Shattering the glass ceiling
On December 6, 1921, Ontario’s Agnes Macphail became the first woman elected to the House of Commons. Her presence in Parliament shattered the political glass ceiling that had prevented women from having a stronger voice in the affairs of the nation. However, she also faced staunch opposition from traditionalists who rejected her calls for equality of the sexes and for social reform.
Born in 1890, Macphail grew up on a farm in Grey County, Ontario, and later worked as a teacher in both Ontario and Alberta. During that time, she grew increasingly interested in politics, and especially in agricultural co-operative movements. In 1921, she ran in the federal election under the Progressive Party banner. The Progressive Party was an offshoot of the United Farmers of Ontario, a movement turned political party that had won the provincial election in 1919.
During her time in Ottawa, Macphail received a frigid welcome from proponents of the status quo. As a champion of farmers, miners, prisoners, and women, and as a pacifist to boot, she made many enemies. Political opponents called her a “communist” and worse.
Perhaps her best-known accomplishment was leading the charge to reform Canada’s penal system to make it more humane to prisoners. In 1929 she became the first woman delegate to the League of Nations, the precursor to today’s United Nations.
In 1930, Macphail became a founding member of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner of today’s New Democratic Party. After losing her federal seat in 1940, she transitioned to provincial politics and served two terms in the Ontario
Her other accomplishments included the co-founding of the
Toronto branch of the
Elizabeth Fry Society, which advocates on the behalf of female prisoners, and the passage of Ontario’s first equal-pay legislation.
Macphail died in 1954 at the age of sixty-three.