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Emily Murphy

Heritage Community Foundation, Albertasource.ca and The Famous Five Foundation

Private Life

Public Life

Career as Police Magistrate

Legislation Championed

Reading: "Love the Fulfilling of the Law"

"To a Great Woman"


Emily MurphyI 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."

Emily MurphyJustice 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 and privileges."

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 for Murphy.

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 was appointed.

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.

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