Diminutive in stature and self-deprecating in manner, Muriel McQueen Fergusson possessed an incisive mind and sharp wit. A lawyer by profession, she served as New Brunswick’s Regional Enforcement Counsel for the Wartime Prices and Trade Board during the Second World War and subsequently as Regional Director of Family Allowances and Old Age Security. Called to the Senate in 1953, she was appointed its first female Speaker in 1972.
Born in 1899, in Shediac, New Brunswick, Muriel McQueen was the middle child and only daughter of Julia Jackson and James McQueen, a lawyer. When, during the First World War, she entered Mount Allison University, many of her male peers were at the front, resulting in a gender balance at the university unmatched until the 1980s, when women first took the lead. An active participant in campus life, Muriel represented Mount Allison at the founding meeting of the Student Christian Movement (S.C.M.) and served on the national executive. By the time she graduated in 1921, returning veterans, including Aubrey Fergusson (1894-1942) who shared both Muriel’s love of acting and her ambition to study law, had swelled the undergraduate ranks.
Muriel’s hope to attend Dalhousie Law School was frustrated by her mother, who saw this as a waste of money for a daughter who was already planning to marry. As an alternative, her father encouraged her to read law in his office. Following the traditional apprenticeship route did not slow her progress. Along with Aubrey, she passed the bar examinations in 1924 and, in 1925, became the fourth woman admitted to the New Brunswick Bar. At the urging of her father, a leading member of the provincial Liberal Party, Muriel also gained political experience during this period, delivering speeches encouraging women to support the Liberal candidate in a 1924 by-election.
Married in 1926, Muriel and Aubrey moved to Grand Falls, N.B., where he practised law and sold insurance, and she, apparently true to her mother’s prediction, settled into a more traditional woman’s role. She took up gardening and volunteer work. In Shediac she had been a C.G.I.T. leader and at Mount Allison she had been a leader in the newly emerging S.C.M. In Grand Falls she became involved with the Girl Guides, the Red Cross and the Women’s Institute, and was a founding member of the Grand Falls Literary Club. In 1931, she established a bed and breakfast and tea room. Then, as Aubrey’s health deteriorated and as no children arrived, Muriel gradually took over his practice as well as the insurance business. In 1935 she was appointed New Brunswick’s first female judge of probate. By 1941, she had effectively inherited Aubrey’s positions as acting county court clerk, circuit court clerk, supreme court clerk, and crown prosecutor.
After Aubrey’s death in 1942, Muriel became dissatisfied with life as a ‘country lawyer’. ‘Restless and anxious to spread [her] wings’, she applied for the new post of assistant regional enforcement counsel for the Wartime Prices and Trade Board in Saint John, and not only landed the job, but also negotiated an increase in salary. A year later she became chief enforcement counsel and, at war’s end, was invited to serve on the New Brunswick Reconstruction Council. Since moving to the city, Muriel Fergusson had become a member of the local Women’s Council, the University Women’s Club and the group with which she identified most closely, the Business and Professional Women’s Club. She soon emerged as a leader in these groups, and a popular speaker on such topics as wills and pay equity. As the Reconstruction Council concluded its work, Muriel set her sights on becoming provincial Director of Family Allowances, although the ad was directed to male persons. The letter writing campaign undertaken by her women’s groups resulted in a revised job description and the appointment of their candidate.
Fergusson had earned such support. In 1945 she campaigned to gain the municipal franchise for Fredericton housewives and, later, for women’s right to be elected to City Council. She urged the use of the franchise: ‘When you consider that over 50 percent of the voters of this country are women, you will realize what a tremendous power we have in our hands.’ She believed women should seek public office and, in 1951, became the first woman to run for Fredericton’s City Council. Elected by acclamation, she embarked on a long public career as an advocate for the less privileged, very often women.
Shortly before her 54th birthday, Muriel McQueen Fergusson was appointed to the Senate. While this was undoubtedly a reward for decades of loyalty to the Liberal party, she was likely not too far from the mark when she suggested: ‘My own opportunity, I feel, was due mostly to involvement in women’s and welfare organizations and being an alderman in my home city.’ Aware of the significance for women of her appointment, during more than 20 years in the Senate, Senator Fergusson rose again and again to question legislation that privileged men over women. She served on Senate committees investigating unemployment, divorce, women’s prisons, poverty, and old age. Her energy, incisiveness and good judgement were recognized in 1972, when Pierre Elliott Trudeau appointed her to be the first female Speaker of the Senate. She never ceased to work towards equality of the sexes. In 1974, less than a year before her retirement, she asserted that the Liberal government had been too slow in implementing the 1970 recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.
Senator Fergusson stands among the generation of women whose activism has been less recognized and recorded than that of the suffragists of the ‘first wave’ of feminists or the women’s liberationists of the ‘second wave.’ Marriage and professional training were early preoccupations, but widowhood changed the course of Muriel’s life, propelling her back into a career she had all but abandoned. But her political trajectory was grounded in the research and activism undertaken among the community of women she found in the Business and Professional Women’s Club, under whose auspices she became involved in campaigns to improve the lot of widows, women in poverty, separated and divorced women and women prisoners.
After her retirement from the Senate in 1975, until her death in 1997, Muriel McQueen Fergusson continued to work for women, lending her name and public support to numerous endeavours, ranging from a women’s halfway house in Ottawa to the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research in Fredericton.
Further Reading & Resources
Campbell, G. G. (2010) ‘“Are we going to do the most important things?” Senator Muriel McQueen Fergusson, feminist identities, and the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.’ In J. Guildford and S. Morton (eds.). Making up the state: Women in 20th-century Atlantic Canada. Fredericton: Acadiensis Press.
Irving, K. (1974, May 4) ‘Senator Muriel McQueen Fergusson: A lifetime of service to her country’, Ottawa Journal.
Muriel McQueen Fergusson Papers, MS 1372, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.
‘Laws which affect women and children’, Speech to the Moncton Local Council of Women, 1946, Box 51.
Letter to ‘Ferg’, 29 October 1943, Box 22.
Letter to Prime Minister Lester Pearson, 25 September 1964, Box 31.
Rough notes for speech to Insurance Women in Saint John, 1975, Box 51.
‘The Senate of Canada’, Speech to Administrative Assistants/ Private Secretaries, Toronto, Ontario, 25 October, 1971, Box 51.
Waite, P. B., Lord of Point Grey: Larry MacKenzie of U.B.C. (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987).