Agnes Macphail was born to Dougald McPhail and Henrietta Campbell in Proton Township, Grey County Ontario on March 24, 1890. She was raised as a member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Following her schooling at Owen Sound Collegiate and Vocational Institute she attended the teachers college in Stratford, and afterwards taught in schools in southwest Ontario. While working in Sharon, Macphail became active politically, joining the United Farmers of Ontario and its women’s organization, the United Farm Women of Ontario. She also became a columnist for the Farmers’ Sun around this time.
After amendments to the Elections Act by the Conservative Party government in 1919, Macphail was elected to the House of Commons as a member of the Progressive Party of Canada for the Grey Southeast electoral district riding in the 1921 federal election. She was the first woman Member of Parliament in Canada. Macphail was re-elected in the 1925, 1926 and 1930 federal elections.
Macphail objected to the Royal Military College of Canada in 1924 on the grounds that it taught snobbishness and provided a cheap education for the sons of the rich and again in 1931 on pacific grounds.
As a radical member of the Progressive Party, Macphail joined the socialist Ginger Group, faction of the Progressive Party that later led to the formation of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. She became the first president of the Ontario CCF in 1932. However, she left the CCF in 1934 when the United Farmers of Ontario pulled out, over fears of Communist influence in the Ontario CCF. While Macphail was no longer formally a CCF member, she remained close to the CCF MPs and often participated in caucus meetings. The CCF did not run candidates against Macphail in her three subsequent federal campaigns.
In the 1935 federal election, Macphail was again elected, this time as a United Farmers of Ontario–Labour MP for the newly formed Grey-Bruce riding. She was allowed to use the party’s name, even after it stopped being a political organization in 1934. She was always a strong voice for rural issues. Another one of Macphail’s issues was penal reform; her efforts led to the formation of the investigative Archambault Commission in 1936. Macphail’s concern for women in the criminal justice system led her, in 1939, to found the Elizabeth Fry Society of Canada, named after British reformer Elizabeth Fry.
Causes she championed included pensions for seniors and workers’ rights. Macphail was also the first Canadian woman delegate to the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, where she worked with the World Disarmament Committee. Although a pacifist, she voted for Canada to enter World War II.
In the 1940 election, she was defeated. With the death of United Reform MP for Saskatoon City, Walter George Brown, a few days after the election, Macphail was recruited by the United Reform Movement to run in the by-election to fill the seat. On August 19, she was defeated by Progressive Conservative candidate Alfred Henry Bence. He received 4,798 votes, while Macphail placed second with 4,057 votes. It was her last federal campaign as a candidate.
In the 1943 provincial election, Macphail was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario as a member of the Ontario CCF representing the suburban Toronto riding of York East. She and Rae Luckock were the first women elected to the Ontario Legislature. She was the first woman sworn in as an Ontario Member of Provincial Parliament. Although defeated in the 1945 provincial election, she was elected again in the 1948 election. Macphail was responsible for Ontario’s first equal-pay legislation, passed in 1951, but was unable to continue her efforts when she was defeated in elections later that year. At that time, Macphail was barely able to support herself through journalism, public speaking and organizing for the Ontario CCF.
Macphail never married. She died February 13, 1954, aged 63, in Toronto, just before she was to have been offered an appointment to the Canadian Senate.