Published in Lifestyles 55 December 2021
One of my favorite monuments on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature is the monument of the Famous Five. This special piece of art depicts Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby, Emily Murphy, and Henrietta Muir Edwards sitting and standing around a table working on a document. I love that depiction because it’s a testament to the collaborative efforts that led to most Manitoba women gaining the right to vote and hold office. This monument speaks to the efforts by many people, working tirelessly and persisting over many years to enfranchise most Manitoba women. It must be noted that while most Manitoba women became the first in Canada to gain the right to vote, that right did not extend to all Manitoba women.
Most Manitoba women gained the right to vote in January of 1916 with other provinces following suit. I’d like to point out some notable female firsts in Manitoba and Canada.
Although most Manitoba women gained the right to vote and hold office in 1916, it wasn’t until 1920 that Manitoba elected its first ever female representative. Edith Rogers served Manitoba as MLA in a Winnipeg constituency. She held this role for 12 years until 1932. This is an incredibly impressive career. What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall in the Legislature all those years ago! Today, all debate and discussions in the house and committee are recorded in Hansard. This means that years from now, what we discussed and debated on behalf of Manitobans will be available to future generations to learn from. Unfortunately, this was not a practice during Edith Rogers’ tenure at the legislature so there’s no way for us to know exactly her words and the full extent of her political focus. Although we do know that she was an advocate for returned solders, employment, and children.
Thelma Forbes is Manitoba’s first female Speaker. She served as an MLA for the constituency of Cypress from 1959 to 1969. Over this time span, she served as a Minister on a variety of portfolios at the cabinet table for two Premiers and was elected Speaker of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly by her peers. She is the third women to be elected to the Manitoba Legislative Assembly and the first female Speaker.
Kim Campbell is the first female Prime Minister of Canada, and unfortunately, the only female Prime Minister we’ve had. She had a career in both provincial and federal politics serving first the British Columbia Legislature before the House of Commons.
Recently, on November 2, 2021, Heather Stefanson became Manitoba’s first female premier! She has had a long and impressive career in politics having been first elected in 2000. She has held many roles around the cabinet table before becoming Premier.
Each of the women mentioned above are trailblazers. They are strong, brilliant, capable politicians who are marking the path for those who will come after. And we know that many will come after. Girls and women need strong mentors and role models to look up to. You can’t be what you can’t see. When girls and women can see themselves represented in some of the highest political offices like the role of Prime Minister or Premier, they can truly understand that this is a path just as much for them as it is for the boys and men around them.
I often wonder what Nellie McClung would have thought about where women’s representation in political life stands today. There was a thought once most Manitoba women gained the right to vote and hold office that women would run for office in large numbers…. But as we know now, that hasn’t been the case. Many factors have impeded the effort toward gender parity in politics, one of which is the concept of the glass ceiling. We must remember that progress is being made and although not as quickly as I’m sure the famous five would have wanted, progress is being made all the same. With every female first- first female Speaker, first female Premier, first female Prime Minister- we are breaking the glass ceiling.
I know that as my granddaughters grow up, they will see women reflected in so many dynamic, unique, and diverse leadership roles. Many more than even just the generation before them, and especially more than the generation before that.