________________ CM . . . . Volume VII Number 11 . . . . February 2, 2001

cover Agnes Macphail: Champion of the Underdog (Quest Library, 5).

Rachel Wyatt.
Montreal, PQ: XYZ Publishing, 2000.
165 pp., pbk., $15.95.
ISBN 0-9683601-5-7.

Subject Headings:
Women legislators-Canada-Biography.

Grades 9 - 12 / Ages 14 - 17.

Review by Mary Thomas.

*** /4


It was 1927, the year of Canada's Diamond Jubilee, and it was time for a sixtieth birthday party. Mackenzie King named Agnes to his committee to oversee the plans for a big celebration. Was Agnes pleased? No! She asked at once for her name to be withdrawn.

"Looking over the names here," she said to the prime minister, "I see that they do not belong to my class, and unless I can go in as one of my own people, I would not care to go in at all."

Besides, there were, she pointed out, only Anglo-Saxon Canadian names among the chosen.

Mackenzie King asked her to wait an hour or two. Later that evening, he added four other people to the committee: the president of the Labour Congress; a French-Canadian; a man of European extraction; the head of the Teachers' Federation. Agnes had once more made her point and won.

My Canadian history courses always began with "the" explorers--Cartier, Cabot, and Champlain---so it is not surprising that even those courses which were subtitled "to Modern Times" never made it past the Boer War. Nevertheless, I am not proud of the fact that I came to this biography of Agnes Macphail with, as Dorothy Sayers once had Lord Peter Wimsey say, "a refreshing lack of prejudice," a.k.a. total ignorance.

      Macphail was born in 1890, absorbed talk of farmers' difficulties with her mother's milk, and grew up determined to get an education and to do something worthwhile with her life. In 1917, women in Canada got the vote. In 1921, Agnes Macphail was selected by the United Farmers' party as their nominee to run for election to the House of Commons in the riding of South-East Grey in Ontario. ("Are there no MEN in South-East Grey!", one farmer cried.) Elected the first woman in the House of Commons, she did not retire to the backbenches. She had been elected to the Opposition (though Mackenzie King twice offered her a cabinet post if she would cross the floor), and opposing was exactly what she did. She spoke out on the evils that she saw: the protective tariffs that kept farm prices low and other ones high, the dreadful conditions in the federal penitentiaries, the subjugation of women, and war. She was a good speaker, witty and quick with a squashing riposte to hecklers. She could not, however, argue with the weather, and, when a blizzard struck on the day of the general election in 1940, her farmer supporters could not get to the polls, and she was defeated.

      Money was, therefore, a problem for Macphail. Her 17 years in the House were one short of the requirement for a pension, something hard to believe in these days when winning reelection once is sufficient. Lecture tours were not ego-boosters, but economic necessities, and a lifetime wish of a trip to Scotland became possible only when she won $2000 in a lottery. Again, this was a very different scenario from lucrative positions on company boards that await many present-day "retired" politicians.

      To be first in anything requires great stamina, resolution and will power. Agnes Macphail had all of these qualities. She also had very high principles which no doubt made her a difficult person to have around. I am happy to have read about her, but I don't know that I would have liked much closer contact than that!

      This biography lacks excitement, somehow, and Agnes, despite her love of music and dancing, comes across as a somewhat stodgy character, a bit too admirable to be true. It is an interesting portrait, comprehensive, both with a useful chronology and an extensive index, but it would perhaps have been more fun if Wyatt could have painted a wart or two.


Mary Thomas works in two elementary school libraries in Winnipeg and is happy to have made the acquaintance of Agnes Macphail.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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ISSN 1201-9364