Agnes MacPhail, elected in 1921 as Canada’s first female MP, championed working-class farmers. Her agrarian socialism has as much to offer the decaying rural areas of North America as it did her hardscrabble constituency a hundred years ago.
Portrait of Agnes MacPhail, 1934. (Wikimedia Commons)
In 1936, Agnes MacPhail, a forty-six-year-old member of parliament (MP), representing Grey-Bruce, Ontario, found herself included in a roster of traveling lecturers managed by an agency in New York. This eclectic ensemble also featured prominent figures such as Winston Churchill, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, and Thomas Mann. While MacPhail earned the moniker “Lady Astor of Canada” in promotional tours — a nod to Nancy Astor, the first British female MP — her political ideology stood in stark contrast to the conservative Astor. Indeed, the socialist commitments of MacPhail, Canada’s first female member of parliament, set her apart from most of her political contemporaries in prewar Ottawa.
MacPhail came from rural roots in the sparsely populated and harsh farmland of Ontario’s Grey County. Throughout her long political career, she championed the working-class farmers of her constituency, women’s rights, prison reform, and antiwar activism. Enlisting a brand of socialism born out of material necessity, she was a dominant force in the populist agrarian movements engulfing rural Canada and the United States at this time. MacPhail’s relevance has only grown as her former constituency suffers the hollowing out of industry, drug epidemics, and the destruction of the working-class farmer.
MacPhail’s parents were the descendants of Scottish settlers who owned a log cabin on a rugged plot of land. Despite financial challenges, she managed to attend the region’s only high school, where a young Norman Bethune, a future international socialist icon, would later enroll. Local girls ridiculed her for her simple working-class attire, particularly her worn-out blue dress, which her parents had proudly provided for her. Throughout her political career, MacPhail wore this outfit as a badge of honor, donning a trademark blue dress at practically every public appearance as an embrace of her working-class roots.
After graduation, she became an elementary school teacher. During these early years, she witnessed the plight of rural farming communities across Canada, drawing parallels to the struggles of her own community. Her political convictions took shape around the needs of those in remote farming regions. In addition to her demanding days in a single classroom, she dedicated her leisure time to studying cooperative farming journals and actively participating in organizing meetings and study groups conducted by the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO).
The UFO was an organization that advocated for agrarian reform based on a critique of the conservative tariff system imposed on working-class farmers. This system had destroyed farmers’ economic autonomy and threatened their already unstable standard of living. Over time, the UFO expanded its focus to encompass a wide range of plights affecting the rural poor.
Prior to winning her federal seat in 1921, she was actively involved in organizing efforts within the UFO. Her activism included opposition to World War I, the fight for universal women’s suffrage, and agrarian reform. These efforts culminated in a significant upset victory for the UFO during the Ontario provincial election of 1917.
MacPhail gained popularity in her local area by openly criticizing conservative MPs who blamed farmers for their own impoverishment, using a narrative reminiscent of modern “boot straps” discourse often associated with conservative explanations of poverty. MacPhail accused political adversaries at local political events of “knowing nothing at all of the way farmers live, of their work, and their problems.” Her critiques consistently focused on the material needs of rural voters, often asking them at speeches, “What has your Conservative member of parliament done for you?”
Battling Austerity in Parliament
In 1921, MacPhail won the nomination to represent the federal Progressive Party, a close affiliate of the provincial UFO. Soon thereafter, she claimed her seat in the House of Commons, beating the Conservative incumbent and joining a new wave of rural socialist electoral success in Canada. She was perceived by the sons of the Canadian elite in parliament as something of an oddity with local newspapers proclaiming she was “The only MP who can — Bake, churn, cook, milk, sew, hitch, teach, talk — and do ‘em all well!”
Despite this, the Progressive Party narrowly missed holding the balance of power by just one seat in the 1921 election, and it faced internal turmoil in the wake of the Liberal Party triumph. In 1924, the Progressive Party agreed to align with the Liberal majority, prompting MacPhail to break with the party to form the more radical Ginger Group.
Several members of the Ginger Group played pivotal roles in the establishment of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in 1932. The CCF would subsequently serve as the foundation for the present-day New Democratic Party (NDP), which was founded in 1961. MacPhail formally broke with the CCF in 1934 due to the pressure of frequent red-baiting and crackdowns on leftist organizing under Mackenzie King’s Liberal government.
Nonetheless, she continued to collaborate with the CCF practically as an independent while using the name of the new defunct UFO until her defeat in 1951. Her unwavering commitment to progressive politics stands in sharp contrast to the current parliamentary alliance between the NDP and the dominant Liberal party today.
MacPhail was a tireless advocate for numerous social and economic causes, leveraging her position as a skilled political figure and rural organizer. Among the causes close to her heart was the economic security of her constituents. She often refused to appeal to public sympathy for poor farmers, not wanting to sacrifice their dignity. During the Great Depression, she fiercely opposed the oppressive austerity measures imposed on rural communities, employing both public and parliamentary pressure.
Notably, she gained recognition for her relentless battles against unfair tariff costs that disproportionately burdened farmers, benefiting large agricultural buyers. The Toronto Star once hailed her as “the aggressive lady who enlivened the proceedings of the Tariff Commission.”
During debates in the House concerning agricultural issues, she consistently adopted a class-oriented approach. MacPhail viewed working-class farmers as being in direct conflict with the urban elites of Toronto and Ottawa. She was a skilled communicator, able to effectively address the material concerns central to the rural-urban divide. To further local political activism from her base in Ottawa, she penned weekly columns in her hometown newspapers, elucidating the issues and organizing events that would galvanize her community.
With the onset of Canadian conscription for World War I in rural areas, MacPhail’s unwavering antiwar activism took root. The draft had a profound impact on rural regions, akin to an apocalyptic event — claiming the lives of rural youth, thereby devastating both small towns and agricultural productivity.
Plus ça Change…
Today, MacPhail’s home of Grey-Bruce is a tragic example of small-town and rural areas hollowed out by rapacious capital: a place where heavy industry has been replaced by the service industry. The average individual in Grey County on average makes CAD $28,580 — only four thousand dollars above the Canadian poverty line.
In stark contrast, local police departments consume a significant portion of municipal budgets. In Hanover and West Grey, two large towns in MacPhail’s old riding police budgets are take up to a third of town budgets and continue to rise. Bruce and Grey Counties have some of the highest drug addiction rates in all of Ontario. Police combat this epidemic in an endless cycle of arrest, jail, and relapse.
One of MacPhail’s most foresighted political battles took place in 1923, following a series of riots at the Kingston Penitentiary. Dressed in her trademark blue dress, she made an unannounced entrance into the Penitentiary. What she saw in the prison appalled her:
Sick convicts were lying in the corridors; men with tuberculosis were not kept apart from the rest of the prisoners, and infection spread. Cries from mentally ill men echoed round the cells. Inmates were beaten severely with leather straps, often for trivial offences. They were held in shackles for long periods with their hands above their heads and kept in solitary confinement for weeks at a time.
MacPhail held the belief that the purpose of prisons should be rehabilitation rather than arbitrary punishment. She strongly opposed the militarization of the prison system and tirelessly advocated for a series of significant and progressive prison reforms throughout her career.
Her approach favored therapists and medical professionals over military veterans as guards within the prison system. She actively campaigned for the expansion of training and educational opportunities for inmates. MacPhail also rallied her local supporters to advocate against the expansion of the local prison system. She orchestrated publicity campaigns that notably featured her voluntarily locking herself in a jail cell.
In 1939, her efforts bore fruit when a prison reform bill was passed, incorporating many of her ideas and criticisms. This reform bill introduced a basic standard of prisoner rights, marking a significant victory for MacPhail’s cause.
Both of and Ahead of Her Time
MacPhail’s historical claim to fame is her title as the first female federal member of parliament. But this celebratory title glosses over her hard-fought battles for the emancipation of women. There were no glass ceilings available to break — she confronted ingrained sexism so pervasive that it was deeply embedded in all spheres of society. Her fight against the blithe sexism of her day remains a significant testament to her determination and resolve:
When I hear men talk about women being the angels 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.
MacPhail was a skilled organizer of women’s groups within the rural socialist movement, emphasizing the importance of study groups and community organizing as the foundation for local change and the elevation of class consciousness.
Despite facing significant criticism due to her stern schoolteacher image and red-baiting from the patriarchal parliamentary elite, MacPhail achieved numerous successes. In 1951, as she spent her last three years as an elected official in Ontario provincial parliament she led the charge to pass the first equal pay act in the province’s history.
However, her legacy is tarnished by her early support for eugenics which, at the time, was popular across the political spectrum — including within the socialist movement. Even Tommy Douglas — premier of Saskatchewan and the engine behind the development of Canada’s national health care system — wrote his PhD dissertation on eugenics before later disavowing it. It is important to recognize that MacPhail’s agrarian socialism was very much of its time and was riddled with blind spots, especially concerning issues of indigenous impoverishment, land theft, and disenfranchisement.
MacPhail’s legacy is complex, but her achievements offer inspiration for those in the conservative strongholds of a decaying rural Canada. She championed socialist principles in the face of tremendous political opposition and a challenging media environment, making her struggle remarkably relevant today.
Grey-Bruce, along with other rural regions, should recall the legacy of agrarian socialism that once prevailed during the early twentieth century. The notion that the countryside is an inherently conservative stronghold can be challenged by drawing inspiration from this history.
Many residents in the areas that were once the heartland of working-class farmers may have either sold their plots or faced foreclosure. Nowadays, farming is often dominated by individuals who own large tracts of land. But that doesn’t mean that rural inhabitants must resign themselves to rampant inequality and ubiquitous ghost towns. Agnes MacPhail’s agrarian vision remains crucially relevant today: striving for equitable land distribution, fair allocation of resources, and the just distribution of the benefits of agricultural labor, all to the advantage of the working class.Original post