Famous 5 Women in Canadian History

Lee Bryant has resided in Waterloo for 21 years. She is author of three books, Counsellor, Therapist and Teacher

famous 5

Famous 5 Women in Canadian History
Vol 9 2000

In the fall of 1999, a monument honouring the “Famous Five” was erected on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Who are the Famous Five?

When I mention that I devised and taught a course on Women in Canadian History, women’s attention is perked.

“Yeah, wasn’t Emily Carr the famous artist who painted forests and totem poles?” or, “Yes, I’d like to find out more about when women became persons .. and who were the Famous Five?”

Let me tell you the story of Emily Murphy, one of the five, whose life and circumstances prompted the famous “persons” case.

Emily Ferguson was born in 1868 in the village of Cookstown, Ontario. Her father, Isaac, was a wealthy landowner and businessman and a Conservative, or Tory. The family entertained many of the prominent men in the Canada of their day. Among their guests was Sir John A Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister. It is likely that Emily learned a lot about politics around the dinner table. One of her four Irish grandparents was a Member of Parliament for 27 years. A cousin on her mother’s side became a Supreme Court Judge who later became a Senator and was knighted. On her father’s side there was a Member of Parliament for Simcoe and Cardwell, another was a Justice of Ontario’s Supreme Court. Her three brothers were lawyers. Emily was completely unlike her genteel mother who, like many women of her social position in that day, was brought up to look ornamental and attract a husband. Emily’s father paid a tutor to journey the 25 kilometers from Barrie every Saturday morning to teach the five children penmanship. The concept behind this training was to teach them to hold their pens properly so they would have the ability to write for hours without getting cramped fingers.

The local Anglican rector prepared them for private school in Toronto. Emily went to Bishop Strachan School in Toronto, an exclusive grammar school for daughters of wealthy families; it was patterned on the British school system for the children of the elite. Life there was very different from the country school in Cookstown.

Here, the boisterous Emily was given a classical education; she studied Latin and religious knowledge, with heavy emphasis on memorization.

Emily developed a remarkable memory which, years later, caused Nellie McClug, who became her friend when they were pioneers and writers in the then exciting frontier city of Edmonton, to say that Emily’s mind was encyclopedic. Emily was fifteen years old and a student at Bishop Strachan when she met Arthur Murphy, a blond and handsome man of 26 who was studying for the Anglican ministry at Wycliffe College. She married him when she was nineteen, and led a typical life of an Anglican minister’s wife in the parishes of southern Ontario in the 1880s, except that she was younger than most of the women she taught in Bible classes. She arranged and co-ordinated fund-raising events and researched stories for Arthur’s sermons.

For ten years the Murphys moved from small cities and towns, and they had three daughters. Arthur was valued for his community work and business ability.

Emily was very happy in one parish particularly, Chatham. But she was not content to be a mother only. With household help, a maid and a house-maid, she had time for her reading, oil painting and community work.

Arthur so excelled in running a parish that the church would be on its feet financially, so the Bishop of Huron asked him to become a missionary in Western Ontario. For a year the Murphys moved every two weeks. In strange hotel rooms at night, Emily began writing her impressions of people and events.

The Mission Society was so impressed with Arthur’s dedication and success that they asked him to go to England to preach and teach for two years. The Murphys were delighted – to cultivated Canadians of that period, England, their homeland, seemed the epitome of culture and civilization.

In 1898 they set sail for England. While Arthur was preaching and the children were in school, Emily explored on her own. First she visited the places she had read about in history books: the Tower of London, the British Museum, Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. Then she began noticing the people on the streets; men in rags begging for money; rotting tenements, and the stinking garbage in the alleys of the big industrial cities.

Emily had an encounter that launched her career as a crusader for women’s rights. She set out for a trip on a pleasure steamer down the River Thames. She was stopped short by a girl whose horribly disfigured face caused people to walk around her. Emily, in her forthright manner, began to question the girl about her deformity.

The girl explained that she had been working in a match factory. She was constantly in air that was filled with phosphorous fumes that eventually caused a disease known as “matchmaker’s leprosy”. The teeth ache and then fall out, and later the loathsome leprosy eats its way into the roof of the mouth and inside the nose and then eats away at the jaw. Girls frequently lost their sight before death.

Emily seethed. Who cared? Who took responsibility? Her world view changed. She could not witness injustice and then forget about it. Emily Murphy no longer visited cathedrals and art galleries, but deliberately entered the world of Charles Dickens and journeyed into the back alleys and tenement sections of London. Her social conscience was raised, never to diminish