Over the past 100 years, women have made huge inroads into politics. Beginning with the ability for women to vote in provincial and federal elections in the late-1910s and early-1920s, all the way to today with our first female Minister of Finance with Chrystia Freeland, many changes have happened.
Today on the podcast, I want to look at some of the women who were the first to break through in a political arena, laying the foundation for future women. From the first woman elected to any sort of municipal, provincial or federal office, all the way to the first woman to lead the country, there are many great stories to tell.
Each of these women deserves their own episode, and over time they will have them, but today I wanted to look many different women who made inroads in the world of politics.
The First Woman To An Elected Political Position
It was in 1917 when a woman by the name of Hannah Elizabeth Rolinson Gale was elected to a political position in Canada. In the process, she became the first woman to be elected to municipal, provincial or federal politics.
Her road to this historic moment started in England where she was denied entry into Oxford University because she was a woman despite passing the Oxford Entrance Examination. Instead, she began to run the family business following the death of her father. In 1901, she would marry William Gale and in 1912 the couple, along with their two sons, moved to Calgary.
Upon arriving in Calgary, Gale began to notice the poor quality and high prices of the vegetables in the city. After doing some investigating, she discovered this was because grocers had contracts with BC producers, which added a high cost for transportation, while increasing transport time that made the vegetables of poor quality. Wanting to do something about it, she joined the Consumers League and helped to establish the first farmer’s market in the city where local producers could sell local products.
This was only the beginning for her. She would become the secretary of the Free Hospital League after learning many farm women gave birth without proper medical attendance, and she organized Calgary’s Women’s Ratepayers Association, the first of its kind in Canada. The group invited her to run for the 1917 Calgary City election, which she did.
In speaking of why she went into politics, Gale would state, quote:
“I have always believed that the mission of women in political life was to clean up politics.”
On Dec. 10, 1917, she was elected and became the first woman in Canada elected to such a position. That same year, her fellow members on council elected her as acting mayor, making her the first woman to perform the duties of mayor in the British Empire.
Canadian Magazine would write about Gale that year, stating quote:
After coming into municipal politics in 1917, she would be re-elected in 1919 and again in 1921. That same year, she ran in the Alberta provincial election but was not elected.
As can be expected, her advocacy for working families would make her enemies in the city, and those enemies forced her husband to resign from his position with the City Engineering Department in 1923. Feeling she could not serve council after this, she did not seek re-election. Gale wasn’t done with politics though and was elected as a public school trustee for the Calgary Board of Education in 1924. In 1925, she moved to Vancouver hoping that the coastal climate would improve her husband’s health. He would pass away there in 1939. As for Gale, she lived in Vancouver until she passed away in 1970 at the age of 93.
In 1983, a school was named after her in Calgary and in 2016 a boardroom in Calgary City Hall was named for her.
First Woman In A Provincial Legislature
Around the same time that Hannah Gale was beginning her political career, another woman by the name of Louise McKinney was embarking on a political career that would make her an iconic person in Canadian politics and history.
McKinney had been born in Frankville, Ontario in 1868 and in 1903 she made the move to Alberta where she began to live as a homesteader with her family. A year after women were given the right to vote in Alberta in 1916, McKinney would run for a seat in the 1917 Alberta general election in the district of Claresholm. As a candidate for the Non-Partisan League, she was able to defeat her Liberal opponent William Moffat. Interestingly, she was one of two women that year to be elected to the Alberta Legislature. The other was Roberta MacAdams, who was elected following the completion of overseas voting and a count that took place at a later date than in-province voting. MacAdams, for her part, would become the first woman to introduce legislation in the British Empire, and the first to successfully pass it. The legislation, called Act To Incorporate The Great War Next-of-Kin Association, would legally recognize a veteran’s organization.
Going back to McKinney, her election was no small feat. She defeated Moffat, the first resident of Claresholm and at one point its mayor. He had also served there since 1909.
McKinney would serve until 1921 when she ran for re-election but lost to the Independent Farmer candidate Thomas Milnes, another mayor of Claresholm.
Her role in Canadian history was not done though. McKinney would become one of the Famous Five who argued the Persons Case in 1927, eventually culminating in 1929 with the decision by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council that women were legally recognized as persons and could therefore sit in the Senate of Canada. McKinney was also one of the few of the Famous Five who did not publicly endorse eugenics. I did an episode on the Famous Five back in May that I encourage you to check out.
In 1931, she would briefly serve as the president of the Canadian Union and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, while also being named as Commissioner for the First General Council of the United Church of Canada.
Sadly for McKinney, she would pass away in 1931 only two years after the Persons Case victory. In 1939, she was recognized as a Person of National Historic Significance and a plaque commemorating her is on display in Claresholm. In 1997, the Persons Case was recognized as a National Historic Event, and in 2009 she was named an honorary senator by the Canadian Senate, along with the other four members of the Famous Five.
