Our woman hero of March is Emily Murphy! She was a Canadian women’s rights activist, jurist, and author. In 1916, she became the first female magistrate in Canada, and in the British Empire. She is best known for her contributions to Canadian feminism, specifically to the question of whether women were “persons” under Canadian law. Emily Murphy was also known as one of “The Famous Five” (also called “The Valiant Five”), a group of Canadian women’s rights activists that also included Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby.
Emily Murphy was born in Cookstown, Ontario, in 14 March 1868. As a child, Murphy frequently joined her two older brothers Thomas and Gowan in their adventures; their father encouraged this behaviour and often had his sons and daughters share responsibilities equally. Murphy grew up under the influence of her maternal grandfather, Ogle R. Gowan who was a politician and two uncles who were a Supreme Court justice and a Senator, respectively. Her family were prominent members of society and she benefited from parents who supported their daughter receiving formal academic education. Murphy attended Bishop Strachan School, an exclusive Anglican private school for girls in Toronto.
After getting married and moving to Edmonton, Aberta, at the age of 40, Murphy began to actively organize women’s groups where the isolated housewives could meet and discuss ideas and plan group projects. She was then made aware of an unjust experience of an Albertan woman whose husband sold the family farm; the husband then abandoned his wife and children who were left homeless and penniless. With the support of many rural women, Murphy began to pressure the Alberta government to allow women to retain the rights of their land. In 1916, Murphy successfully persuaded the Alberta legislature to pass the Dower Act that would allow a woman legal rights to one third of her husband’s property.
On 27 August 1927 Murphy and human rights activist Nellie McClung, ex MLA Louise McKinney, women’s rights campaigners Henrietta Edwards and Irene Parlby signed the petition to the federal Cabinet, asking that the federal government refer the issue to the Supreme Court of Canada. The women’s petition set out a question “Does the word ‘person’ in Section 24 of the British North America Act include female persons?” The campaign became known as The Persons Case and reached the Supreme Court of Canada in March 1928. The Court held that women were not qualified to sit in the Senate. The five women then appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain. On 18 October 1929, in a decision called Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General), the Privy Council declared that ‘persons’ in Section 24 of the BNA Act of 1867 should be interpreted to include both males and females therefore women were eligible to serve in the Senate.
Despite the ruling, Murphy was never appointed to the Senate.
The women were known as the Famous Five and were considered leaders in education for social reform and women’s rights. They challenged convention and established an important precedent in Canadian history. In Canada’s Senate Chamber, the five women are honoured with a plaque that 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.” Murphy, along with the rest of the Famous Five, was featured on the back of one of the Canadian 50 dollar bills issued in 2004 as part of the Canadian Journey Series. In October 2009, the Senate voted to name Murphy and the rest of the Five Canada’s first “honorary senators”.
However, there has been some criticism of Murphy’s later work, mainly for her role in the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta and her allegations that a ring of immigrants from other countries, particularly China, would corrupt the white race by getting Canadians hooked on drugs. The Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta, drafted in 1928 to protect the gene pool, allowed for sterilization of mentally disabled persons in order to prevent the transmission of undesirable traits to offspring. At that time, eugenicists argued that mental illness, mental retardation, epilepsy, alcoholism, pauperism, certain criminal behaviours, and social defects, such as prostitution and sexual perversion, were genetically determined and inherited. Further, it was widely believed that persons with these disorders had a higher reproduction rate than the normal population. As a result, it was feared the gene pool in the general population was weakening.
In Murphy’s book The Black Candle, she wrote: “It is hardly credible that the average Chinese peddler has any definite idea in his mind of bringing about the downfall of the white race, his swaying motive being probably that of greed, but in the hands of his superiors, he may become a powerful instrument to that end.” The perspective contained in her book The Black Candle is considered the most consequential because it played a role in creating a widespread “war on drugs mentality” leading to legislation that “defined addiction as a law enforcement problem”. However, race permeates The Black Candle, and is intricately entwined with the drug trade and addiction in Murphy’s analysis. Yet she is ambiguous in her treatment of non-whites.
Despite her controversial legacy, Emily Murphy still inspired us that we should not be afraid to fight the injustice around us. If you could not fight it alone, enlist the help of others!
Need other kinds of inspiration? Just check Adorageek’s other posts!