The famous five — Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby — have been made senators posthumously. They were the force behind the Persons Case that made its way to the Imperial Privy Council, which allowed women to sit in the Senate. It is a justifiably historic and celebrated achievement, a victory for equality under the law.
Conservative Senator Ethel Cochrane of Newfoundland and Labrador, who introduced the motion, said: “I cannot but help think that if it were not for these women I would not be standing here today.” That might be true. But if Senator Cochrane were physically or mentally disabled, and the famous five had their way, Senator Cochrane’s life might have been radically different in ways that few feminists and progressives would want to acknowledge. Many liberal icons from the early 20th century — the Famous Five, Tommy Douglas, James S. Woodsworth, Margaret Sanger — were all staunch supporters of eugenics. McClung, Parlby and Murphy were instrumental in the creation of Alberta’s Mental Hygiene Clinics. Elizabeth McClung (not, apparently, any relation), a feminist and disabilities activist, has a long post at Screw Bronze about Nellie McClung’s support for eugenics. She concludes her long post noting that the horrors of sterilization programs she describes come not from Nazi Germany, but “the ‘good folks’ and heroic feminists of these shores of ‘freedom.’ These were feminists and national heroes who advocated that women who were different than they were, or didn’t have the same moral values they did should have removed, against their will, the right to ever bear children.” The Famous Five are lionized but they have, at best, a mixed legacy. It is telling that few feminists and others on the political left want to own up to this part of their intellecutal and activist legacy.
For some reason, none of those who spoke in favour of Cochrane’s motion, mentioned the Famous Five’s eugenic ideology and activities. Not Senator Cochrane. Not Senator Joyce Fairbairn, not Senator Grant Mitchell. Not Senator Claudette Tardif. Senator Mitchell noted, apparently without irony, that the Famous Five were “on the right side of equality.” Unfortunately, not for everyone.