Celebrating Persons Day with a Caveat

Hey there, internet world! Law school is still eating my life, but something happened yesterday that I thought I would share.

In Canada, October 18th is Persons Day. It is the celebration of when women were declared to be “persons” under the law. Beforehand women were “… persons in matters of pains and penalties, but [were] not persons in matters of rights and privileges”. This was major turning point in Canadian legal history for gender equality and many of my Facebook friends were celebrating by posting status updates and links. I did as well, but as I pressed send, I internally paused and wondered whether or not this was appropriate. The Persons case was a massively important milestone for Canadian women, but it did not necessarily include all women.

Within a few moments of my posting, another friend of mine “liked” my status, but commented that she liked the celebration minus the racist implications. Her comment was exactly what I feared would happen with the use of a simple Facebook status update that did not easily allow for broader comments on the issue. I had ignored the history and implications of my actions and I had contributed to the systematic hurt faced by marginalised women in my country, but also all over the world.

On Facebook, there is always the possibility of ignoring or deleting comments that you do not like. However, what kind of feminist would it make me if I didn’t address my own mistake? I decided to reply and apologise, and I made sure that I talked about what the racist comment meant. I wanted to ensure that a more complete version of the story was presented for people to see, not just the happy, fluffy Canadian Heritage Minute one.

This story is not meant to cast my actions in a congratulatory light. I deserve no compliments for attempting to correct an error which has harmed other people. I should never have made the error in the first place being that I have enough knowledge to recognise that the unanalysed celebration of these types of historical events are harmful. What I did should simply be the automatic reaction of a person confronted by their own privilege: acknowledgement, apology and correction. The fact that such an idea still needs to be stated reflects a rather sad state of affairs in our modern world.

However, I think that it is important to talk about these types of reactions because there is still significant pushback against having to apologise or be critical about personal worldviews which support an inequitable society. Particularly for the most privileged among us, it can be difficult to suddenly realise that our everyday lives can celebrate harm done to others.

In regards to the case at hand, to illuminate the issues behind why Persons Day is problematic requires that we look at the Famous 5. The Famous 5 was group of Canadian women activists in the early 20th century that were the central people behind the push for the Persons Case. Each of these women achieved amazing political accomplishments in their lifetimes. For instance, Emily Murphy was the first woman judge in the British Empire, Louise McKinney was the first woman elected to a provincial legislature in Canada, Nellie McClung is perhaps the best known suffragette in Canada and one of the first well-known woman advocates for penal reform, and Irene Parlby was the first female Cabinet Minister in Canada. However, despite these amazing accomplishments, several of these women publicly expressed extremely racist and ablest comments. In fact, there are writings from these women which support eugenics in order to guard white Canadian culture from moral degeneracy. Emily Murphy wrote many articles pushing for strict immigration laws and called for the “exclusion of all persons of colour from the continent”. As a judge, she passed laws which eliminated Chinese people from immigration consideration as well as contributed to laws which helped to implement the Aboriginal residential school system. The fact that Emily Murphy was a great advocate for white women cannot erase that she wanted broad segments of our population to simply no longer exist. She wanted people to disappear and die out.

Another discriminatory issue that Emily Murphy was involved in, as well as Nellie McClung and Louise McKinney, was the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928. It allowed, until 1972, for the Albertan government to make applications to the provincial court in order to allow for the forced sterilization of Canadians. In total, 4,725 individuals were forcibly sterilized. The reasons behind sterilization were often related to race (25% of all individuals subjected to this terrible act were Aboriginal, even though they constituted only 2.5% of the provincial population) as well as ability (frequent targets of this law were individuals with mental disabilities as they were seen as incapable of caring for children and needed to have their genes excised from the gene pool).

The members of the Famous 5 who held these terrible, destructive, cruel and reprehensible views on the value of marginalised people cannot be forgiven for their discriminatory actions simply because they also did something “good” for society. You cannot be a decent person because you are kind and supportive of a select group people. Being a compassionate and inclusive member of society requires that you work for the good of all, not just for the good of the people you think deserve your efforts. In mainstream feminism, there are many of these types of people upheld as amazing, wonderful, historical figures except the darker side of their pasts is often hidden. When the reprehensible conduct of these figures is brought up, it is often explained away as understandable in context of the time period, or simply not important in comparison to their “good” accomplishments. This type of thinking is not acceptable. While no one is perfect, blatant discrimination used as a central part of one’s life goals cannot be excused. It must be acknowledged and condemned, regardless of whether or not the person being discussed is a feminist hero.

