International Implications of the Persons Case - Publications - Library and Archives Canada
Vous consultez une page Web conservée, recueillie par Bibliothèque et Archives Canada le 2007-05-16 à 11:29:15. Il se peut que les informations sur cette page Web soient obsolètes, et que les liens hypertextes externes, les formulaires web, les boîtes de recherche et les éléments technologiques dynamiques ne fonctionnent pas. Voir toutes les versions de cette page conservée.
Chargement des informations sur les médias

You are viewing a preserved web page, collected by Library and Archives Canada on 2007-05-16 at 11:29:15. The information on this web page may be out of date and external links, forms, search boxes and dynamic technology elements may not function. See all versions of this preserved page.
Loading media information
Skip navigation links (access key: Z)Library and Archives Canada - Bibliothèque et Archives Canada
Graphical element FrançaisContact UsHelpSearchCanada Site
HomeAbout UsWhat's NewWhat's OnPublications

Banner: Library and Archives Canada Search All: Graphical element
Search only:
Graphical element
Our CollectionServices to the Public
Expand/Collapse Selected Topics:
Aboriginal Peoples
Exploration and Settlement
Politics and Government
War and Military
Art and Photography
Philately and Postal History
More Topics...
For New UsersFor ArchivistsFor LibrariesFor PublishersCanadian Genealogy CentreInformation Management (IM)Learning CentreMulticultural Resources and ServicesAboriginal Resources and ServicesPreservationThe Portrait Gallery of CanadaDictionary of Canadian Biography OnlineProactive disclosure
Home > Publications




I should like to start by publicly recognising Debra Davis, Counsellor (Public Affairs) at the Canadian High Commission in London, for her inspired idea to hold a conference at Canada House last October to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Persons Case - and colleagues in DFAIT, especially Gary Scott, for their commitment and support.We were honoured and delighted to have Secretary of State Dr Fry and Frances Wright among a distinguished cast of speakers.

The conference was the first of a series held at Canada House under the High Commission's public affairs program.The series was called Women Crossing Borders, and highlighted Canadian and British women's achievements in public and professional life, in journalism, in science, as community leaders, and as businesswomen and entrepreneurs.

Our conference last October began as the celebration of an event in Canadian history, but it became also the celebration of a lost event in British history.Almost all the British speakers and participants, including Baroness Crawley, Chair of the Women's National Commission, learned for the first time that British women also had become persons because of the Privy Council ruling in 1929.

The achievement of the Famous 5 70 years ago also became the symbol through which we have been able to provide opportunities for women in Britain to learn about the women's movement in Canada today.

At our conference last October, we were all inspired and moved by Frances Wright's presentation about the Famous 5 and the wonderful monument that is to be unveiled here tomorrow. Cherie Booth QC, wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair, who addressed the conference, described the monument of the Famous 5 as "fantastic". She went on to say: "We see so few images of strong positive women, and that you should have such images in Canada makes me feel we have got to do a lot more to have similar images here in the UK.It is essential that we as women continue to celebrate and commemorate milestones in the equality of women."

The Persons Case was one of the most important milestones in the history of women's struggle for full citizenship.It has been described as the event that marked women's formal sexual emancipation.British newspapershailed the judgment as "the Canadian women's triumph".

The "Canadian women's triumph" was important for women in Britain in 1929 because they believed that the ruling would at last mean that British women could be admitted to the House of Lords, for which they had been campaigning since women had won the right to vote and stand for election to the House of Commons in 1918.

Historically, however, of even greater importance was the fact that the judgment overturned arguments that had been used by lawyers and legislators for centuries to keep women out of public life.The judgment became the new landmark interpretation of women as persons in English common law throughout the Empire.

The ruling would have been legally binding in all the countries of the Empire - except, curiously enough, in Britain, as appeals to the Privy Council from within the realm had been abolished in the 17th century.Nevertheless, as the Registrar of the Privy Council told me, the ruling would have had "immense persuasive authority" in Britain!

The Persons Case was the vindication of a 60 year battle which had begun in 1867, and during which women in Britain and in Canada had sought - in vain - for a determination by the courts that they were entitled to hold public office and to enter universities and the professions.

Virginia Woolf described the professional men who had rejected the women's claims as "great fighters"."There was," she wrote, "the battle of Westminster.There was the battle of the universities.There was the battle of Whitehall. There was the battle of Harley Street.There was the battle of the Royal Academy.... all seem to have been fought on much the same plan, and by the same combatants, that is by professional men versus their sisters and daughters."

