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Macphail, Agnes (1890–1954)

Macphail, Agnes (1890–1954)

First woman elected to Canada's federal Parliament, who was a tireless defender of the rights of women, farmers, prisoners and the disadvantaged through a political career spanning three decades . Name variations: originally "MacPhail," changed the spelling to "Macphail" in 1925. Born Agnes MacPhail in Proton Township, Grey County, southwestern Ontario, Canada, on March 24, 1890; died in Toronto on February 13, 1954; daughter of Henrietta Campbell MacPhail and Dougald MacPhail; never married; no children.

Like many Scottish emigrants in the mid-19th century, Agnes Macphail's ancestors came to central Canada with the dream of religious freedom and independent farm ownership. Choosing to settle in the Grey-Bruce area of southwestern Ontario, both the Campbells and the MacPhails were successful in acquiring their own farms. However, the soil in this area was poor, making farming and economic survival difficult. On March 24, 1890, Agnes Macphail (who changed the spelling to "Macphail" in 1925) was born in a small, dilapidated farm house, the first daughter of Dougald and Henrietta MacPhail . The MacPhails were hard working and determined to get ahead. In 1902, with the help of a small inheritance, they managed to buy a larger, better quality farm with a nicer house. Although the family never became wealthy, they did manage to acquire a degree of financial security by the time Agnes was in her late teens. Still, the impact of years of struggle remained with Macphail, making her sensitive to the plight of farmers throughout her life.

Sometime during these years, Agnes Macphail also became sensitive to the relative inequality of women in Canadian society. Farming was a difficult life for women, with its hard physical labor accompanying the demands of motherhood and housework. Whatever the source of Macphail's feminism, she revealed early on a determination to be independent and to live a life unconstrained by societal views of women's "place." As a student, she excelled and was gravely upset when her parents refused to allow her to attend high school. At the time, high schools were only available in the cities, thereby placing financial demands on rural families who would have to pay for room and board. As extended education was not considered necessary for girls, her parents initially refused to pay. After two years of their daughter's persistence, however, they finally relented and the 16-year-old was sent to the city of Owen Sound to live and study. "At last I was a real person starting out on my own," said Macphail.

Agnes continued to excel at school, both academically and athletically. She completed high school and then teachers college by 1910. For the next decade, teaching school became her vocation in rural areas around the province. During these years, Macphail also became involved with a growing farmers' movement. By the early 20th century, the farming community was declining in both numbers and prosperity. Discontented farmers had come to believe that the solution lay in cooperative action, education, and political reform. To achieve these goals, the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO) was formed in 1914. With her roots firmly planted in rural life and the farming community, Macphail joined the affiliated United Farm Women of Ontario (UFWO). Never content to be simply an auxiliary, she became an important figure in the work of organizing local chapters and publicizing the goals of the UFO. She also took up a position as a columnist for the Farmers' Sun (the newspaper of the UFO). Through these activities, Macphail quickly became a well-known and popular activist in rural Ontario.

By 1919, the rising tide of farmer discontent resulted in the UFO winning the election and forming the government in Ontario. Inspired by these results, the party decided to field candidates in the forthcoming federal election. Obviously a party based strictly in Ontario could not hope to secure a majority in the national Parliament. However, due to Ontario's large number of seats, the party could hope to affect the direction of federal policy by winning a significant number of seats. Convinced of the importance of the farmers' movement, Macphail decided to run as a candidate for the UFO. At the nomination meeting for Southeast Grey, she was the only female among 151 delegates. Yet through her forceful speaking ability and sensitivity to rural concerns, she managed to secure the nomination, an enormous victory for a woman in 1921 Ontario. Women in the province had only been allowed to vote since the end of World War I. The obstacle that Macphail faced was summed up by one farmer who was thrown by news of her victory: "What! Are there no men left in Southeast Grey?"

Having secured the nomination, Macphail confronted the much greater task of winning the election. Not only did she face barriers due to her gender, but she also represented a new party and faced an opponent who had held the riding for three terms. Throughout the election, Macphail concentrated solely on farm and labor issues, emphasizing farmer exploitation at the hands of the "big interests." Her message was clear: the only way for farmers to protect their interests was by electing farm representatives independent of the two mainstream parties. On the night of the election, she waited for the results at her family's home. History was made that night in Southeast Grey. They elected the first woman to the Parliament of Canada.

If there is any good point about me, it is that I am what I am, and I tell them what I think.

