Emily Murphy  


Born:  March 14, 1868, Cookstown, Ontario, Canada

Died:  October 17, 1933, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada


Biographical Note:

Emily (Ferguson) Murphy was an adult educator for womens rights, a prominent suffragist and reformer, the first female magistrate in the Commonwealth, the organizer of the Person's Case, and an accomplished author (under the pen name, Janey Canuck). 


Before Emily's heroic efforts came to fruition in 1929, Canadian women were excluded from public office as senators, certain professions and universities.  Her passion for social reform was the foundation of educating adults from all walks of life about women's rights:  from women who under-valued themselves . . . to men who declared that women are persons in matters of pains and penalties, but are not persons in matters of rights and privileges . . . to the five Lords of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England, Canada's highest court in those days. 

In 1868, Emily was born into a prominent legal family in Ontario, and she became a legal expert at an early age.  In 1887, Emily married Arthur Murphy, an Anglican minister.  The Murphys had four daughters, but tragically, two of the girls died very young.  The family moved west to Swan River, Manitoba in 1903 and Edmonton, Alberta in 1907. 

Emily had a strong interest in the protection of women and children.  The experience of an Alberta woman -- who was left with nothing when her husband decided to sell the farm -- motivated Emily to lead a campaign to ensure the property rights of married women.  The Alberta legislature passed the Dower Act in 1911, which protected a wife's right to a third of her husband's estate.

Emily founded the Federated Women's Institute for rural women and became a member of the Equal Franchise League to obtain the vote for women.  Between 1916 and 1922, all provinces except Quebec (and Newfoundland, then a separate colony) granted women the right to vote in provincial elections.  

 In 1916 Emily protested over two women being ejected from the Edmonton court.  "If the evidence is not fit to be heard in mixed company," she argued, "then . . . the government . . . [must] set up a special court presided over by women, to try other women."  The Minister agreed and offered Emily the position of police magistrate over this special court.  She became the first woman in the entire British Empire to hold this position.

In the courts, she was frequently exposed to the devastating effects of drugs and narcotics, resulting in her writing many newspaper and magazine articles advocating changes to the laws. These articles were published in 1922 as The Black Candle, under her pen name. Her writings led to legislation governing narcotics throughout Canada, much of which is still reflected in the present legislation (Anthony and Solomon).

Unfortunately, most of the drug users that Emily wrote about were identified as "Chinese, Assyrians, Negroes, and Greeks" (The Black Candle, p. 150). As such, her writings contributed to racial biases that were prevalent in Canada at the time.

The British North America Act of 1867 -- the Act that created the dominion of Canada -- used the word "persons" when it referred to more than one person and the word "he" when it referred to one person.  Therefore, many argued, the Act was really saying that only a man could be a person.  This prevented women from participating fully in politics and certain professions and universities.

For 12 years Emily Murphy led the battle to have women legally recognized as "persons."  A provision under Section 60 of the Supreme Court of Canada Act allowed any five interested persons to petition the government for a ruling on a constitutional point.  Emily enlisted the help of four other Alberta reformers -- Nelly McLung, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney, and Henrietta Muir Edwards.  (They later became known as "The Famous Five".) 

Emily Murphy and her companions asked the Supreme Court of Canada to answer the question, "Does the word 'person' in Section 24 of the British North America Act include female persons?"  On April 24, 1928, the Supreme Court declared that the word "person" did not include female persons.

The five women took the "Persons Case" all the way to the Judicial Committee of the British Privy Council in London, England, which was Canada's highest level of appeals.  On October 18, 1929, the Judicial Committee unanimously reversed the Supreme Court decision:  " .  .  . the word persons in section 24 of the British North America Act includes members both of the male and female sex, .  .  . and that women are eligible to .  .  . become members of the Senate of Canada . . ."  It was a great victory for equal rights.  Canadian women owe a great deal to Emily Murphy'a passionate adult educator who challenged conventional views and changed Canadian history.


Selected Publications:


Anthony, B., & Solomon, R. (1973).  Introduction.  In E. F. Murphy, The black candle:

      Canada's first book on drug abuse 1922 (p. 3).  Toronto: Coles Publishing.

Bassett, I. (1974).  Introduction.  In E. F. Murphy, Janey Canuck in the West (pp. ix-xiv).

      Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited.

MacLellan, M. E. (1971).  History of women's rights in Canada.  In Cultural tradition and

      political history of women in Canada (sec. 3, p. 17).  Ottawa: Studies of the Royal

      Commission on the Status of Women in Canada. 

Mander, C. (1985).  Emily Murphy, rebel: First female magistrate in the British empire.

      Toronto: Simon & Pierre Publishing.


Web Links:

The famous five.  (2002).  National Archives of Canada.  Retrieved August 29, 2003.

Famous Five Foundation.  (2002).  Retrieved August 29, 2003.

Hughes, V. (2000).  International implications of the "persons" case.  Retrieved August 29, 2003.


Prepared Aug.  29, 2003 - Janie Stuart




Site Sponsored by the University College of the Fraser Valley

Contact Editors