commons, Macphail opposed an amendment to the Dominion Elections Act intended to give voting privileges to foreign women married to Canadian citizens. To her, the women were being treated as appendages to their husbands. "I think what women really want today is perfect equality with men," Macphail told the Commons.
The Depression brought many attempts to return women to their homes and let their jobs and wages go to men. Some saw these efforts as a cure for unemployment. Macphail was adamantly opposed and stated that a "woman's place in the modern working world cannot just be considered in terms of economics, but of her mental happiness, which is a vital and fundamental need of every individual."
Macphail became popular as a public speaker. She went on the university circuit and travelled to Montreal to assist in the battle for provincial suffrage in Quebec. She often visited American cities to lecture on women in politics, currency reform and the relations between Canada and the U.S. She encouraged other women to follow her in public life.
In the 1925 election, the Conservatives won a few more seats than the Liberals, but neither had enough to form a majority government. Mackenzie King courted the support of the Progressives (who had been reduced to only 24 seats). What the Progressives wanted most was legislation to provide old-age pensions. King agreed. Macphail met regularly with a government committee to help draft the Old Age Pensions Act, which became Canada's first major social assistance legislation. It would provide $20 per month to Canadians over seventy years of age who passed a means test.
Macphail worked hard over the years to help establish many farm co-operatives. She invested money in several and served on their boards of directors. She felt the co-operatives were a practical means for rural Canadians to wrest economic power away from the interests of big business in the cities. In the early 1930s, as the Great Depression worsened, Macphail helped found the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) of farm and labour groups (which later became the New Democratic Party). She saw it as a new beginning for them, but she always regarded as unrealistic the ideological views of the militant, left-wing elements of the coalition. Later, as the Canadian Federation of Agriculture was being set up, she argued that more than a million farmers needed such an organization to get favourable legislation enacted.
One might think that the farmers' representative from Grey County, Ontario, would have little interest in the coal miners of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Not so. Macphail had heard of the pay cuts that led to strikes and violence between the miners and police, sometimes even involving women and children. She went personally to Glace Bay to investigate and was shocked to find the impoverished and unsanitary conditions in which the miners and their families lived. Macphail returned to the Commons to forcefully demand the government take action and rail against what she saw as the government's "pampering of industry and neglect of humanity."
In her second term in Parliament, Macphail repeatedly spoke out against the conditions in which penitentiary inmates lived. Shacklings, beatings and long periods in solitary confinement were common. Outside investigations that called for reform were usually shelved. There was very little public sympathy for her concerns and some other MPs vilified her calls for action. But Macphail continued to argue that the penitentiary system was a failure because it provided no opportunities for inmates to reform and lead productive lives upon their release.
When she went to Kingston Penitentiary to see the conditions for herself, at the gate she was told no ladies were allowed inside.
"I'm no lady, I'm an MP," Macphail protested, and she became the first woman to tour the infamous facility. Finally, the Commons passed her motion for a work program to keep prisoners usefully occupied and offset the cost of prisons. Macphail also helped form the Elizabeth Fry Society to rehabilitate female prisoners.
In 1936, after more than a dozen riots within the walls of several penitentiaries, Macphail's persistence finally resulted in the appointment of a Royal Commission to investigate the penal system. It recommended a complete reorganization, which continues to benefit inmates even today.
Macphail was a staunch supporter of the League of Nations and international disarmament. In 1929, she was a member of the Canadian delegation to the League's 10th assembly in Geneva. She served on its disarmament committee, the first woman to do so. As a vocal peace activist, she experienced one of the most agonizing periods of her career when she decided she had to vote in support of Canada's declaration of war in September 1939. She reasoned it would be even worse not to oppose Hitler.
Macphail held her seat in Parliament until the election of March 1940. This time, it seemed the deck was stacked against her. The country was at war and Canadians had been asked to unite behind Mackenzie King's government. In the election campaign, the Liberals and Conservatives used Macphail's many previous anti-war statements against her. She faced a strong Liberal challenger. She had also become more distant from some members of her riding executive. On voting day, after many heavy snowstorms, the country roads were blocked by huge drifts. The farm vote fell sharply. The Liberals won a sweeping majority. In her Grey–Bruce riding, Agnes finished third.
