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).
by Linda Reid
MLA & Deputy Speak of the British Columbia Provincial Legislature
Our most recent general election was held in 2009. We now have a record 27 women MLAs out of a total of 85 seats, our highest-ever percentage at almost 32 percent — which is also the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association threshold for women parliamentarians having influence. I believe that, in part, this success can be attributed to legislative public education and outreach programs, and mentoring activities by organizations outside the Legislature who are determined to show women that politics is a valid career choice.
Mentoring Activities: Women’s Campaign Schools
I have been involved with the Women’s Campaign School of the Canadian Women Voters Congress since it was established in 1999. The school is a unique, non-partisan, 3-day training course held in Vancouver which offers women the tools they need to effectively engage in the political process, at all levels. Over the past decade more than 400 women have gained valuable insight and knowledge through the Women’s Campaign School. They received much-needed encouragement, support and strategic advice to help them recognize that running for elected office is real.
The first women’s campaign school I attended in British Columbia was in the ‘80s. It was called “Winning Women”. We went on to do the Canadian Women Voters Congress, the women’s campaign school in 1999, a three-day intensive training for women.
A national organization I take great pride in being a part of is Equal Voice. Equal Voice’s mission is to promote the election of more women to all levels of government and ultimately, change the face of Canadian politics. One of its programs is “Getting to the Gate”, a free on-line campaign school which provides practical tools for women interested in running for public office. Another is “The Experiences Project”, a new mentorship program which aims to educate girls and young women about the impact of politics on their lives and how they too might become involved.
Before closing, I would just like to outline the improvements in our work environment since I was first elected in 1991. At that time there was no predictability — sessions were called at a moment’s notice and stretched into the summer, while sittings of the House could and did last all night. We have now eliminated Friday sittings to permit Members more flexibility to return to their constituency offices on Fridays. We have also adopted fixed election dates and a set parliamentary calendar. This calendar includes constituency weeks, which are scheduled weeks during the session to allow Members to spend more time in their ridings.
You can continue to do this work with young children. And frankly from how I have approached this work and what I have seen over the years, it’s frankly easier to come to this life and have your children than it is to introduce children to the unfamiliar routines. If they’re small children or even 10- and 12- and 13-year olds, they’re the ones who notice the greatest difference in where their parents are and where their parents may be at any given time. If they’re born into the life it is easier – my daughter actually thinks this is a pretty typical family. She thinks this is how most families work.
It couldn’t make me happier because I want her to bring that same sense of parenting when she has children that she shouldn’t, you know, decide to have children or not based on the kind of work she does. And that has been frankly a lot of the decision-making that’s happened for female parliamentarians. Men have never thought they shouldn’t have a child while in office. Women have often given that thought free rein.
I believe the situation within the BC Legislative Assembly has improved for women parliamentarians in the past 20 years. The proportion of women MLAs has increased by 7 percent since 1991, and there is more diversity. As well, our work environment has become more family-friendly. We still have more ground to cover, but I am confident that we are on the right path.
Transsexual women are a small group with a very complex political history, who – without wishing to – have been the focus of troubling problems in projects of political and social change. An inclusive democracy needs to include transsexual women’s voices; but how is their accent to be defined.
Transsexual women are women who have been through a process of transition from another position in the gender order: usually born with male (sometimes intersex) bodies, and usually brought up as boys. They have had to negotiate a strongly contradictory process of gender embodiment, often involving wrenching personal conflict and social stigma. Transition, usually undertaken in adulthood (though sometimes in adolescence) is an attempt to resolve this situation, gain recognition as women rather than men, and construct a path forward in life on this basis.
