Emily Murphy



“The world loves a peaceful man,” declared Emily Murphy, “but it gives way to a strenuous kicker.” Murphy herself was a strenuous kicker, one who opened the path of reform in the legal landscape of Canada. Emily Murphy began her career as a writer of sunny, patriotic travel sketches, which she published under the pseudonym Janey Canuck. Known for its liveliness and humour, her writing also expressed serious concern for the welfare of women and children. Increasingly she found herself speaking out frankly and publicly on behalf of the disadvantaged. Born in 1868 into a prominent legal family, Emily Murphy became a self-taught legal expert at an early age. When she and her family moved to Alberta in 1903, she began a campaign to ensure the property rights of married women. Largely because of her work, the Alberta legislature passed the Dower Act in 1911, protecting a wife’s right to one-third of her husband’s property. An event that changed Emily Murphy’s career occurred in 1916 after she and a group of concerned women tried to attend the trial of Edmonton prostitutes arrested under “questionable” circumstances. The women were ejected from the court on the grounds that the testimony was “not fit for mixed company.” Murphy was outraged, and protested to the provincial Attorney General. “If the evidence is not fit to be heard in mixed company,” she argued, “then… the government.. [must] set up a special court presided over by women, to try other women.” To her surprise the Minister agreed, and offered Murphy the post of presiding over such a court. Accepting the offer with some reluctance, Murphy became the first woman police magistrate in the entire British Empire. This appointment led to an even more significant chapter in Murphy’s eventual life. Although the new magistrate was welcomed by some of her colleagues in the courts, others challenged her position on the grounds that a woman is not a “person” under the British North America Act of 1867. This argument coincided with a similar one that had been mounted in opposition to the idea of appointing a woman to the Canadian Senate. Murphy fumed at the injustice – the status of women should not be dependent upon an outdated and outmoded law! The law itself had to be changed, and she vowed to do it. For twelve years Murphy led the fight to have women declared legal “persons” in Canada. When petitions from various women’s organizations failed to open the Senate to women, Murphy turned to the law. She found a section of the Supreme Court Act that allowed any five interested persons the right to petition the government for a ruling on a constitutional point. Murphy lost no time in enlisting the help of four other Alberta reformers. Her first choice was her friend, Nellie McClung, a tireless worker for human rights, a suffragist, and a former Member of the Alberta Legislature. Next, there was Louise McKinney, ex-M.L.A. and crusader against the evils of alcohol and cigarettes. The third petitioner was Montréal-born Henrietta Edwards, a vigorous campaigner for women’s rights with an unsurpassed knowledge of the laws pertaining to women and children. Irene Parlby, Murphy’s fourth choice, had entered politics with a desire to improve the lives of the rural women of Alberta. A Minister without Portfolio in the Alberta Legislature, Parlby’s participation signified the support of the Government of Alberta. The Persons Case, as it is called, reached the Supreme Court of Canada in March 1928. The court ruled against women, but Emily Murphy would not rest there. She carried the case to the Privy Council in Britain, which, in its celebrated ruling of October 18, 1929, declared that women were indeed legal “persons” under the B.N.A. Act. There is a plaque in Canada’s Senate Chamber that pays tribute to five persons from Alberta. It reads: “To further the cause of womankind these five outstanding pioneer women caused steps to be taken resulting in the recognition by the Privy Council of women as persons eligible for appointment to the Senate of Canada. This movement was inaugurated by Magistrate Emily F. Murphy.” “Nothing ever happens by chance,” Emily Murphy liked to say. “Everything is pushed from behind.” After twelve years of pushing, the doors of the Canadian Senate finally opened to women, but it was too late for Emily Murphy to enter. She died on October 27, 1933.


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