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Famous and Flawed

It’s always easiest when the people we look up to are perfect, isn’t it? When they live with integrity, demonstrate moral behaviour at every turn and never say anything ill-considered or thoughtless. The problem, of course, is that nobody is actually like that.

Certainly the Famous Five weren’t. Those were the courageous women whose relentless drive resulted in Canadian women being recognized as persons under the law on Oct. 18, 1929—they’re the reason we observe Women’s History Month in October. They had also played key roles in winning some Canadian women the right to vote a decade earlier.

If you’re not familiar with the details of what they achieved, do yourself a favour and look them up: Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Henrietta Muir Edwards and Louise McKinney. But even a bit of reading will quickly show you that these women also held deeply unpleasant, discriminatory ideas. Determined Emily Murphy was the first female judge in Canada but she also believed immigrants, particularly people who were Asian or Black, were responsible for the illicit drug trade and the harms it caused. Witty Nellie McClung campaigned for workers’ safety but also enthusiastically supported measures permitting the forced sterilization of people believed to be mentally inferior.

As is so often the case, the more you learn, the more complicated things get. These women brought about enormous change for the better in Canada, even as they had enormous blind spots to those they considered morally deficient. They were products of their time, with all its racism and imperialism and elitism. They worked tirelessly for human rights as they saw them. None of that makes their reprehensible beliefs okay. It would be nice to think that if they lived now, the Famous Five wouldn’t hold those views, but of course we can’t be sure.

It just means that, like us, our historical heroines are not perfect. We can appreciate the power of what they achieved while refusing to accept other aspects of their beliefs. And maybe that can help us find a bit of compassion for the people we disagree with today, right up to our political leaders. If we want to work for a fairer, more compassionate society, we’re not going to do it in the company of utterly flawless companions. We’re going to do it despite our individual shortcomings, just as the Famous Five did.

Next time you’re in Ottawa, take a moment to say hi to Emily, Nellie, Irene, Henrietta and Louise. You’ll find them in statue form across Wellington Street from the Château Laurier. (There’s a smaller version in Calgary.) You can walk in among them and even sit on a sculpted chair and imagine yourself at one of the “pink teas” that seemed so innocuous to outsiders but were actually planning sessions for a gender-based revolution. Feel free to ask them some tough questions…and consider thanking them while you’re at it.

By Nancy Payne