There are specific needs around transition: access to specialised medical services, means of changing legal status (e.g. for identity documents – passports can be a severe problem), safety and support in the vulnerable process of transition. Beyond these, transsexual women’s interests are much the same as the interests of other groups of women. They include an end to gender-based violence including rape; economic security, and economic equality between women and men (many transsexual women are poor, and even those in employment tend to lose income after transition); full access to education, health care, and other social services (transsexual women often have difficulty accessing services); adequate child care and family support (yes, many transsexual women have families); decent housing; political voice and legal equality; an end to media stereotype and stigma – in short, an end to patriarchy, and the creation of a society of gender equality.
Not surprisingly, then, transsexual women were involved in the early days of the Women’s Liberation movement; and transsexual feminism has existed since then. However several prominent US feminists in the 1970s denounced transsexual women in quite bitter terms as infiltrators in the movement and not really women at all. It became a widespread (though never universal) view among Anglophone feminists that transsexual women should be excluded from women’s organizations and events.
This exclusion oddly reproduced the patriarchal stigma against transsexual women, put to new use in defining a sharp identity contrast between women and men. Deconstructionist approaches to gender in the 1980s and 90s challenged the notion of a fixed identity for women. This opened the way to a “transgender” movement, in which transsexual women were included in a spectrum of queer or subversive groups, thought to be undermining a heteronormative, dichotomous gender system.
This rapidly mutated into a new kind of identity politics. “Transgender” became the name for something like a third gender category, blending masculinity and femininity; or for what was understood as a new sexual identity. In this form, transgender was swept, within a few years, into an astonishingly popular category in human rights talk, “LGBT” (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, sometimes extended with Intersex, Queer, etc.). In the 2000s “LGBT people” were frequently presented as an oppressed sexual minority, for whom rights and protections were claimed. Since gay men are by far the most influential group in this acronym, the paradoxical result for transsexual women was to be politically represented through a form of masculinity politics.
Meanwhile another dimension of politics continued, around transsexual women’s medical and legal needs. Medically assisted transition, mainly involving surgery, hormones and psychiatry (a package defined in the 1950s and 60s), was at first sharply rationed, and access required conformity to patriarchal stereotypes of gender. Psychiatric theories of transsexuality have mostly been stigmatising, some extremely so; and therefore have been contested in the few available forums by transsexual women. But the gatekeeper function of psychiatry makes this a very fraught process. Over time, surgical gender reassignment has become increasingly available on the private market to people who can pay – as an export industry in Morocco and then in Thailand, and within North America. This replaced gender conformity with class privilege as the determinant of access, a dubious gain.
From the 1990s to the present, lobbying by transsexual and transgender groups has led an increasing number of countries (and jurisdictions within countries) to pass laws governing transition. These have the great virtue of giving legal recognition to the fact of gender transition, and thus admit transsexual women to citizenship. But they often sharply restrict who can gain this recognition; and because they usually make surgical reassignment the decisive requirement, they lead back into the dilemmas of medical politics just mentioned.
There is no single path for transsexual women’s politics, but I would argue that the most important direction now is to develop a feminist politics of social justice. Both material equality and recognition are important here, one doesn’t get far without the other. Transsexual women are a small group, and don’t add much weight to feminist projects; but their experience has been important in thinking about gender, and may continue to be – including for issues of global solidarity. Transsexual women’s presence enriches contemporary feminism.
Further Reading & Resources
Raewyn Connell, “Transsexual women and feminist thought: toward new understanding and new politics”, Signs, 2012, vol. 37 no. 4, 857-881. Spells out the detail of the argument above, and offers an analysis of transition.
Viviane Namaste, Sex Change, Social Change, 2nd edition, Toronto, Women’s Press, 2011. A sharply observed set of essays that covers politics, theory, and the social realities of transsexual women’s lives including HIV and prisons.
Translatina, a full-length documentary film directed by Felipe Degregori (Peru, 2010), covering the lives of travestis and transsexual women across Latin America, including interviews with activists and some harrowing detail.
Claudine Griggs, Passage Through Trinidad: Journal of a Surgical Sex Change, Jefferson NC, McFarland & Co., 1996. Also not for the faint-hearted; the best account of what medically-assisted transition really involves.