Macphail, Agnes Campbell
In 1921, Canadian activist Agnes Campbell Macphail (1890–1954) accomplished the unthinkable when she was elected to the House of Commons, becoming Canada's first female member of parliament. That Macphail even won the election was phenomenal, given that she lived in a time when women were basically expected to stay home. Macphail, however, believed women were equal to men and spent her lifetime trying to prove it. While in office, Macphail pursued a "politics of equality" for all people, regardless of their gender or socio-economic status. During her political career, Macphail's main legislative interests included farm issues, women's equality, prison reform, and peace activism.
Raised in Family of Farmers
Agnes Campbell Macphail was born March 24, 1890, in a primitive, three-bedroom log cabin in Proton Township, Grey County, Ontario, Canada. Her parents, Dougald and Henrietta Campbell Macphail eked out a living as farmers, just as generations of their Scottish ancestors had done before. Likewise, Macphail went on to manage the family farm and household while at home and found the physical labor invigorating. Later in life, when Macphail met U.S. President Calvin Coolidge in 1930, she told him that she had always yearned to meet the man who was slinging hay when elected president. "Your President understands the spiritual value of work with the hands," she told a reporter at the time, according to her obituary in the New York Times. While growing up—and working with her hands—Macphail became acutely aware of the troubles farmers faced. Her passion for this issue would later turn her into a politician. Macphail attended Ontario's Owen Sound Collegiate Institute and earned a teaching certificate from the teachers' college in Stratford, Ontario, in 1910. She spent the next decade teaching in the rural schools of southwestern Ontario and Alberta.
While working in Sharon, Ontario, Macphail joined the United Farm Women of Ontario and soon became a regular at the meetings of the United Farmers of Ontario. As a farmer's daughter, the issues were near and dear to her heart. Macphail became deeply involved in the organization's causes and started stumping for its political candidates. She also wrote a column for the Farmers' Sun. The hot-button issues of the time were tariffs and military service. Macphail and the farmers believed industry benefited from the tariffs because they received money from it, while farmers suffered because they were forced to pay higher prices on farm equipment and supplies. World War I proved to be another hot topic as farmers opposed forced recruitment into the armed forces. Macphail gained popularity because she was able to articulate these struggles.
Elected to Parliament
By 1921, Macphail was deeply dedicated to helping improve the plight of the farmer. The year 1921 was also an election year, and it was the first election where all women would be allowed to vote. Energized by the turn of events, Macphail decided to run for the joint United Farmer-Independent Labor nomination to represent South-East Grey. There were about 25 candidates in the field and as they made their speeches, Macphail stood alone—even her parents felt uncomfortable about supporting a woman running for office. However, Macphail's newspaper column and involvement with the United Farmers of Ontario had made her a household name among the rural Grey County farmers, who ultimately handed her the nomination.
In an era where women were considered secondary citizens, Macphail's nomination created a flurry of excitement, according to the Toronto Star' s Donald C. Mac-Donald. A rebellion soon set in, and MacDonald reported that an old farmer from another township exclaimed: "What! Are there no men left in South-East Grey?" The party asked Macphail to resign, but she steadfastly refused.
Macphail faced an uphill battle in an effort to unseat R.J. Ball, who had represented South-East Grey since 1911. Macphail focused on farm and labor issues. She campaigned relentlessly, touring the countryside in her rundown car that repeatedly broke down, forcing her to finish trips on foot. Her message, however, resonated with farmers, who ultimately elected her to the House of Commons on December 6, 1921.
For Macphail, winning the election was not the end of the battle, it was only the beginning. Macphail reported to the House of Commons in March of 1922 and tried to steer her way though the throng of parliament members gathered in front of the legislative chamber. As she attempted to enter, a man stopped her and asked her if she was lost. He told her that she was in the members' lobby and he would be happy to escort her to the spectators' gallery.
Once inside the legislative chamber, Macphail found a bouquet of roses on her desk and was pleased to have been so warmly welcomed. Later, Macphail learned the roses were payoff for a lost bet, sent by an MP (member of parliament) who bet that she would lose the election.
Faced Battle to be Taken Seriously
From the outset, Macphail found herself doubly isolated as a woman and a diehard agrarian. "These ironical roses were emblematic of my reception to a House hitherto sacred to me," Macphail said later, according to the Montreal Gazette' s Heather Robertson. "I was intensely unhappy. Some of the members resented my intrusion. Others jeered at me. Everything I said was wrong, everything I wore was wrong, everything I did was wrong.… The men did not want me in Parliament and the women had not put me there."
Throughout the course of her 20-plus-year political career, Macphail said that she often felt like the bearded lady, with everyone always pointing her out in crowds and gawking at her, simply because she was a woman in politics. Most often, Macphail was portrayed as "mannish" and dismissed as a spinster schoolmarm. Even the press took Macphail to task, poking fun at her sensible shoes, tailored dressed, and horn-rimmed glasses. Her church affiliation was also used against her. Macphail belonged to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which her enemies conveniently confused with polygamy and Mormonism.
