I feel equal to high and splendid braveries!
—Emily Murphy, 1918
Emily Murphy was a prominent suffragist and reformer. In
1917, she spearheaded the fight to have women declared
"persons" in Canada and, therefore, eligible to serve in the
Senate. She became the first female police magistrate in the
British Empire and wasn't afraid to face a battle. If she
had a good cause in hand, she was prepared to see it through
to a successful end.
For Murphy, the Persons' Case was only one triumph in a
lifetime of achievement. She combined family life with a
writing career and a wide variety of reform activities in
the interests of women and children. Murphy was a member of
the Canadian Women's Press Club (president, 1913-1920), the
National Council of Women, the Federated Women's Institutes,
and 20 other organizations.
On one occasion, while accompanying her husband on a trip
around the countryside, Murphy met a woman who had been left
homeless and penniless when her husband sold their farm and
left without her and their children. Much to Murphy's
horror, there was no legal recourse for the woman who had
spent 18 years working on the family farm.
Murphy set out to change this situation, and spent
several years studying on her own. She worked to convince
MLAs to support her cause. In 1917, the Dower Act was
finally passed in the Alberta legislature, establishing a
wife's right to one-third of her husband's estate.
Unfortunately, it took many years before authorities
enforced its provisions.
The fight for the Dower Act, plus Murphy's work in the
courts through the Local Council of Women, led her to
request a female magistrate for the women's court. The
Attorney General accepted the idea and much to her surprise,
appointed Murphy herself in 1916. After her first day in
court, Murphy wrote, "It was as pleasant an experience as
running a rapids without a guide."
Justice Murphy was not in court a full day before her
presence there was challenged and the cause for her next
battle became evident. A lawyer, Eardley Jackson, challenged
her appointment as a judge because, he argued, women were
not "persons" under the British North America Act of 1867.
Although this objection was overruled that and many days
after, it was not until 1917, when the Alberta Supreme Court
settled the issue for Alberta by ruling that women were
persons—thus answering a gender-based challenge to a ruling
by Justice Alice Jamieson of Calgary. This, however, was not
the case in other provinces or in federal matters.
Eventually, Murphy decided to test the situation, and
allowed her name to go to the Prime Minister, Sir Robert
Borden, as a candidate for the Senate. He rejected her on
the grounds that, under the British North America Act women
indeed were not "persons." This interpretation was based on
a British Common Law ruling of 1876, which stated that
"women were eligible for pains and penalties, but not rights
The campaign to appoint a woman to the Senate,
particularly Murphy, was gaining momentum across the
country. Nearly 500,000 Canadians signed a petition asking
that she be appointed to the Senate.
Prime Minister Borden and Mackenzie King both indicated
that they were willing to appoint a woman to the Senate but
because of the 1876 ruling, were not able to do so. Despite
her achievements and national renown, as far as the federal
government was concerned, there seemed to be no hope for
women unless the British North America Act could be changed.
Murphy decided she would simply have to work to change
it. With the help of one of her brothers (who was a lawyer)
Murphy devised a plan to work through the Supreme Court to
ask for constitutional clarification regarding women
becoming Senators. Such a question had to be submitted by a
group of at least five citizens, but that posed no problem
Her group—Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise
McKinney, Irene Parlby, and herself—met for tea at Murphy's
house on August 27, 1927, and signed her petition to the
Supreme Court of Canada. Disregarding the two questions
which Murphy and her colleagues submitted, the Department of
Justice recommended to Prime Minister King that the best
question to present to the Supreme Court was, Does the
word "persons" in Section 24, of the British North America
Act, 1867, include female persons? The arguments were
presented on March 14, 1928 (Murphy's 60th birthday), and
after a daylong debate, the Supreme Court of Canada decided
against the women on April 24, 1928.
Despite this setback, the Famous 5 refused to resign
themselves to the situation and with the approval of Prime
Minister Mackenzie King, the decision was appealed to the
Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, England,
the true Supreme Court for Canada at that time.
After several more months of waiting, Murphy and her
colleagues finally received the answer they had been
campaigning for. On October 18, 1929, the Privy Council ruled
that women are "persons" and can serve in the Senate.
Murphy was elated, but was not the first woman to be
appointed to the Canadian Senate. Approximately five months
after the landmark verdict, Cairine Wilson began female
representation in the Senate. In 1931, the Edmonton Press
Club wired Prime Minister R. B. Bennett: "This woman
[Murphy] in Canada has given so freely of herself to the
public service of her country, and no woman is more
worthy"—but Murphy was never appointed.
Senate appointments are made on the basis of geographic
areas and also political allegiances. The first opening
after the victory of the Persons' Case occurred in Ottawa;
Murphy lived in Edmonton. Prime Minister Mackenzie King was
a Liberal and Murphy was an ardent Conservative. In 1931, R.
B. Bennett, was required to appoint a Senator from northern
Alberta. He was advised that because the other Senators from
Alberta were Protestants, it was necessary to appoint a
Catholic, like the member who had died. The senator
appointed, Patrick Burns, a Catholic and a Liberal. Many
people still wonder why it was possible in this case to
overlook political affiliation but not religious
affiliation. It was not until 1979, when Martha Bielish was
appointed to the Senate, that Alberta's first female senator
On October 17, 1933, at the age of 65, Emily Murphy died
of diabetes in Edmonton. Her mausoleum drawer lists her many
achievements, including the 'Persons' Case, which
significantly improved the democratic life of women
throughout the British Empire.