—Agnes Macphail

One might have expected that Macphail's public career would be dedicated to women's issues. There is no doubt that she experienced the frustrations of male prejudice. Press and opposition often resorted to derogatory, sexist remarks to undermine her parliamentary efforts. Still, Macphail generally emphasized social reform above women's rights, a position not uncommon among feminists of the time. The belief was that reforms such as labor legislation or old age pensions would ultimately lead to an improvement in women's position along with that of other disadvantaged members of society. Nonetheless, Macphail often stood as the sole champion of women's rights in a Parliament dominated by men. Throughout her career, she defended the right of women to work. She believed that women, like men, needed work to have fulfilling lives. Though Agnes recognized that domestic labor and childcare were "work," she felt that equal opportunity for employment should be available for those women not involved in these activities, by choice or life circumstances. Thus, Macphail was a firm supporter of "equal pay for equal work" laws and opposed female minimum wages as a hindrance to women in the fight for jobs. Having fought so hard against the limitations imposed upon women, Macphail firmly believed that women needed and deserved greater freedom.

In particular, she believed that more women needed to be involved in the political process. This is not surprising considering her often solitary position within Canada's male-dominated Parliament. It was also the result of contemporary beliefs about the nature of men and women. Like other feminists, Macphail subscribed to what has become known as "maternal feminism." Influenced by prevailing beliefs that men and women were psychologically different, maternal feminists argued that women's greater morality, passivity, and nurturance were positive characteristics that should be present in public life to influence policy. Women, it was argued, would naturally oppose war and enact laws to support children and the family. Macphail said in 1925:

Whereas men naturally place business values, economic values, first, we women naturally place the emphasis on human values. So I wish to push human values to the fore-front of politics. I believe this to be the fundamental effect of the political enfranchisement of women.

Still, for Macphail, the fight for women's rights was part of the larger fight for the rights and dignity of all disadvantaged people in society.

One of the most compelling examples of Macphail's commitment to human dignity was her fight for prisoners' rights; a fight which spanned her entire political career. Her battle for prison reform began in the 1920s but became a public issue only after the riots at Kingston penitentiary in 1932. Canada's prison population had been rising steadily, partly due to the imprisonment of political prisoners. A series of prison riots finally culminated in October 1932 with a sizable riot at Kingston. The incident became a national issue and a political embarrassment when it became known that shots had been fired into the cell of Communist Party leader Tim Buck (who ostensibly was not involved in the rioting). There was already some question as to whether Buck deserved to be incarcerated; to many, his only crime was his persistence in expressing his Communist beliefs. To end the riot, it was agreed that the rioters would be tried in criminal court rather than being punished by the warden. The subsequent trial brought to public attention the cruel and degrading conditions within Canada's prisons. The guards were untrained and administering corporal punishment according to personal likes and dislikes. Prisoners were not allowed to talk to one another and

were often locked in their cells for long periods. According to the press, one prisoner had apparently been in solitary confinement for 23 years. In the face of public outcry against this cruelty, Macphail placed a motion before the House that a public inquiry be held into prisons, their role and the sources of crime. Although the government did not immediately respond to her request, she became the leader of a movement to reform Canada's prisons.

From 1934 to 1936, Macphail maintained pressure on the government. She believed that the prison system should not just incarcerate criminals but should reform them. Finally, in 1935, the government agreed to appoint a royal commission into prison conditions. The commission's report of 1938 proposed sweeping reforms, many of which had been previously advocated by Macphail. Although it took years for the reforms to be implemented, she was undoubtedly instrumental in their eventual success. For her efforts, she was admired greatly by the country's reformers and prisoners.

Macphail's concern for human rights and dignity went through a transformation during these years. Earlier, she had completely rejected socialism. This was common among farmers who firmly supported the principle of private property and, thus, felt threatened by socialism. Over the years, however, Macphail embraced a form of moderate socialism. While still committed to private property, she gradually came to believe that society needed greater government intervention in order to secure the dignity and rights of all people. She supported motions for better old-age pensions, government health insurance, and the nationalization of some critical industries such as insurance. While initially Macphail believed that less government would be better for all, the depression years led her to the conviction that government was necessary to force equalization within society, in order to ensure social justice.

Consequently, she was an instrumental figure in the creation of Canada's Social Democratic Party (which became the New Democratic Party). While believing that a greater role for government was necessary, she, like many reformers, believed that the two main parties would never institute reforms because of their alliance to big business. Thus, she was a delegate at the founding convention of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). A loose coalition of Canada's farmer, labor, and socialist groups, the new party accepted a platform based on socialist and reform principles. Macphail brought the UFO into affiliation with the new organization and tried to unify farmers and workers, believing that only through cooperation could they achieve their goals. In the federal Parliament, Macphail generally voted with the CCF members, although she was officially an independent (since the UFO had left federal politics).

