Which Women are Persons? The Famous Five, Maternal Feminism, & Eugenics

“the congenitally diseased are becoming vastly more populous than those we designate as the ‘upper crust'”

-Emily Murphy quoted in Jana Grekul et al. (2004) “Sterilizing the ‘Feeble-Minded’: Eugenics in Alberta, Canada, 1929-1972”

Maternal feminism is the belief that women’s social and political value is primarily related to their traditional roles as mothers

On Parliament Hill, the centre of government in Canada, a monument called “Women are Persons!” celebrates the “Famous Five”, five Alberta women who successfully argued in the 1929 Persons Case that women are, in fact, legal persons and therefore should be able to serve in the Senate.  In Calgary, a similar version of the Women are Persons! monument stands in Olympic Plaza. Here in Edmonton, parks named after each of the Famous Five line the banks of the North Saskatchewan River.  The Famous Five, including Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung, and Irene Parlby were leaders in the movement for women’s suffrage, campaigning since the late-nineteenth century for women’s voting rights. These parks and monuments represent a celebration of the Famous Five’s advocacy for political equality under the law, for in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century, Canadian women were second-class citizens, unable to vote in elections or run for office. Commemorations of the Famous Five tend to position them as feminist “Founding Mothers”.  Yet, the Famous Five’s other legacy is their support for maternal feminist ideology and eugenics ideology and policy, underpinned by white nationalism.  In this lesson, we will situate the Famous Five and early feminist struggles for political rights within the broader context of white nation-building in Canada.  The purpose of this lesson is to introduce you to the connections between early movements for women’s rights, ‘maternal feminism’, white nationalism, and eugenics.  As this lesson demonstrates, maternal feminist ideology continues to shape assumptions about ideal motherhood today.

Maternal Feminism & Eugenics
Listening Time: 15 min 11
Recorded by Daisy Raphael

“Making Love Under Indian Acts”

In the following quotation, referenced in the above audio lecture, Dene & Métis storyteller and photographer Tenille K. Campbell identifies Canada’s attempts to regulate and control Indigenous identity through the Indian Act, and, in turn, to regulate and control Indigenous women’s bodies and reproduction. Campbell writes about the ways her choice of intimate partner has been structured by section 12(1)(b) of the Indian Act, which, until 1985, held that that an Indigenous woman would lose her “Indian” status if she married a man who did not have status. In turn, the children of a status-Indian woman and a non-status man would not have Indian status, which, Debra Thompson argues, is a tool designed to prevent “race” mixing or miscegenation. Even after Bill C-31 repealed section 12(1)(b) in 1985, the new categories of 6(1) status and 6(2) status created new human rights issues for Indigenous women and their descendants. Specifically, Bill C-31 stipulated that those with 6(1) status can pass status on to their descendants, while those with 6(2) status cannot unless the other parent also has status. These categories meant until very recently that choosing an intimate partner come with complex negotiations about Indigenous identity. As Campbell writes:

“My womb was originally designed to give life and create community, and now, under an Act dating back to 1876, my womb is a place where the life I grow is assigned a number and a status, a definition of how “Indian” this child will be. My womb now has the ability to diminish community, politically and legally destroying status lineages, depending on whom I let into my bed, whom I let cum into me.”

Tenille k. Campbell, “Making Love Under Indian Acts” (2018) Briarpatch Magazine

Eugenics is the ideology and practice of encouraging particular groups to reproduce and preventing ‘undesirable’ groups from reproducing. Eugenics policies and practices are based on faulty ‘scientific’ ideas about genetics and heredity, presuming that social ‘abnormalities’ are the result of natural biological defects and can be bred out of a population.

Resource: Eugenics Archive Canada

BIG IDEA: Reproductive Justice

The terms reproductive rights and reproductive justice are often used interchangeably, but these two concepts are rooted in distinct histories, political struggles, and theoretical approaches. A reproductive rights approach focuses on women’s individual rights to abortion, birth control, and reproductive health care.  Reproductive rights activists focus on the language of choice, emphasizing that it is a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have a child. The saying “my body, my choice” encapsulates a reproductive rights approach.  Reproductive justice is a framework developed by women of colour in the United States. A reproductive justice approach acknowledges that gender, race, and class power relations limit reproductive choice; as such, they want a more collective, holistic, and intersectional analysis of a broad range of issues related to bodily autonomy, reproduction, and raising children in a world free from racism and poverty.  A reproductive justice framework builds upon a reproductive rights approach by emphasizing that women should have the right not to reproduce, including access to abortion. Yet, reproductive justice approaches also emphasize the right to reproduce in environmentally, culturally, physically, and socially healthy ways. 

Before we discuss reproductive justice, let’s examine reproductive rights. In the Canadian context, the women’s movement of the 1960s emphasized the need for reproductive rights, including access to birth control and abortion. Elected in 1968, Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau initiated a series of Criminal Code reforms in 1969, rooted in the vision of a “Just Society” in which the state would not encroach upon people’s intimate lives, a sentiment captured in his famous phrase: “The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation”. Trudeau’s reforms included decriminalizing abortion under the following strict conditions:

  • when performed in an accredited hospital;
  • by a licensed physician;
  • with the approval of a therapeutic abortion committee including at minimum three doctors who agreed that an abortion would be lifesaving or necessary for the pregnant woman’s health.  

