Agnes Macphail was the first woman elected to Canada’s House of Commons, and after taking her seat early in 1922 she encountered many taunts and inappropriate treatment. Given current controversies surrounding the lewd behaviour and sexual assaults attributed to powerful men, it seems appropriate to recall Macphail’s demand for the full equality of women. One of her campaigns was to change divorce laws, which until that time had been tilted entirely toward husbands. These are brief excerpts from speeches Macphail made in the House of Commons regarding existing divorce laws.
I want for myself what I want for other women — absolute equality.
‘Angel of the home’
It is a fact that all women contribute more to marriage than men; for the most part they have to change their place of living, their method of work, a great many women today changing their occupation entirely on marriage; and they must even change their name. They then work continuously for many years until death happily releases them, and that without wages at all. They work without pay. No one can claim that a married woman is economically independent, for she is not; apart from some very rare exceptions, married women are dependent economically, and that is the last possible remaining bond on women. Women have struggled for ages now, and today they are ably championed in our country by the honourable member for West Calgary (Mr. Shaw) and his friends who in this House are demanding further rights for them.
When I hear men talk about woman being the angel of the home I always, mentally at least, shrug my shoulders in doubt. I do not want to be the angel of any home; I want for myself what I want for other women— absolute equality. After that is secured, then men and women can take turns at being angels. I stress that angel part, because I remember that last year an honourable member who spoke from the opposite benches called a woman an angel and in the next breath said that men were superior. They must therefore be gods . . .
[February 26, 1925]
I believe it is the desire of everyone in this House that the home should be preserved. I believe the preservation of the home as an institution in the future lies almost entirely in the hands of the men. If they are willing to give to women economic freedom within that home; if they are willing to live by the standard that they wish the women to live by, the home will be preserved. If the preservation of the home means the enslavement of women, economically or morally, then we had better break it . . .
I would ask men to think of that and think of it seriously. I do believe that the economic freedom of women is one of the things that is causing increasing divorces, because women will not tolerate what they once had to tolerate. You can smile about it if you like, but I know a lot of men who talk very learnedly on a subject like this and who want women to be very pure and very chaste when they themselves are not fit to associate with a chaste and pure woman. So, when we have a single standard for men and women, both morally and economically, we shall have a home that is well worth preserving, and I think we can be quite sure it will be preserved . . . [June 4, 1925]
‘This is our chance’
The thing we are discussing is this: a man and a woman get married and establish a home, a domicile. They may or may not have a family. The husband deserts the woman, clears out for two years or longer. The wife wants a divorce, but according to our law she must chase her husband over the face of Canada in order to sue for divorce . . .
It is a humiliating thing. If domicile is a real thing, it must be the home that was created by the marriage. The husband deserts his wife and children, forsakes the home, and then the minister of justice asks that the man alone shall retain the domicile. If that is the law, it is a poor law, and let us change it . . .
If the present law is based on injustice, and it clearly is, let us change it. All this bunk, if you will pardon the word, about equality between the sexes does not impress me very much. We are actually working towards equality, and clearly from the instances cited by the minister of justice tonight we have not yet got equality; woman is not yet a person, in spite of the judgment of the Privy Council that she is a person in regard to the Senate at least. We need very many changes in our laws. We can make them only one at a time. This is our chance at this one, and we will make the most of it. [May, 9, 1930]
Quote from February 26, 1925: Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. Debates, 14th Parliament, 4th Session, Vol. 1, 570. ,(Image 572). http://parl.canadiana.ca/view/oop.debates_HOC1404_01/572?r=0&s=1
Quote from June 4, 1925: Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. Debates, 14th Parliament, 4th Session, Vol. 4, p. 3864. (Image 780).
Quote from May 9, 1930: Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. Debates, 16th Parliament, 4th Session, Vol. 2, p. 1950. (Image 968).
Historica Canada: 47 minute documentary on Agnes Macphail
Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada