BPW Victoria | History

BPW Canada (officially known as the CFBPWC) was established in 1930, although some Canadian clubs existed provincially prior to that date. We were a founding member of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women, also established in 1930.

A RECORD OF PUBLIC ACTION Women were the instigators of modern social legislation in Canada. By 1930, the political parties, seeking to win the women's vote, found it expedient to introduce laws and projects aimed at social well-being and social welfare as planks in their political platforms, and to look at life "from the woman's point of view." As might have been expected, the point of view included children – and men, too. Indeed, the improvements initiated in business and industry as concessions to women and young workers have, over the years, been extended to include men as well. We need a sense of history and some familiarity with the earlier work of the Federation so that others can appreciate the services our Clubs have rendered to Canada and to the world at large. In BPW's history book called With Enthusiasm and Faith, we read - perhaps with surprise - some of the achievements. Now they appear as "the way things are" rather than as the "ideas on trial" as they were when first introduced.

During the first decade, the Canadian Federation adopted basic policies and instigated action dealing with:

  • - Equal pay and opportunities for employment for men and women;
  • - Removal of discrimination against married women in employment;
  • - Training for domestic service and removal of social prejudice against this occupation;
  • - Appointment of trained women to the staff of the National Employment Commission;
  • - Introduction of vocational training courses for the unemployed;
  • Studies by the Clubs of wages and hours of work of women in Canada; and
  • - Amendments to the British North America Act.

During World War II, the Clubs supported war-time activities in their communities and the Federation undertook special projects, such as:

  • - Adopting "Bundles for Britain" as a national project;
  • - Establishing a CFBPWC War Service Fund;
  • - Contributing to projects of the National Federation of Great Britain and Northern Ireland - $500 annually (1941-50) to the post war re-organization of BPW Clubs; and
  • - Contributing $300 to the Caroline Hazlett Fund to provide educational opportunities for women in scientific, engineering and technological fields, especially by the electrical industry.

Internationally-minded from the start, the Canadian Federation and its Clubs supported the work of the League of Nations, later named the United Nations and IFBPW's affiliation with them. CFBPWC has supported and urged the government to support UN projects and in particular the activities and recommendations of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, on Human Rights and also UNESCO, UNICEF and UNRWA. In 1957, CFBPWC contributed $2,300 to UNICEF and many Clubs have subsequently continued support. The Federation participated in a UNESCO East-West Cultural Mission to Japan in 1958, and has contributed over the years to many UNESCO projects to help women in developing countries to improve their education and economic conditions. It supported, as a national project, the establishment of the International Peace Gardens Inc. on the border between Manitoba and USA. The Manitoba Provincial Organization continues to assist in the maintenance of this project.


As BPW women, we must always remember our sisters who came before us, and the struggles they faced so that women could be where they are today. In 2004, on the 75th anniversary of the “Persons” case, long-time BPW member Kathy Laing, now a BPW Virtual club member in Ottawa, wrote this article about the Famous Five and the “Persons Case”.

By Kathy Laing, BPW Virtual

In 1997 Francis Wright of Calgary (now President and CEO of the Famous Five Foundation) set up a foundation to raise funds for the commissioning and creation of monuments commemorating the success of the Famous 5 and the Persons Case. She succeeded in her efforts and sculptor Barbara Paterson winner of the monument contest created five individual high bronze sculptures.

The first sculptures were unveiled in Calgary at the Olympic Plaza on October 18th, 1999 with plans underway for the second sculptures to be unveiled on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on October 18th, 2000. As many of you know only statues of Prime Ministers and Royal persons had been allowed on the Hill but through the efforts of parliamentarians and senators an exception was made for the Famous Five.

In January 2004, a small notice appeared in the Ottawa Citizen newspaper inviting interested women to a meeting of the Ottawa Committee of the Famous Five Foundation so I decided to attend. The Ottawa Committee was formed to assist in the arrangements for the unveiling of the statues on Parliament Hill. Subsequent to attending the first few meetings, I was asked by then-President Margaret Pronyk (now deceased) to represent BPW Canada at further meetings and associated events.

Although as a former Manitoban, I had heard about Nellie McClung many years before, although it wasn't until I joined BPW Ottawa in 1979 that I became informed about the Famous Five and the Persons Case. This came about when one of our long time members, Sophie Steadman (as well as four other Canadian women) received the Persons Award in 1980. This was the second year that the awards were given by the Governor-General and since then the awards are presented yearly on the 18th of October.

At that time, I also learned that in 1938 the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs arranged for the installation of a bronze plaque at the entrance of the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill in recognition of the Famous Five. I am sure that all members will feel pride in knowing that our organization was able to show appreciation of the tremendous accomplishments of these five courageous women in a tangible way.

Now back to the events leading up to the unveiling of the statues on Parliament Hill. The first event was the Famous Five tea on Sunday October 15th at the Chateau Laurier. On the 17th, a breakfast was held with Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Beverly McLaughlin at the Museum of Civilization, and in the evening an Interfaith Worship Celebration at Christ Church Cathedral.


