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Macphail spoke for voiceless.

The first woman elected to the Canadian House of Commons in 1921, Agnes Macphail championed many causes in her impressive political career.

Born in 1890 in Grey County, Ontario, Macphail grew up on a farm and was well acquainted with the issues faced by rural Canadians. Like many young, single women of her day, Macphail was an elementary school teacher, and she taught in several small towns in Ontario between 1910 and 1920. She was known to spend her time outside the classroom discussing politics with the local farmers, and in 1919 joined the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO). Despite much resistance to the notion of a woman candidate, Macphail was elected to the House of Commons in 1921 and served as a UFO member until 1940. From 1943 to 1945, and from 1948 to 1951, Macphail held a seat in the Ontario Legislature as a Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) member.

In her early years in politics, Macphail expressed displeasure regarding the federal Liberal government's stance on war and its military spending. In a 1927 letter to her constituents, Macphail advocated for peaceful means of conflict resolution: "Agreement, not force," she believed, was the best way to settle any dispute. She opined, "by far the most tragic thing about war is not its immorality, nor its cruelty, but its manifest and colossal futility and imbecility. I maintain that war achieves no single object of advantage in the high sense to anyone, nor does it attain any of the supposed aims for which it is waged." Macphail's pacifism found further voice in her appointment to the League of Nations in 1929, when she became its first woman member.

Prison reform was another cause about which Macphail was passionate. Motivated by a visit to Ontario's Kingston Penitentiary, Macphail believed that prisoners were in urgent need of health and safety reforms, work and training programs, and education. She lobbied for an inquiry that became the 1935 Archambault Royal Commission on Penal Reform and advocated for numerous changes to the penal system. Her concern for the plight of female prisoners led to the founding of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Canada in 1939.

A founder of the Ginger Group, a coalition of progressive-minded MPs, Macphail was later among the founders of the CCF in 1932. Allied with the CCF, Macphail contributed to the establishment of national health insurance, universal pension plans, unemployment insurance, equal pay and programs to aid farmers.

Though her contributions to public and political life were unparalleled at the time, Macphail was often lonely during her first few years in the House of Commons as she faced criticism on the basis of her beliefs and due to her gender. Prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King gained respect for Macphail, however, and invited her to participate on a government committee to help draft the Old Age Pensions Act, Canada's first major social assistance legislation. Her outspoken support for women, immigrants, miners, prisoners and farmers categorized her as a visionary political leader who used her political voice to empower the voiceless.

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Title Annotation:CIRCA 1920: FIRST WOMAN ELECTED TO HOUSE OF COMMONS; Agnes Macphail
Author:Bondy, Renee
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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