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Encountering Emily: Alberta Women’s Responses to Magistrate Murphy 

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Mrs. Emily Murphy, c. 1915. First woman magistrate in the British EmpireIn 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 Council thereof.1

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

Edmonton

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 manmade laws.

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.

Yours Sincerely
Mrs. L.A. Cayford
Chauvin Alberta3

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.

Dear Madam,

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

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