Agnes Macphail began her career as a country schoolteacher. Interested in agricultural problems, she became a member and active spokesperson for the United Farmers of Ontario. Her move into politics stemmed from her desire to represent the farmers of her region. In 1919 women gained the right to run for Parliament, and Macphail was elected in 1921, the first federal election in which women had the vote.
A courageous and dedicated champion of human rights, Macphail successfully fought for old-age pensions, prison reform, and farmers’ co-operatives. In office she also came to see herself as representing women’s issues and founded the Elizabeth Fry Society of Canada.
She had strong views about war, urging total disarmament for Canada. In 1929, she became the first Canadian woman to be sent as a delegate to the League of Nations in Geneva, where she was an active member of the World Disarmament Committee.
It took political stamina and dogged persistence to see her ideas through, and Macphail credited both her parents for her character strengths. As she once said, “I owed it to my father that I was elected to Parliament in the first place, but I owed it to my mother that I stuck it out once I got there.” Agnes Macphail died in 1954. One of her final political achievements occurred in the Ontario legislature in 1951, when she championed legislation that mandated equal pay for equal work for Ontario women.
Teachers and students interested in Macphail’s achievements may wish to see the National Film Board production Canada’s First Woman MP, or the longer version entitled The Lady from Grey Country. The films use news clips, archival still images and old family photographs to create a compelling story of Agnes Macphail’s life, while they also illuminate the period of Canadian history in which she played an active and decisive role.