The Famous Five (and other worthy struggles)
With reference to Genesis 32:22-31
It was a long rough night for Jacob and this night had been a long time in coming. You can only run away for so long before you find you are chasing yourself. He has sent his wives and children and all his worldly possessions on ahead of him. He is unarmed and alone and he doesn’t know if the morning with bring reconciliation or slaughter. Jacob struggles with what he will hold on to, and what he will let go. His trouble started so many years ago when he wanted more than he was entitled to; and with some coaxing by his mother Rebecca, he cheated his brother Esau out of what was rightfully (at least culturally) his. And now Esau is coming to meet him, with 400 armed men.
In the long night, he wrestles with someone. The scriptures in their original language are wonderfully vague about whom he is wrestling with – is it God, an angel, Esau, his own conscience, his fears, all of the above? Somehow, God is in that struggle. Ralph Milton writes: “At the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition is this unique notion. Faith is a struggle, a wrestling match… We wrestle with God, and in the process learn to know ourselves. This story gives us a good opportunity to think about the wrestling matches we’ve been avoiding – the truth about ourselves we’ve been running away from. The great thing about this wrestling match: there is no loser. If God wins, we win. But always, if we have wrestled honestly and hard, we find ourselves, like Jacob, limping into our future.”
Ralph preached at my covenanting service in Merritt in 2004, and at the end of his message, Ralph gave me his cane. “You’re going to need this”, he told me, knowing the struggle will leave its mark… Oh and it did! And it has! And it will. And… it’s always worth it when we honestly face our limits, our fears, and the fears and limitations of others and still choose to show up and live our lives with as much integrity as possible.
I don’t think that blessings come `disguised’ as pain and hardship, loss, guilt or grief. When the bottom falls out of our carefully constructed world, we might want indeed to say, “What fresh hell is this?!’ But then, whatever it is, whatever has gone on to lead us to this holy struggle, we, like Jacob can be bold enough to say, `I will not let you go until you bless me.’ I’d love to know if the word for blessing here is the same Aramaic word that I learned in Palestine – where `blessed’ is not a passive word, it doesn’t mean `be happy’ or have lots of treasure, it means ‘to set oneself on the right way for the right goal, to get up , do something, move.’ Jacob moves into a new way of being and it changes him, right down to his name, as he is now known as `Israel’, one who struggles with God and humanity, and yet lives.
I think much of the unnecessary suffering in the world comes from not wrestling with God, and our own humanity. We accept too much passively. I count myself among those who are sometimes too silent. These words of Martin Luther King jr. haunt me:
“It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people…”
In a few minutes I want to invite you into a bit of conversation and pondering the questions in the bulletin, but first I want you to hear from a woman, rooted in the United Church of Canada who, along with four others, struggled courageously and cleverly. She was neither silent nor indifferent. She struggled with her own fears, I’m sure, and with the norms of her society. Her struggle was of great benefit to all Canadians. Today, it is my honour to introduce to you this fabulous and feisty woman – Nellie McClung:
(at this point Allison came in dressed as Nellie McClung – her speech follows…)
To those who would ask, why the word persons, should refer to woman… the obvious answer is, “Why should it not?”
Thank you for inviting me here today, my name is Nellie Mclung. You may know me as one of the members of the famous five. I was born in Ontario, Canada in 1873. Today, woman are allowed to vote in federal elections, and run for office, but things weren’t always this way. In fact, woman weren’t considered persons, under Canadian law until 1929, when myself and 4 other Canadian woman, made change happen.
So let me introduce the rest of the famous five, Emily Murphy, is a name you will hear me mention frequently, Mrs. Murphy was the leader of our fight for woman suffrage. Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney, and Irene Parlby are the other three that worked alongside Mrs. Murphy and me.
Our story begins in 1867 with the British North America Act (or the BNA Act). The BNA Act used the word ‘persons’ to refer to more than one person, and ‘he’ to refer to one individual. This became an issue when the British common law said that quote- “Women are persons in matters of pains and penalties, but are not persons in matters of rights and privileges”. Am I a person?
TO PERSON #1 How would you feel if you were told that because you’re a woman, you are not a person, and there-for, unless your being charged a penalty, you have no rights?
TO CHILD/OR PERSON #2 How would you feel if you were only considered a person under a matter of pain and you had no special privileges, because you’re a girl? You’d be pretty upset wouldn’t you?
This claim was simply outrageous, so we decided to do something about it, over a cup of tea. That’s right – a pink cup of tea. Because you see, at that time, woman were not allowed to speak up and if they did they could even be thrown in jail. So we `famous five’ came up with a plan. We had “Pink Teas”, where we sat around a table and drank pink tea, from pink cups, and ate pink cookies from, pink plates. Our husbands were all too scared to enter these teas because there was too much pink. And in these secret meetings, we were able to discuss political views, and come up with a plan for gender equality in Canada.
Now Emily Murphy had a huge part in the lead up to the persons’ case that we fought for. In 1916, while living in Alberta, Emily Murphy was appointed the first female Police Magistrate, which is basically a judge. Her appointment was challenged because she was still not recognized as a ‘person’, but in the end, the Laws in Alberta were changed so that woman were considered persons.
But this was only in Alberta, so Emily put her name forward to become a candidate for the Senate. The Prime Minister, turned her down, because she was still not considered a person under Canadian law. This brings us to 1927, when we `famous five’ asked the supreme court for clarification on the persons case.
The question we asked was; “Does the word ‘persons’ in Section 24, of The British North America Act, 1867, include female persons?”. In April of 1928, the Supreme Court answered “NO”. Well we weren’t happy with this answer, so we took our petition to the highest possible court authority at the time, the Privy
Council of England. And on October 18, 1929, our petition, led to a ruling that said, woman were persons under the Canadian Law.
Woman could now vote, own property, sit in government, even be the Prime Minister of Canada. We sat down over a cup of tea, we talked and shared our ideas, we didn’t let people silence us, and we changed gender equality in Canada forever. Now it’s your turn, so when you’re getting your tea or coffee after church today, share your thoughts, say what you want to say, and make the change that you want to see in our world, happen. If there is a cause worth fighting for, fight for it. Thank you
Questions for us to ponder:
What is a worthy struggle?
What stops you from taking on a worthy struggle?
What gives you strength?
Who do you wish to thank for their struggle for worthy causes?
What difference has their action made for you or for others?