This Week in History


Birthday of Activist Emily Murphy

For the week of Monday March 9, 1998

On March 14, 1868, Emily (Ferguson) Murphy was born in Cookstown, Ontario. Looking at the newborn girl, no one could have anticipated what an impact Emily would have. Although she may be best known for her role in the "Persons" Case, Emily Murphy's contributions as author, activist, and magistrate should never be forgotten.

Emily Murphy

Emily Murphy
© LAC / PA-138847

As the first female magistrate in all of the British Empire, Emily was in a position to work towards changes in the lives of women. Emily fought tirelessly against alcohol and drug use. Emily, though she was married to an Anglican minister, frequently lectured on topics many people found shocking– including birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, and juvenile delinquency. It seemed that no matter how controversial an issue, Emily Murphy was determined to make a difference!

Emily's greatest achievement was winning the "Persons" Case. She dreamed of some day becoming a Senator, but under the English common law the word "person" generally meant "male person", unless an Act of Parliament definitely included women. By this reasoning the British North America Act made only male "persons" eligible for seats in the Canadian Senate. Emily recruited four friends to help her fight for justice.

Tablet to the Alberta Five Unveiled

Tablet to the Alberta Five Unveiled
© LAC / C-054523

Represented by Newton Rowell, K.C., the "Alberta Five" took their case to the Supreme Court of Canada. To their shock and despair, the Supreme Court ruled that, regardless of how outdated the BNA Act seemed, it was written and must be interpreted to allow only men to be Senators! Fortunately, the women refused to give up. They took their case to London, where the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was, at that time, still the highest court of appeal for Canadian cases. After hearing many arguments and consulting British statutes, the Judicial Committee reversed the Canadian Supreme Court decision: women were, in fact entitled to all the rights that the law gave to "persons".

Although Emily was never appointed to the Senate, she and her friends made a difference to the lives of Canadian women. All five have been recognized for individual accomplishments and for their combined contributions to the women's movement. Federal plaques commemorate Emily Murphy (Edmonton, Alberta), and her four colleagues in the "Persons" Case: Nellie McClung (Chatsworth, Ontario), Louise McKinney (Claresholm, Alberta), Mary Irene Parlby (Alix, Alberta), and Henrietta Muir Edwards (Fort Macleod, Alberta). The "Persons" Case was commemorated in 1997.

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