Professional societies agreed with the courts.In 1902, the Royal Society refused the candidature for a Fellowship of Hertha Ayrton, a highly distinguished physicist and electrical engineer, on the grounds that she was a married woman and therefore not a person. In 1888, Mary Harris Smith, a brilliant mathematician and accountant, was refused membership of the Institute of Chartered Accountants on the grounds that the words ‘he' and ‘his' in the charter did not encompass ‘she' or ‘her'.

Universities at first refused to admit women on the grounds that they had been established for men only.In 1869, seven women managed to gain admission to Edinburgh University Medical School - the first women in Britain to be admitted to medical school - but such was the uproar as professors and townsfolk rioted to prevent them from entering the university, that the university reneged on its decision, and cancelled their courses.The Edinburgh Seven, as they are known, took the university to court - and lost.

After the Persons Case ruling, only Britain and South Africa out of all the countries in the British Empire, excluded women from the Upper House.The British suffragist paper "The Vote", carried an article on 15 November 1929 entitled "Women in the House of Lords - the home country lags behind".

The strength of resistance that women in Britain encountered was immense.It was exemplified in the person of Lord Birkenhead, who was the leading opponent of women's suffrage in the Conservative Party, and who was Lord Chancellor when Viscountess Rhondda petitioned to take her hereditary seat in the House of Lords in 1922.The House of Lords Committee of Privileges had declared in Lady Rhondda's favour, but Lord Birkenhead effectively overruled them by referring the matter to a larger Committee weighted with opponents of women's suffrage.

By the time the Persons Case came before the Privy Council, there was a new Lord Chancellor, Lord Sankey, who had been appointed by Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald in an attempt to liberalise the judiciary.Even if Lord Sankey had not been disposed to declare that women were persons, it would have been hard for him to find credible reasons for refusing their appeal.

By 1929, women were Members of the House of Commons in both Canada and the UK, and women had got full voting rights in both countries.In May 1929, just two months before the Privy Council heard the appeal, 14 women (up from 4) had been elected in Ramsay Macdonald's second government.And Lord Sankey had a new colleague in Cabinet - Margaret Bondfield, the first British woman Cabinet Minister and Privy Councillor.

The judgment of the Privy Council combined with the change in political circumstances, meant that there could be no going back.Never again could anyone argue that women were not persons or could not play their full part in the public life of Britain, Canada, or any other country of the Empire.

Lord Browne-Wilkinson, the Senior Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, who represented the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council at our conference last October, said: "I think we got that one right!"

It was not hard however for those men who ran the government, the civil service, the law, the universities, and the professions, to find the regulatory equivalent of bouncers to keep women out of their exclusive clubs. And it seems that the more exalted the club, the longer it took for the citadel to yield.

While some professional societies admitted women by the early 1920s, it was 1945 before a woman became a Fellow of the Royal Society. The foreign service refused to allow women to take the examinations for the administrative grade until 1947, and Cambridge University held out against giving women degrees until 1949. It was 1958 before women could become Life Peers, and 1963 before hereditary peeresses could sit in the House of Lords.Yet, without any hint of irony, the House of Lords website still today informs us that the word "Peer" comes from the Latin word meaning equal!

The story of the Famous 5 has captured the imagination of many women in Britain, and jolted some of us into finding out more about our own great foremothers.

It has strengthened the campaigns for monuments to women in Britain.One campaign is for a statue of Sylvia Pankhurst, Emmeline's younger daughter, who has been ignored until recently because she championed working class women.Another campaign, which seems to be gaining acceptance, is for a monument to mark the contribution of women to the Second World War.

Last month, I attended the unveiling of a plaque to Millicent Fawcett on the house where she was born in Aldeburgh in Suffolk. Millicent Fawcett is the most important figure produced by British constitutional feminism, and the most akin to the Famous 5.Like them, Mrs Fawcett believed in change by constitutional means.She and her husband Henry Fawcett MP were friends of John Stuart Mill, and Mrs Fawcett was associated with the group of women that put together the first petition for women's votes that John Stuart Mill submitted to Parliament in 1866.Like Emily Murphy, Millicent Fawcett was a formidable woman, and an excellent organiser, and she worked tirelessly for the franchise from 1867 until it was finally achieved in 1928.She was one of the first women magistrates appointed in Britain in 1919, and died in 1929 just before the Privy Council ruling in the Persons Case.

A friend and I have come all the way from London to Ottawa to be here for the unveiling of the monument tomorrow, because it is thanks to the Famous 5 that we are persons.Many others wish they could have joined us.

Thank you - all of you - who were responsible for the monument, for giving us the chance, with Emily Murphy, "to stand very erect and to feel ourselves equal to high and splendid braveries."

Vivien Hughes
October 2000