Whereas Trudeau did not view these strict conditions as an encroachment upon women’s rights, feminists argued, on the other hand, that “Trudeau’s ‘Just Society’ has no place in the wombs of the women of Canada” (Abortion Caravan, 1970). Feminists organized a caravan from Vancouver to Ottawa led by “a yellow Oldsmobile convertible, a Volkswagen bus, and a pick-up truck” (CBC, 2018). When the Abortion Caravan arrived in Ottawa, 500 women strong, they occupied Parliament Hill and shut down government.

York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC04612.

Rise Up! A Digital Archive of Feminist Activism has gathered documents and photographs related to feminist activism in Canada, including the Abortion Caravan’s demands, which you can read here.  The women of the Abortion Caravan write:

“We women are not here to beg male politicians for our rights. We are here to tell you what our needs are, and to find out whether you are prepared to act. We demand answers on behalf of all the women in this country who are today wondering if they are pregnant; for all the women who can only worry about their futures since they cannot plan them.”


The women of the Abortion Caravan also rejected eugenics policies, stating: “We are absolutely opposed to all forms of ‘population control’ by any government, which are nothing more than forcing birth control and sterility on certain women because they are poor” (Abortion Caravan, 1970).  Finally, the women of the Abortion Caravan also demanded access to childcare, arguing: “Besides the right to have our children when we want them we demand the means to bear and raise them as they deserve.  If it is our responsibility to reproduce this society, then the society has a responsibility to us” (Abortion Caravan, 1970).

Dr. Henry Morgentaler spoke at the Abortion Caravan protests. Dr. Morgentaler was an abortion provider and the name behind the 1988 Supreme Court of Canada ruling R v. Morgentaler, which finally decriminalized abortion.  Dr. Morgentaler had been providing women with access to abortion in his own clinics, performing abortions “upon women who had not obtained a certificate from a therapeutic abortion committee” (R. v Morgentaler, 1988).  Dr. Morgentaler and his colleagues firmly believed in women’s reproductive rights, especially the right to choose an abortion.  His case went to the Supreme Court of Canada, which was charged with determining whether or not section 251 of the Criminal Code “infringes or denies the rights and freedoms” guaranteed to women in Canada as laid out in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms” (R. v. Morgentaler, 1988). The Supreme Court of Canada declared the Criminal Code section on abortion (section 251) unconstitutional because it meant that women’s access to abortion was uneven. Justices Dickson and Larner wrote that the “requirement of s. 251(4) that at least four physicians be available at the hospital to authorize and to perform an abortion in practice makes abortions unavailable in many hospitals” (R v. Morgentaler, 1988).  Justice Bertha Wilson argued that section 251 of the Criminal Code violates a woman’s “right to life, liberty and security of the person” per the Charter (R v. Morgentaler).  As such, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down section 251 of the Criminal Code, decriminalizing abortion.  

While the 1988 Morgentaler decision increased access to to abortion across Canada, and Canadian health care covers the cost of abortion in provinces, access to abortion remains uneven across Canada. For example, there are two abortion clinics in Alberta — in Calgary and Edmonton. This means that a person who needs access to abortion may have to travel a great distance — at great cost — to access this form of healthcare.  Consider a seventeen year old from Ft. McMurray who becomes pregnant does not want to have a child.  If she does not have access to a car, she may have to ask her parents for help arranging transportation to Edmonton.  If her parents do not support her decision to have an abortion, she will have to access enough money to take the bus from Ft. McMurray to Edmonton, at a cost of $180.00 on the Red Arrow.  Her trip may require a night’s accommodation, depending on the time of her appointment and departing bus.  In this scenario, her parents deem her too young to make a decision about her own body, but old enough to have a child.  

Whereas a reproductive rights framework focuses on a woman’s individual right to make decisions about her own life, a reproductive justice framework considers the ways race, class, and colonial power structures intersect to limit reproductive autonomy.  For example, a reproductive justice framework enables an analysis of the ways that eugenics continues to restrict Indigenous women’s bodily autonomy, and the ways that ongoing colonization and cultural genocide impacts the ability of Indigenous women to reproduce in culturally safe and healthy ways. Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice offer this definition of reproductive justice:

We believe reproductive justice is the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, economic, and social well-being of women and girls, and will be achieved when women and girls have the economic, social, and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, sexuality, and reproduction for ourselves, our families and our communities in all areas of our lives.


The term “reproductive justice”, first used in November 1994 by the Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice, aims to expand analysis and activism around women’s reproductive autonomy from a narrow focus on choice to a more robust focus on justice, including “the right to have — and to not have — children”. As you watch the following video about the case of Ms. G, think about the difference between a reproductive rights framework, which emphasizes access to abortion, and a reproductive justice framework, which emphasizes the right to reproduce in culturally healthy ways.

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