Concern for social reform inevitably led to an interest in international affairs. Like many social democrats, Macphail believed that peace was necessary to ensure social justice. In Parliament, she spoke out frequently on foreign affairs and was an active member of the Women's International League. Eventually these activities led to her appointment in 1929 to the League of Nations as Canada's first woman delegate. At the League conferences, Macphail's stubborn determination and feminism surfaced. She refused to accept an appointment to the committee on women and children, which was an unimportant body reserved solely for women. Instead, she managed to secure a position as the first woman on the important and active disarmament committee. For her performance on this committee, she received widespread, international praise.

By the 1930s, Macphail's course had been set. Politics had become her chosen career, but it was not her only public activity. International peace, the farmers' movement, and social reform kept her involved in groups and activities outside of politics. For example, she was an active member in the campaign to create an effective cooperative system for farmers. Macphail also became a popular public speaker. When Parliament was not in session, she went on extensive speaking tours throughout Canada and the United States. This emphasis on a public career may have led to her decision to remain single, for it was extremely difficult to be both a wife and a career woman during the 1920s and 1930s. Even so, Macphail had several significant relationships during her life. As a young woman, she dated regularly, eventually becoming engaged to a young man named Robert Tucker. He enlisted and went overseas during World War I. Though he returned at war's end, the relationship was over. During the early 1930s, she became involved with a fellow MP, Robert Gardiner. In many ways, they held similar views. He was the leader of the Independent group in Parliament and president of the United Farmers of Alberta. However, around 1935, Macphail broke off the relationship.

After the initial election victory in 1921, Macphail won four successive victories, remaining the representative for Southeast Grey until 1940. During those years, she managed to remain responsive to her constituents' concerns in a time of crisis and change. The election of 1940 was different. Concentrating on farm issues, Macphail failed to realize that the primary concern of her constituents was the war. When the polls were counted, the result was a resounding defeat. She placed third behind her two contenders.

At first, she was devastated. Politics had become her life, and suddenly, at 50 years old, she had to find a new career and a new means of supporting herself. Although politics had provided a good income, Macphail had never been a saver, and she tended to give generously to charitable causes. As well, in 1940, there were no pensions for MPs. Eventually, she became involved in a number of pursuits, such as organizational work for the CCF and writing a farm column for the Globe and Mail. Politics was her first love, however, and when the opportunity arose to run for the CCF in the Ontario provincial election, Macphail accepted.

The 1943 election was an astounding victory for the CCF. The party won 34 seats, including Macphail's riding of York East. This victory made Macphail and another woman the first female MPPs (members of provincial parliament) in the Ontario legislature. Although the Conservative Party formed the government, it had only four more seats than the CCF, giving the CCF substantial influence. Generally, Macphail did not like provincial politics because it seemed unimportant compared to the national level. Her first session in the Ontario legislature did not allow her much time to adjust. Another election in 1945 resulted in a reversal for the CCF and defeat for Macphail. The defeat was brief, however, for she won back her seat in the 1948 election.

Once again, Macphail threw herself into reform causes. In particular, she focused on the concerns of the aged and of women workers. Annoyed by the slow pace of reform, she supported issues directed towards improving oldage pensions and "equal pay" for women workers. Ostensibly successful when the government introduced "equal pay" legislation in 1951, Macphail was disappointed and critical as she realized that the act, as written, would be completely ineffective. Her ability to reform Ontario was dwindling. Throughout the Western world, reform sentiment began to die in the face of the cold war. In the 1951 election, the CCF and Macphail were defeated once more.

Following this, Macphail decided to retire. A modest inheritance and an annuity allowed a small degree of comfort and entertainment. Retirement, however, did not mean inactivity. A vigorous social schedule and allegiance to various reform groups kept her involved and busy. In 1952, she accompanied friends on a trip to Scotland, the home of her ancestors. But Agnes Macphail's health deteriorated rapidly after her retirement, and she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1952. A heart attack two years later resulted in hospitalization and eventual death on February 13, 1954, at the age of 63.

In 1955, a bust of Agnes Macphail was unveiled in her honor in the federal Parliament. Liberal MP Chubby Power, who had served with Macphail for many years, summed up her significance. Her importance, he said, did not stem only from the fact that she was the first female member of Parliament, or from her many other "firsts" as a woman. Rather, said Power, the "respect she won" and the "influence she played on Canada's national life" stemmed from "personal qualities of intelligence, courage, and unselfish industry."


Crowley, Terry. Agnes Macphail and the Politics of Equality. James Lorimer, 1990.

Stewart, Margaret, and Doris French. Ask No Quarter: A Biography of Agnes Macphail. Longmans, Green, 1959.

suggested reading:

Pennington, Doris. Agnes Macphail, Reformer: Canada's First Female M.P. Simon & Pierre, 1989.

Catherine Briggs , Ph.D. candidate, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

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