Agnes Macphail was a Canadian politician
; more specifically, she was Canada’s first woman in parliament. She was also elected to the Ontario
provincial legislature later in her career and a pending appointment to Canada’s senate was nullified at the time of her death in 1954.
Macphail’s achievements were particularly notable, given their time and context within the greater frame of female political involvement in Canada and elsewhere in the world. She was an advocate for equal rights, rural areas, agriculture, seniors, and pacifism. Her politics were progressive and she was involved with the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (the forerunner to today’s New Democratic Party) in its earliest days, serving as one of its first presidents in Ontario.
Agnes Macphail’s legacy is not merely that she was a woman elected to do a task that had, up until her election, only ever been performed by men. Various other factors of the time indicate that her election and time in office indicate an attitude shift, however small, towards the idea of women in politics. Political opponents and the press were also not kind to her, and she was subsequently not taken as seriously as some of her male counterparts. She did, however, contribute a great deal to Ontarian and Canadian society.
Background and Career
Agnes Campbell Macphail was born in Proton
, Ontario, on March 24, 1890. Little is known about her early life aside from the fact that she attended teachers’ college in Stratford, Ontario
, and spent much of her early adulthood teaching in rural areas of southwest Ontario. Macphail was born and raised in a predominantly rural area and she subsequently grew up well aware of the troubles and problems (predominantly economic in nature) facing farmers
She became interested in politics during her time as a teacher in the small town of Sharon. It was here that she became involved with organizations devoted to rural issues and to lobbying the government for more aid for farmers and others who made their living from agricultural pursuits. She became a member of the United Farm Women of Ontario and actively involved with the United Farmers of Ontario, the provincial faction of a political party that also operated on the federal level. She was not actively involved in politics herself (that is to say that she was not representing herself as a potential candidate) at this point, but volunteered regularly at CFO functions and partook in grassroots activities to support the candidates who ran in its campaigns.
Macphail ran for federal parliament in the 1921 Canadian federal election, the first federal election in which women were permitted to vote. Despite the success of the suffrage movement, the entire notion of women in politics was not yet fully accepted or even understood. Macphail’s campaign was met with confusion by both men and women; when the press paid any attention to her whatsoever it was usually not entirely flattering or all that fair, for that matter. She was a member of the Progressive Party from 1921 to 1935, when she was re-elected to parliament as a member of the United Farmers-Labour Party. She was also the only woman in the House of Commons until this point.
In becoming the first woman elected to the Canadian House of Commons, Macphail also became one of the first few women elected to constitutional monarchical parliaments anywhere in the Commonwealth. (Read "Historical Context" for more on this.) Her electoral victory in 1921 was not given much attention despite its historical significance; few newspapers saw fit to even report the fact that she was Canada’s first woman elected to parliament. The press seemed to have a nonchalant attitude towards her in general, as well; her first years in parliament were marked by numerous scathing press references to her “old-fashioned” dresses.
During her remarkable 19-year career as an MP, Macphail campaigned for better federal funding for rural areas and agriculturalists as well as for penal reform. Though her colleagues did not take her entirely seriously at first (it’s been alleged that she was frequently shouted down in the House while trying to make statements, but I can’t find the Hansard transcription for the life of me), her efforts eventually bore fruit when the Archambault Commission on penal reform was established in 1936. She also founded the Elizabeth Fry Society, which was dedicated to the improvement of women’s conditions in the judicial system.
Macphail was defeated in the 1940 Canadian federal election. This was not necessarily due to any inaction on her part or blatant dissatisfaction with her service as an MP but rather of the continually growing popularity of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and his Liberal government. Macphail was defeated by Liberal Walter Edward Wallace, who garnered well over 1,500 more votes than she did. Not only was she soundly defeated, she came in third of three candidates.
After a three-year absence from the political arena (which she spent writing agricultural articles and columns for the Globe and Mail, among other publications), Macphail entered the realm of provincial politics and was elected as a Member of Provincial Parliament in 1943. She ran as a member of the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation and was one of the first two women elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. MPPs are traditionally sworn in alphabetically but Macphail was sworn in before Rae Luckock and is therefore technically Ontario’s first woman sworn into provincial parliament.
Macphail’s time as an MPP was marked by the same ideals for which she fought as an MP in federal parliament. She was still a tireless advocate for rural funding and agriculturalists, though she now focused her attention on what ways the provincial government could benefit these groups. Her bid for re-election in the 1945 provincial election was unsuccessful and she lost her seat in the Toronto riding of York East. She ran again in 1948 and was re-elected, this time holding her seat until suffering another electoral loss in 1951. Her final term in office was marked by her help in the creation of Ontario’s first equal pay legislation.
She did not run again after her loss in 1951 and spent her remaining years writing and lobbying. She died on February 13, 1954; the federal government was about to appoint her to the Senate.
Agnes Macphail is famous for being Canada’s first woman in parliament
. It should also be noted that her achievement is all the more remarkable for a variety of reasons.
The date of Macphail’s first election was not long after the first election of a woman to the British House of Commons. Constance Markiewicz was elected to the British House in 1918 but elected not to take her seat. Nancy Astor was elected in 1919 and became the first woman to assume the role of an MP. Astor, however, ran for parliament in place of her MP husband who had to resign his seat after being appointed to the House of Lords. One might say, then, that their riding was considered “safe.”
Several of the women who were elected to Canada’s House of Commons after Macphail’s initial election were also doing so at least partially because their husbands had previously represented the ridings in parliament. Martha Louise Black, the second woman to be elected to the House of Commons, ran in place of her ailing husband and won. Once he had recovered, he returned to politics and she did not stand for re-election. Similarly, Cora Taylor Casselman, the fourth woman elected to Canadian parliament, ran to replace her husband who had died. Macphail, then, was not only a pioneer in terms of her election in general but also in that she was not automatically likely to win the seat by running in place of a family member. This is also not to say that Astor and the women who managed to successfully run for Canadian parliament in place of their husbands did not also face competition. Macphail merely did not have the “added bonus” of surname recognition, though she was well known in the community.
Agnes Campbell Macphail was a key figure in the evolution of Canadian parliament and remains an inspiration to women across the country that want to stand up for their communities (rural, like Macphail’s, or otherwise) and make a positive difference for their country. Her constant successes also marked the beginning of a shift in attitude towards women in politics; she was one of the first to successfully run for parliament for the sake of parliament, and not to “hold” a riding for someone else.