Photo © Copyright Keith Minchin – Faces of Fredericton
Standing at a modest height and possessing a self-deprecating demeanor, Hon. Muriel McQueen Fergusson was a woman of keen intellect and sharp wit. A lawyer by trade, she served as New Brunswick’s Regional Enforcement Counsel for the Wartime Prices and Trade Board during World War II, followed by roles as Regional Director of Family Allowances and Old Age Security. She broke barriers as the first female Judge of Probate in Victoria County and the first female city councillor in Fredericton. In 1953, she was appointed to the Senate.
Nearly 20 years after joining the Senate, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau appointed her as Speaker. Although she served for only 21 months and regretted having to restrain her outspokenness in this role, Fergusson championed change in the Senate by introducing young women as pages and advocating for equal pay for women and men in equivalent staff positions.
Born in 1899 in Shediac, Muriel McQueen was the middle child and only daughter of Julia Jackson and James McQueen, a lawyer. When she enrolled in Mount Allison University during World War I, many of her male counterparts were fighting at the front, resulting in a gender balance at the university that was not replicated until the 1980s, when women began to outnumber men. A highly involved student, Muriel represented Mount Allison at the founding meeting of the Student Christian Movement (SCM) and served on the national executive. By the time she graduated in 1921, returning veterans, including Aubrey Fergusson (1894-1942), who shared Muriel’s passion for acting and her ambition to study law, had boosted the number of undergraduates.
Muriel’s aspiration to attend Dalhousie Law School was thwarted by her mother, who considered it a waste of money for a daughter already planning to marry. Instead, her father suggested she study law in his office.
Choosing the traditional apprenticeship path didn’t hinder her progress. Muriel and Aubrey passed the bar examinations in 1924, and in 1925, she became the fourth woman admitted to the New Brunswick Bar. Encouraged by her father, a prominent member of the provincial Liberal Party, Muriel also gained political experience during this time, delivering speeches to women in support of the Liberal candidate in a 1924 by-election.
Muriel and Aubrey married in 1926 and moved to Grand Falls, N.B. While Aubrey practiced law and sold insurance, Muriel initially embraced a more traditional role for women. She engaged in gardening, volunteer work, and community organizations, eventually taking over Aubrey’s practice and insurance business as his health declined. In 1935, she became New Brunswick’s first female judge of probate, and by 1941, she had assumed Aubrey’s roles as acting county court clerk, circuit court clerk, supreme court clerk, and crown prosecutor.
Following Aubrey’s death in 1942, Muriel grew restless as a “country lawyer.” Seeking new challenges, she applied for and secured the position of assistant regional enforcement counsel for the Wartime Prices and Trade Board in Saint John. She quickly advanced to chief enforcement counsel and, at the war’s end, was invited to serve on the New Brunswick Reconstruction Council. Muriel joined local women’s groups and became a leader, advocating for women’s rights.
In 1945, she campaigned to secure the municipal franchise for Fredericton housewives and later for women’s right to be elected to City Council. Believing women should pursue public office, she became the first woman to run for Fredericton’s City Council in 1951. Elected by acclamation, she began a lengthy public career advocating for the less privileged, often focusing on women’s issues.
Just before turning 54, Muriel McQueen Fergusson was appointed to the Senate. Though her appointment was partly a reward for her long-standing loyalty to the Liberal party, she believed her opportunity came mostly from her involvement in women’s and welfare organizations and her role as an alderman in her hometown. Recognizing the significance of her appointment for women, Senator Fergusson consistently questioned legislation that favored men over women during her more than 20 years in the Senate. She served on Senate committees investigating issues like unemployment, divorce, women’s prisons, poverty, and old age. Her energy, incisiveness, and sound judgment were acknowledged in 1972 when Pierre Elliott Trudeau appointed her the first female Speaker of the Senate. Until her retirement, she continued advocating for gender equality and criticized the slow implementation of the 1970 recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.
Senator Fergusson belongs to a generation of women activists whose contributions have been less recognized than those of the “first wave” suffragists or “second wave” women’s liberationists. Initially focused on marriage and professional training, widowhood redirected Muriel’s life and rekindled her career. Her political trajectory was rooted in the research and activism she undertook within the community of women she found in the Business and Professional Women’s Club. Through this organization, she became involved in campaigns to improve the lives of widows, impoverished women, separated and divorced women, and female prisoners.
Fergusson voluntarily retired from the Senate at age 75, having been a vocal supporter of the constitutional amendment requiring senators to retire at that age. After her retirement and until her death in 1997, Muriel McQueen Fergusson continued advocating for women, lending her name and public support to numerous initiatives, including a women’s halfway house in Ottawa and the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research in Fredericton.
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