First Woman In Parliament
In 1919, amendments were made to the Elections Act by the federal government which would pave the way to women serving in the House of Commons. Two years later, the first woman would enter Parliament and her name was Anges Macphail.
Macphail was born Grey County, Ontario on March 24, 1890 and would go on to attend the Owen Sound Collegiate and Vocational Institute before transferring to the Stratford Normal School. After graduating with a second-class teacher’s certificate, she applied for five teaching positions and was accepted to all. While working as a teacher in Sharon, Ontario, she became active with the United Farmers of Ontario and the United Farm Women of Ontario.
In 1921, Macphail was nominated to represent South-East Grey County in the House of Commons by the United Farmers of Ontario, who had won a landslide victory in the Ontario provincial election in 1919. Macphail won that election and became the first female MP in Canadian history. This was not a one-off election win for Macphail either. She would go on to serve until 1940 and was involved in several important legislations. In 1924, she opposed the Royal Military College of Canada on the grounds that it taught snobbishness and provided a cheap education to the children of the rich. She would oppose government support of the college in 1931 as well based on her pacifist beliefs.
Throughout her time in Parliament, Macphail was a strong advocate for rural issues and penal reform. Her work in that matter would result a reform in Canadian prisons after the second World War. Her concern for women in the criminal justice system also led her to found the Elizabeth Fry Society of Canada in 1939.
Her campaign to bring prison reform would be highlighted in a Heritage Minute:
She would also push for a pension for seniors and workers’ rights, while also become the first Canadian woman delegate to the League of Nations. While she was a pacifist, she did vote in favour of Canada entering the Second World War.
After losing the 1940 election, she spent time as a journalist writing agricultural columns for The Globe and Mail before going back into politics. In 1943, she was elected in the York East riding to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, becoming the first woman, along with Rae Luckock, to be elected to the Ontario Legislature. She was also the first woman to be sworn in as an Ontario MPP. She remained in provincial politics until 1945, then came back and served from 1948 to 1951. She would pass away in 1954, just after she was offered an appointment to the Senate of Canada.
Following her passing, two schools have been named for her in Ontario and in 1993, on the 50th anniversary of her election to the Ontario Legislature, March 24 was declared Agnes Macphail Day. In 2005, she was voted the Greatest Ontario Woman and in 2017 she became the first woman other than the sovereign to have a permanent spot on Canadian currency, when she appeared along side George-Etienne Cartier, James Gladstone and John A. Macdonald on a Canada 150 edition of the $10 bill.
First Female Cabinet Minister and Speaker in British Empire
As we have seen a couple times now, Canada has led the way in the British Empire for women going into politics. Mary Ellen Spear Smith is another person who led the way in the Commonwealth with her work in provincial politics in British Columbia.
Originally born in England on Oct. 11, 1861 or 1863, she would marry Ralph Smith, a coal miner, and come with him to British Columbia in 1891 after her marriage. Her husband was a trade union leader and would be elected to the British Columbia Legislature in 1898, and then the House of Commons in the 1900 federal election, serving until 1911. He then came back into provincial politics, serving from 1916 to 1917. During all of this, Mary would help him with his political work and campaigns, while also making speeches on his behalf when he was unavailable.
For her part, she was also involved in activism, including as a member of the Suffrage League of Canada, as president of the Women’s Canadian Club, a regent of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire and was an executive member of the Canadian Red Cross.
Following the death of her husband in 1917, she succeeded him in the British Columbia Legislature by winning a by-election in 1918 on the slogan of Women and Children First. She would be re-elected in 1920 and 1924. As an MP, she would introduce a law to establish a minimum wage for women and girls, enact laws to establish juvenile courts, allow women to sit as judges, establish a pension for mothers and pass laws to protect women in the workplace.
Unfortunately, she also supported Anti-Asian and eugenics in British Columbia.
In 1921, she joined the cabinet of Premier John Oliver as a minister without a portfolio, becoming the first female cabinet minister in the British Empire. In 1928, she became the Acting Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, becoming the first woman to hold the position of speaker in the British Empire.
Following her 1928 election loss, she would be appointed as Canada’s delegate to the International Labour Organization in Geneva the following year. She would pass away from a stroke in 1933.
The First Female Federal Cabinet Minister
We just touched on the first female cabinet minister in Canadian history, but now its time for the first federal female cabinet minister, Ellen Fairclough.
Born in Hamilton on Jan. 28, 1905, Ellen Fairclough trained as an accountant and ran an accounting firm before she got into politics. That political career would begin as a member of the Hamilton City Council from 1945 to 1950. In 1949, she ran in the federal election but lost to Colin Gibson of the Liberals in Hamilton West. After Gibson was appointed to the Supreme Court of Ontario in 1950, Fairclough ran again, this time in the by-election, and won.