On Wednesday the 18th, then-Governor General Adrienne Clarkson presented the Governor General Persons Day Awards at Rideau Hall to six women this year - the sixth award given to an outstanding young woman. A reception followed, after which we, the attendees, were bussed to Parliament Hill for the unveiling of the statues presided over by the Prime Minister of Canada, the Governor General and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Entertainment was provided prior to the unveiling. The large crowd of citizens and dignitaries cheered as the statues were unveiled. After the unveiling, a reception for relatives of the Famous Five and volunteers was held in a tent on the Parliament grounds.

Irene Parlby

Later in the afternoon, the Honourable Gildas Molgat, Speaker of the Senate in the Hall of Honour, Parliament Buildings hosted a reception for the Famous Five Foundation and guests. The evening ended with a dinner at the Chateau Laurier for the Ottawa Committee of the Famous Five Foundation, in recognition of the work of the committee members.

It was a busy four days but a wonderful experience. I feel very lucky and honoured to have been part of this momentous occasion which I attended on behalf of the Canadian Federation of Business & Professional Women’s Clubs.



Henrietta Muir Edwards & Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy & Irene Parlby

Background Informatio

Emily MurphyIn 1916. Emily Murphy was appointed magistrate of the Women's Court in Edmonton Alberta. However, her first decision was appealed by the Alberta courts on the grounds that she was not a "person" according to the meaning of the word in the British North America Act (BNA).

Therefore, under the law, she was not eligible to sit as a Magistrate. The Appeal Court of Alberta decided that Mrs. Murphy was indeed a person but this applied only at the provincial level.

Soon after, when women were granted the vote in federal elections and thus eligible to sit in the House of Commons a resolution was sent to the Federal Government by the Federated Women's Institute of Canada and signed by representatives of eight provinces asking for the appointment of women to the Senate, in particular Emily Murphy. The reply was that women were not persons within the meaning of the BNA Act, and were not eligible for appointment to the Senate. At that time, English common law stated that "Women are persons in matters of pains and penalties but are not persons in matters of rights and privileges." And so the fight began!

Nellie McClungEmily Murphy with four other women, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby and Nellie McClung instituted a campaign that took them to the Supreme Court of Canada where their request was rejected. Not wanting to wait for a promise by the then Minister of Justice that an amendment to the BNA Act would be submitted, they arranged for Judge Newton Wesley Rowell to carry their petition to the final Court of Appeal, the Privy Council of Great Britain. The Chancellor of Great Britain rendered the decision that in the interpretation of the Act that persons included "women." This is now known in Canada as the “Persons Case.”

In 1930 Carine Wilson became the first woman Senate but Emily Murphy was never named to the Senate.

Who were these women?

  • Emily Murphy (1868-1933) Social reformer, author, first female magistrate in the British Empire (Commonwealth) and the leader of the Famous Five.
  • Louise McKinney (1868-1931) First woman in the British Empire (Commonwealth) to be elected by both men and women to a provincial legislature, Alberta.
  • Henrietta Muir Edwards (1849-1931) Social activist, author, Convenor of Laws for the National Council of Women.
  • Irene Parlby (1868-1965) First female Cabinet Minister in Alberta, second in the British Empire (Commonwealth), first president of the Alberta Farm Women's Association.
  • Nellie McClung (1873-1951) prominent suffragist, author, orator, and first female member of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

(This information is from the book "With Enthusiasm & Faith" and the Famous Five Foundation literature).




 A new $50 bill, unveiled in Calgary in 2004, sported a photo of Alberta’s Famous Five, the group responsible for having women legally declared persons in Canada. The unveiling commemorated the 75th anniversary of the "Persons" case, the 1929 case through which women were first recognized as "persons" in Canadian law.


Further reading about BPW

Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (1980). 1930-1980. Commemorating fifty years of service to the Status of Women. No ISBN number.

Deakin, Phyllis A. (1996). The History of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women, Volume 1, 1930-1968. Published by International Federation of Business and Professional Women, London, UK. ISBN 0-9562-6041-5.

With Enthusiasm and Faith: History of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, 1930-1983. Book I compiled by Elizabeth (Bess) Forbes, 1974. Book II complied by Nazla L. Dane, 1983.

Perry, Sylvia G. and Livia M. Ricci (1999). Esther W. Hymer: A Bus to 42nd Street. Published by BPW International, London, England. No ISBN number.

Perry, Sylvia G. (2006). Empowering Women Worldwide: The History of Project Five-O. Published by Project Five-O. ISBN 978-974-7086-67-6.

Taylor, Margaret Allen and John Claridge Taylor (1996). The History of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women, Volume 2, 1968-1995. Published by International Federation of Business and Professional Women, London, UK. ISBN ISBN 0-9526-6042-3.

To read more about BPW Canada and its International Federation, visit:


    Created by Alexander Bell