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In the 1920's Alberta could boast a colourful cast of strong, outspoken women
wielding legal skill and political power. Lord Sankey, of the Judicial Committee
of the Privy Council in England, began his judgment in the famous 'Persons Case'
by reviewing the impressive civic credentials of the five Alberta women
appellants. He wrote:
Of the appellants, Henrietta Muir Edwards is the Vice-President for the
Province of Alberta of the National Council of Women for Canada; Nellie L.
McClung and Louise C. McKinney were for several years members of the
Legislative Assembly of the said Province and Emily F. Murphy is a police
magistrate in and for the said Province; and Irene Parlby is a member of the
legislative assembly of the said province and a member of the Executive
It was clear from this first sentence of his judgment that he would go on to
overturn the earlier decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in the case2 and
find that women were indeed included in the meaning of "persons" in s. 24 of the
British North America Act, 1867. Of this 'famous five', Emily Murphy is perhaps
the figure who stands out as the most compelling heroine of the early women's
rights movement, not only in Alberta, but in Canada and beyond.
For many prairie women, Murphy inspired hope and a heady optimism about the
ransformative potential of the law. The ideas Murphy stood for gave rise to
great expectations and inspired energetic enthusiasm. One woman from Chauvin,
Alberta expressed that sentiment in the following letter:
Chauvin Dec. 27-24
Mrs. E Murphy
Magistrate of Juvenile Court
You cannot conceive the great joy and blessing and up-lifting of heart
and spirit it gives and will give to women to see some of the old laws
concerning our sex, smashed to pieces, and to see laws of justice taking their
place, and we can thank our brave women of Alberta who have stepped forward
into public life, which in time past was known only to man, hence the selfish
My heart aches for some poor brow-beaten wives, I tell you if these poor
creatures had as much legal rights to the home property as their husbands,
those very same husbands would be very much more considerate to their wives
and their poor wives would not be looking old enough to be their husband's
mother or perhaps grandmother.
God Speed you in your good work.
Mrs. L.A. Cayford
Murphy inspired the belief that changes in women's entitlement to property in
marriage would alter the relation of domination and subordination between
husband and wife. This hope is echoed in the following letter written to Emily
Murphy by another prairie woman.
Seeing the notice in the Free Press re Dower Law for Alberta, I think it
is time we did have such a law. I don't understand quite what the Dower Law
is. But I am thinking that it is a Law giving married women a lawful right to
half of everything that her husband owns, lands houses and moveable property
of all kinds, is that so?
My husband is always crying that I never help him enough, and yet I
raise lots of chickens, ducks and turkeys for him to sell, the profits of
which I never get. I never get 5 cents to spend as I like. I must account for
every cent he gives me for provisions etc.
I think if a wife got one half of all her husband's property and
everything belonging to him it would be only her due and little at that. If
the other half went to the children they would only get it when they come of
age and many young folks would only spend it foolishly while if it could be
spent on their education that would help greatly.... I really think that if we
women had a Law compelling men to go equal shares with their wives there would
be more home comforts and true happiness, less bachelors, less suicide, as
wives would not fear having to provide for and educate their children if left
with a big family. Shame on the Farmers of Western Canada. They cry for Equity
Associations, Good, Honesty. But how few of them would ever think of being
Even and Equal with the wife of his bosom.
A Western Canadian Wife4