Upon becoming a Member of Parliament, Fairclough would begin advocating for women’s rights, especially equal pay for equal work.
In 1957, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker would appoint her as the Secretary of State of Canada, making her the first female federal cabinet minister. In 1952, she became the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration and in that role she introduced regulations that eliminated racial discrimination from the nation’s immigration policy. She also increased the number of immigrants allowed into Canada.
Another interesting aspect of her time in the House of Commons was that from Feb. 19 to Feb. 20, 1958 she was named Acting Prime Minister of Canada, the first woman to ever have that duty.
She would lose in the 1963 election and would go on to become a chairperson of Hamilton Hydro.
In 1979, she was named to the Order of Canada and in 1996 she was awarded the Order of Ontario. In 1982, an Ontario government office tower in Hamilton was named for her and in 1992 Queen Elizabeth II bestowed on her the title Right Honourable, something usually reserved for the prime minister, governor general or chief justice.
She would pass away on Nov. 13, 2004. On June 21, 2005, a stamp was issued in her honour.
The First Woman Senator
Following the ruling in 1929 that women were persons and could therefore sit in the Canadian Senate, it did not take long for the federal government to appoint a woman to the Senate. That woman was Cairine Wilson and her story begins on Feb. 4, 1885 when she was born in Montreal. In 1918, she moved with her family to Ottawa where Wilson became heavily involved in volunteer work and working with political organizations to encourage women to get into politics. To that end, she helped found the Twentieth Century Liberal Association and the National Federal of Liberal Women of Canada.
In February 1930, due to her Liberal background, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King appointed her as the first female senator to the Canadian Senate, only four months after the Persons Case judgement came down.
In 1938, while serving as the president of the League of Nations Society of Canada, she spoke out against the appeasement of Hitler and when the Mackenzie King government resisted permitting Jewish refugees from Germany coming to Canada, she was able to arrange the acceptance of 100 orphans.
In 1949, she was made Canada’s first female delegate to the United Nations General Assembly, and became the first woman to chair a Senate Standing Committee. In 1950, the French government presented her the Cross of the Knight of the Legion of Honor for her work with child refugees. In 1955, she became the first woman Deputy Speaker of the Canadian Senate.
On March 3, 1962, she would pass away from a heart attack. A school in Ontario is named for her.
The First Female Lt. Governor
The Lt. Governor is one of the most important posts in a province, but it would take until 1974 for a woman to serve as one in Canada. That woman was Pauline Mills McGibbon, who was born in Sarnia, Ontario on Oct. 21, 1910. Studying at the University of Toronto, she would begin volunteering with various organizations, including the Daughters of the Empire, of which she would become president in 1963, serving until 1965. A major supporter of the arts, she also served as the president of the Dominion Drama Festival in 1948 and was the first woman to lead both the Canadian Conference of the Arts and the National Arts Centre.
She was also the first woman to serve as president of the University of Toronto Alumni Association from 1952 to 1953.
She would also serve as an honorary colonel with the 25th Toronto Service Battalion, the Director of Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall and would earn the Order of Canada in 1967 for her work with the arts and volunteer organizations.
In 1988, she was awarded the Order of Ontario.
Her biggest role would come on Jan. 17, 1974 when she became the first female Lt. Governor in Canadian history, and second in the British Commonwealth. She would serve in the post until Sept. 15, 1980. Her main focus during her time as Lt. Governor was on the arts in the province.
She would pass away on Dec. 14, 2001 in Toronto.
The First Female Governor General
Since 1867, there have been 29 Governor Generals and of those, four have been women. Three of the past four Governor Generals have been women actually, but the first was Jeanne Sauve, who took to the post in 1984 and survived through three prime ministers and a change in government to hold the post until 1990.
Born in Saskatchewan and educated in Ottawa and Paris, she would begin working as a journalist for the CBC where she launched her successful radio show Femina, before moving to television to focus on political topics in both French and English. In 1956, she was given her own television show called Opinions, which ran until 1963. In 1972, she ran for the Liberal Party in Montreal, winning the election and serving until 1984. During that time she would serve as the Minister of the Environment and the Minister of Communications, and most notably, as the Speaker of the House of Commons from 1980 to 1984, becoming the first woman to hold the post. As Speaker, she presided over debates on the new constitution, the Energy Security Act and more.
In December of 1983, it was announced that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had put forward Sauve’s name to Queen Elizabeth as his recommendation for the new Governor General of Canada. She would be appointed on Jan. 28, 1984, becoming the first female Governor General in Canadian history and only the second in the Commonwealth. In speaking about the decision, Pierre Trudeau said, quote:
“It is right and proper that Her Majesty should finally have a woman representative here.”
