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Emily's Legacy

Pubdate: Sunday, August 22, 2004
Source: Calgary Herald (CN AB)
Author: Nigel Hannaford

Should the Famous Five be on the $50?

They were remarkable: Honour their victory

"The great thing about history is that it is adaptable," wrote Peter Ustinov, describing the Soviet view of past events in his classic satire Romanoff and Juliet. Certainly, the Communists understood very clearly that the past can be suborned to the needs of today's power elite; their history books were about as good as their automobiles.

Same with the Nazis, and all the "ists."

Even societies we respect tend to have an official version of events that stresses virtues they admire, and plays down episodes they'd rather forget. Thus, the Yanks wrote a song about the Battle of New Orleans which they won over the British, and have little to say about a naval action during the War of 1812 in which they lost the frigate Chesapeake to an inferior British vessel. The Brits know all about it, though.

But then, I believe the French still think they won the Battle of Waterloo.

And so it is that today's mavens of political correctness try to adapt history to promote their faction, by taking cheap shots at people who were once admired, because the attitudes they once held are now unfashionable. Destroy your heroes and I destroy you.

Hence, the minor foofaraw over the suitability of five Alberta women to adorn a bank note. In 1929, the Famous Five won the Persons Case, the burden of which was that the word "person" in the legislation defining Senate eligibility could indeed apply to women. It was a milestone in the women's' rights movement.

Well, actually a half-milestone. If one wanted to diminish their status, one might point out that women already had the vote, served in legislatures and Parliament, and on the judiciary, roles assumed by some of the five themselves. They also drove cars, something they still can't do in some parts of the Muslim world. So, if becoming a senator is the top of the mountain, they weren't far from the summit already. What's the big deal?

Instead, they stand accused of being typical products of their day. They held racist attitudes. Well, yes they did. But then, 100 years ago, that was common. This very newspaper, for example, warned its readers of the "yellow peril."

They also believed in eugenics, a sort of dog-breeding program applied to humanity to better the species. In its name, morons -- yes, that's what they called the mentally deficient back then -- could be sterilized to prevent them transmitting their defective genes.

Today, we recoil from the notion as an affront to human dignity. But, a century ago, Darwin's theory of evolution was still hot. Smart people understood we were just highly evolved animals, after all. Now, we were smart enough to control our evolution. Bring on the supermen.

The Second World War got us past that.

The fact remains these women were remarkable, and among the first to fight for ideas which today seem obvious, but then required brass nerve to advocate. Must we condemn them because in walking a mile, they failed to walk two?

In any case, who are we to talk today? Most of us accept conventional wisdom. Want to know what it feels like to buck the trend? Just for fun, argue for two-tier health care. Defend any conservative cause. Say something nice about George W. Bush.

And wisdoms change, anyway. For all we know, our great-grandchildren may think everything this generation did was utterly wicked. "You mean they used to save seals and abort babies? Get that guy off the postage stamps."

That alone makes judging people of another era by the standards of the present pointless, at best. They thought differently than we did -- quelle surprise. At worst, we become the grave robbers of reputations, kicking out the foundations of our society to the detriment of the whole house.

I never thought I'd be the one on this board defending feminist icons, and I am mildly amused at the confusion among the politically correct caused by this clash of values. However, fair's fair. They did all right for their day. And if we should manage to do as much, let's hope nobody adapts us off our pedestal because -- horrors -- we drove SUVs.

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Last Modified:Monday, 22-Nov-2004 13:14:28 PST