While there were several reasons for her defeat, Macphail seemed to take it as a personal rejection by the voters. With no income, she felt financially insecure, a fear that is said to have haunted her for the rest of her life. She ran unsuccessfully for the United Reform Party in a by-election in Saskatoon. She hoped for a job in the federal civil service or with one of the farm co-operatives that she had earlier helped establish. None was offered. Finally, for about a year, she wrote an agricultural column for the Globe and Mail. That kept her name in front of the public. She was nominated as a provincial CCF candidate in York East and, in 1943, she shared the distinction of being one of the first two women elected to the Ontario legislature. Macphail was defeated in 1945, but returned to the legislature in the election of 1948, with the largest number of votes gained by any provincial candidate in Ontario's history. In 1951, she fought her last political campaign and went down to defeat along with most of the provincial CCF candidates. Over three decades, Macphail had won seven elections and lost four.
Macphail never married. At one time in her youth, she was engaged but the relationship broke off. Later, a fellow member of Parliament, Preston Elliott, courted her but she turned down his marriage proposal. Another parliamentarian who is said to have fallen in love with Macphail was Robert Gardiner, who would later be president of the United Farmers of Alberta. She seriously considered marrying him but decided against it.
She cherished her independence and political life and didn't want anything conflicting with them. The newspapers frequently pointed out she was still single and portrayed her as a strict and loveless spinster schoolteacher. She hated the image and to disprove it, she gave some of her love letters to the National Archives.
Grey County, Ontario gave Canada two of its most successful female pioneers. Nellie McClung, who would become the country's leading women's rights activist of her time, was born near Owen Sound in 1873. Seventeen years later in nearby Proton Township, Agnes Macphail was born. Macphail read McClung's books to her schoolchildren. Both were first elected in 1921: Nellie to the Alberta Legislature, Agnes to the House of Commons. The two became good friends and met frequently in Ottawa.
After Macphail lost her seat in the Ontario legislature, a campaign began to convince Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent to appoint her to the Senate, even though she had despised the unelected body and said it should be abolished. Friends felt Agnes now deserved the personal security of a senate seat. Women's organizations, newspapers and a majority of Canadians (according to a 1952 poll) supported the idea. The Prime Minister was reluctant but, apparently, eventually decided to announce her appointment in the spring of 1954. If so, it was too late, because on February 11, 1954, at the age of 63, Macphail suffered a heart attack and died two days later in Wellesley Hospital in Toronto. She was laid to rest beside her parents in a cemetery in Priceville, Ontario, back home in Grey County.
Author Doris Pennington in Agnes Macphail: Reformer describes Macphail and her many contributions. "She came armed with youthful idealism, strong opinions and a stubborn independent streak, determined to set Parliament on its ear if necessary to get a fair deal for farmers and women in particular. Alone, she faced the scorn of members and learned to give a little better than she got. She fought for peace in an age that glorified war. She fought for reform – economic, social, prison and parliamentary. She earned the reward of most reformers: abuse. Nevertheless, when she died it was widely recognized that there had been little good social legislation in the past thirty years in which she had not played a part."
The pioneering achievements of Agnes Macphail have inspired many Canadian women to follow her example. Though they are still in the minority on the campaign trail and in Parliament, there were more than 400 women candidates in each of the two most recent general elections. In 1993, 53 women were elected. At the subsequent 1997 election, women won 62 of the 301 seats in Parliament.
The family name was actually MacPhail. Sometime around 1925, after her election to Parliament, Agnes began spelling it with a small "p", because she felt it was easier to write that way. On the family tombstone at Priceville, it is spelled without the "a".
Canada's First Woman MP (An abridged version of The Lady from Grey County). National Film Board, 1986. [Video. Title code: 106B 0177149.]
The Canadian Parliamentary Guide. Ottawa.
Crowley, Terry. Agnes Macphail and the Politics of Equality. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1990.
Crowley, Terry. "Agnes Macphail and Canadian Working Women." Labour/Le Travail 28 (1991), pp.129-48.
Pennington, Doris. Agnes Macphail: Reformer. Canada's First Female M.P. Toronto: Simon & Pierre, 1989.
Russell, William. 1977. "Agnes Campbell Macphail (1890-1954)." Miscellaneous research papers. National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.
Stewart, Margaret and Doris French. 1959. Ask No Quarter, The Story of Agnes Macphail. Toronto: Longmans, Green and Company.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.