She would serve in the role until 1990, during which time she welcomed Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the Queen Mother, as well as the royal families of other countries such as Jordan, the Netherlands and Sweden. She was also on hand to welcome the Secretary General of the United Nations, the presidents of France, China, the United States and Romania, as well as Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa. She would also welcome the world to Canada during the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.
Following her departure from the role in 1990, she would pass away in 1993 after a long battle from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In 1994, a stamp was issued in her honour. Today, a building in Kingston is named for her, as are seven schools and three organizations.
The First Female Premier
Despite the various inroads Canadian women made into politics between the 1910s and 1980s, including as Governor General, it would not be until 1991 that the first female premier would take office.
Rita Johnston was born on April 22, 1935 in Melville, Saskatchewan but would eventually find her way to British Columbia where she entered politics as a city counsellor for Surrey City Council, followed by being elected to the British Columbia Legislature in 1983 in the riding of Surrey. After her re-election in 1986, she became a cabinet minister, serving in various roles including Minister of Municipal Affairs, Minister of State and Minister of Transportation and Highways. In 1990, she was appointed as the deputy premier of the province. Following the resignation of Bill Vander Zalm on April 2, 1991, she became the premier of the province, making her the first female premier in Canadian history.
In July of that year, she would formally win the leadership role at the Social Credit party convention and in October would go through her first election as premier. Unfortunately, it was a disaster for her party and her time as premier would end on Nov. 5, 1991, as did her time in provincial politics as she lost her own seat.
Today, she leads a quiet life in British Columbia while also occasionally serving as a political advisor.
The First Female Prime Minister
The biggest job in the land, maybe second to Governor General, is that of prime minister. Over the course of Canada’s history there have been 26 prime ministers, with several serving multiple non-continuous terms. While today women have served in the roles I have mentioned multiple times, including as Governor General, only one woman as served as prime minister and that was only for 132 days. For Kim Campbell, serving as the first female prime minister is a massive accomplishment, but it was only part of her entire political and judicial career.
Kim Campbell deserves an entire episode of her own, as do all the women in this episode, and she will be receiving it. On my podcast From John to Justin, I will be looking at her life and career, but for now, I am going to just touch on the many accomplishments of our first female prime minister.
Born on March 10, 1947 in Port Alberni, British Columbia, Kim Campbell would begin her political life with a degree in political science from the University of British Columbia, followed by doctoral studies at the London School of Economics. From 1975 to 1981, she would lecture on political science at the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver Community College, before choosing to start a career as a lawyer.
The next step in her political career began when she served on the Vancouver School Board from 1981 to 1984. In 1985, she became the executive director in the office of Premier Bill Bennett before making a bid for the leadership of the Social Credit Party, which failed. In 1986, she would be elected to the provincial legislature but issues with the party and its stance on abortion resulted in her leaving provincial politics. The loss to the British Columbia Legislature was a gain to the House of Commons. In November of 1988, she would be elected to the House of Commons and one year later was the Minister of State for Indian Affairs and Northern Development. From 1990 to 1992, she served as the Minister of Justice and the Attorney General, bringing in reform legislation on many issues including abortion, sexual assault and firearms control. One of the most important laws she introduced protected a victim of sexual assault from having their past explored during trial. In January of 1993, she was moved to the become the Minister of National Defence, one month before Prime Minister Brian Mulroney retired. In the leadership race, Campbell put her name down and was chosen as the leader of the Conservative Party. This made her, on June 25, 1993, the first female prime minister in Canadian history and also one of the youngest women to ever assume the office of prime minister anywhere in the world.
As prime minister, she quickly began to reorganize the cabinet, reducing it from 35 ministers to 23, consolidating several ministries and enjoying a 51 per cent approval rating, making her the most popular prime minister in 30 years.
Unfortunately, while she was very popular, the Mulroney government had seen its support disintegrate in the West and in Quebec. Unable to distance herself from the unpopular Brian Mulroney, the Conservative Party would suffer the biggest defeat in Canadian history, nearly being wiped out completely even in Alberta. Only two Conservatives remained in the House of Commons and Campbell herself lost her seat. The PC party still finished with two million votes, third in the popular vote and only two percentage points behind the Reform Party, but as a result of the first past the post system, the PC did not have enough support in enough areas to gain individual ridings.
Many see Campbell as a capable leader who was given the reins to a sinking ship with little she could do to save it. One humorist said that when she was given leadership it was like, quote, “taking over the party leadership from Brian was a lot like taking over the controls of a 747 just before it plunges into the Rockies.”
On Dec. 13, 1993, Campbell resigned as leader of the party.
That same year, Chatelaine named her Woman of the Year and she would publish her autobiography in 1996. From that year until 2000, she was the consul general to Los Angeles. From 1999 to 2003, she chaired the Council of Women World Leaders and from 2003 to 2005 was the president of the International Women’s Forum.
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