In the end, I still think that it is important to celebrate the Persons Case, but to recognise and talk about the problematic aspects of the women behind this accomplishment and to acknowledge the people who were left out or violently pushed out of the discussion of women’s equality in Canada. It is a phenomenal and impressive triumph that the Famous 5 managed to achieve, but they did so at the expense of many others. The Persons Case and the celebrations of October 18th are really celebrations of white women existing in a particular context. The Persons Case gave rights to women who were white, able-bodied, cisgendered, heterosexual, economically privileged and adherent to the “proper” Christian ideals and morality of the day. In short, this accomplishment from 1929 shows us that things really haven’t changed much in the scope of mainstream feminist success today. We still leave too many people out. So, well I celebrated with my law school peers, I know that we also need to remember our inadequacies, our failures and our privileges and use the Persons case as an example of hope, but also an example of injustice that Canadian women can never allow to happen again.


6 thoughts on “Celebrating Persons Day with a Caveat

  1. Wow. I’ve worked as a volunteer for the Person’s Day Breakfast in the past, but had no idea about the racist background of some of these women. Thanks for the post. It’s useful to know these things.

    • It’s one of those great Canadian feminist secrets. I used to talk about the Famous 5 as my greatest heroines and I needed to re-evaluate when I started learning about some of the terrible things that the Infamous Three were doing.

  2. Glad to see you back here. I’m conflicted about this -while being aware of one’s own privilege and trying to eliminate it in one’s interactions is something I totally endorse, I think there is some injustice here. Berating the Famous 5 for being white upper-middle class women of their time is somewhat futile. While acknowledging that they did indeed hold racist views, the opposite would have been surprising in their time and place. Social commentary and awareness, yes, totally. But I think that judging the past by the yardstick of the present is perhaps not the best way to go about it?

    • Old post is oooooooold, but I have been updating things more recently 🙂 And I blog a lot about books at mgbookreviews.wordpress.com

      Anyway, as to this post, with three extra years of feminist learnings under my belt, I would have been a lot clearer about how this article is about white feminist privilege. It’s not so much that I want everyone to hate on the Famous Five, but that the mainstream feminist movement as a whole (which is very white) has a problem with recognising how our attempts at bringing about gender equality sometimes throws certain people under the activist bus. We do it a lot with our heroes by ignoring some of the bad things that they did (whether it be historically expected or not), and we still do it today (see the whole conversation about #solidarityisforwhitewomen that happened this summer).

      It was a black feminist who chatted with me about Person’s Day back in 2010, and her concern was that the feminist movement (and other social movements as well) often find it easy to dismiss and ignore critiques, particularly from marginalised members, by suggesting that we should just concentrate on the good that happened and the progress. However, this still leaves some of the most oppressed in bad situations, and these harder pieces of systemic discrimination remain unchallenged. As a white woman who wants to be intersectional in my work and beliefs, I should have a responsibility to question my own actions and my role models to ensure that I’m not just taking the easiest lessons from something that benefits me the most. If I don’t do this, I might be a feminist, but I could very easily still be perpetuating racist/homophobic/other problematic realities.

      So, all in all, Person’s Day is awesome because it was an absolutely amazing legal achievement, and the people behind it were dedicated and amazing themselves in their work for this cause. But feminists should know about the nasty stuff too. Not to undermine the progressive work or to strike people like the Famous Five from our hero books, but to understand these moments in context, and to encourage the movement as a whole to be more reflective and aware of intersectional concerns.

      • I didn’t even see the date, I was so happy to see something form this blog 🙂
        I totally get you now. I just think sometimes we are unfair to the past (and to the present) by expecting all “good people” to be perfect -most of us do the best we can, and that’s all we can be asked to do.

      • Most definitely! I think it’s important to not expect perfection in activism because it’s never going to happen. Recognising that is the only way to go forward!

        As for my posting, I did die off there for a bit… Whoops! Blame law school. But I revived this space!

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