Macphail, however, possessed one great weapon, which was her voice. It was startling, intelligent, and commanding, carrying to every corner of the legislative chamber when she spoke. In an article in the Toronto Star, historian Doris Pennington wrote that a Toronto Telegram columnist from Macphail's time once noted that the most beautiful thing about Macphail, besides her "shining honesty," was her voice. "Her voice had the quality of a viola, deep and compassionate and heart-catching … Agnes Macphail, standing to denounce injustice or deride pettiness from her place in the Commons of Canada, spoke in tones that echo unforgotten across the years."
Macphail was also a witty master at the crushing one-liner. According to the Toronto Star, Macphail was once berated by a heckler who repeatedly interrupted her before telling her to get a husband, to which Macphail replied, "How do I know he wouldn't turn out like you?"
Took up Peace Activism
During her years as a politician, Macphail took up many causes, including the subjugation of women, farm and labor issues, peace activism, and prison reform. Her ideas were radical at the time—especially her notion that parties played too much of a role in politics to the detriment of the people. Macphail suggested that the Cabinet be composed of the most outstanding members of Parliament, regardless of their party. She also reminded members that their priorities should be people, not parties. Macphail also was an advocate for the underprivileged and argued for pensions for the old, blind, disabled, and unemployed.
Abhorred by the dreadful conditions in the penitentiaries, Macphail forced the formation of a royal commission in 1936 to examine the issue, and ultimately, reforms were implemented. She founded the Elizabeth Fry Society, which helped women upon their release from prison.
Macphail's interest in the women's movement seems to have sparked her belief in peace activism, for she came to view women as the natural nurturers of life. Macphail was a member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and attended several international peace conferences in the 1920s. She believed in disarmament and frequently called for a reduction in Canada's defense budget. She also urged the government to form a peace department to foster international understanding. She was one of the first female delegates to the League of Nations (forerunner to the United Nations), and the first woman to sit on its disarmament committee. As a former teacher, she denounced textbooks that glamorized war and got into trouble for suggesting that cadet training be banned from schools because it encouraged a military mentality in boys. As World War II began brewing in Europe, she urged Canada to adopt a neutral position and not get involved.
Because of her social-democratic views, considered radical at the time, Macphail was often maligned as a socialist rabble-rouser. The talk may have been mean, but it put her in the spotlight and turned her into a celebrity of sorts. In an early 1930s poll at the University of Toronto, women students noted Macphail as the woman they wanted most to be.
Macphail's tenure in the House of Commons came to an end in 1940 when a blizzard struck on election day and her rural farmer constituents could not get to the polls. Two days after her 50th birthday, Macphail found herself broke and unemployed, having spent her money on various causes. Though she had served many years in the House of Commons, she did not qualify for a pension. Macphail turned to writing again, this time producing a column exploring agricultural issues for the Globe and Mail. She also took up public speaking, mainly in Canada and the United States.
Elected to Ontario Legislature
Macphail returned to politics in 1943, winning election to the Ontario legislature to represent York East, becoming one of the first two women to serve there. She lost her seat in 1945 but won re-election in 1948. Naturally, Macphail continued her battle for women's equality and in 1951 introduced Ontario's first equal-pay legislation. Four decades would pass before it became a reality. She lost her seat again in the 1951 election.
Macphail never married but biographies make a point of noting her suitors. Alberta MP and ally Robert Gardiner proposed to Macphail, but she refused to marry him. Rightfully so, Macphail was leery of marriage because she realized it would likely mean an end to her career. During her lifetime, a married woman was not supposed to work outside the home. Furthermore, she was expected to adopt her husband's political ideologies. Marriage, therefore, would have meant resignation from the legislature or likely defeat in the next election.
Toward the end of her life, Macphail was ill and crippled with arthritis. Cerebral blood clots left her partially paralyzed. She suffered a heart attack on February 11, 1954, and died two days later in a Toronto hospital, buried during a snowstorm in the family plot in Priceville, Ontario. At the time of her death, Macphail was being considered for appointment to the Canadian Senate.
For all of her humanitarian efforts, Macphail has earned a somewhat legendary place in Canadian history. A bronze bust of her likeness was installed in the House of Commons after her death. In October 1990, on the 100th anniversary of her birth, a commemorative stamp was issued in her honor. And, in an effort to keep her spirit alive, the New Democratic Party of Ontario established the Agnes Macphail Award in 1999, given for women's activism. Former Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker summed up Macphail's career best; according to the Toronto Star, Diefenbaker once said that Canada had produced five great politicians—and Macphail was one of them.
Rappaport, Helen, Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers, ABC-CLIO, 2001.
Gazette (Montreal, Quebec), September 21, 1991.
Guelph Mercury (Ontario, Canada), October 30, 2001.
New York Times, February 14, 1954.
Toronto Star, March 20, 1990; March 16, 1991; March 31, 1993.
"Agnes Campbell Macphail," National Library of Canada/Bibliothéque Nationale du Canada website, http://www.nlc-bnc.ca/2/12/h12-264-e.html (November 30, 2003).