She Was a Visionary Advocate and Reformer
Canadian women owe a great deal to one remarkable woman who challenged conventional views. Her determination helped overturn discriminating laws, and uplifted the role of women in society. Like one luminescent pearl stands out, her activism radiated a light for women to follow. This is another installment of the Living like a Pearl series. Find the other stories here.
Because of her courage to stand against inequality, before the label of ‘feminist’, Canadian women were lifted out of an outdated era and gained the legal status of being recognized as ‘persons’.
Born into a prominent and wealthy family on March 14, 1868 in Cookstown, Ontario, Emily (Ferguson) Murphy was raised with the privilege of private schooling, and a worldly and liberal perspective on life. History shows she would put her influential standing in society to work for the betterment of the world, rather than settle for the expected role of housewife.
When she was 19, Emily married Arthur Murphy, an Anglican priest, and she devoted herself to motherhood. They had four daughters but sadly, two died when they were young. When they moved to Edmonton, Alberta in 1906, her concern grew for the social issues of poverty and the welfare of women and children. Her concern would result in activism and many hard-fought ‘firsts’ that would change the country.
Emily became the first woman appointed to the Edmonton Hospital Board in 1910, and she began speaking out on unjust social conditions for women. The lack of property rights of married women was of concern to her when learning that an Alberta woman was left with nothing after her husband sold the farm. She campaigned for several years and her efforts were successful in 1916 when the Alberta legislature passed the ‘Dower Act’ to give women a legal right to 33% of their husband’s property, and the ability for women to have the power of legal recourse.
Emily became a member of the Equal Franchise League, and worked to help women secure the right to vote in provincial elections. She called out the unjust treatment of women in court, and protested along with other activists against the biased practice of male-only attendance and judges for women who were on trial. She argued that if women couldn’t be tried in court with both men and women present, they should be tried by a female judge. "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."
Her courageous stand against the patriarchy resulted in another ‘first’, with her appointment of being the first female police magistrate in the British Empire.
Emily’s new role in the court system exposed her to the distressing reality of drugs and narcotics, and their devastating effects on society. She wrote numerous newspaper and magazine articles advocating changes to the laws, and also the book ‘The Black Candle’ highlighting the impacts of drug addiction. Her influential writings led to new legislation governing narcotics throughout Canada, much of which is still present today.
But her crowning achievement for women’s rights was still to come.
As court magistrate, her first case verdict in 1916 was declared invalid because she was a woman and therefore, under the British North America act of 1867, she was not considered a legal person. The BNA Act for Canada used the word ‘he’ when it referred to one single person, and set the precedent that the Act defined a person as only a man, thus preventing women from full involvement in society.
For 12 years Emily led the battle to have women legally recognized as ‘persons’, and a battle it was. Challenging a law required a submission from five parties to the Canadian Supreme Court. Together with four other female activists, they were nicknamed the ‘Famous Five’, and the case became known as ‘The Person’s Case’.
But when they were defeated by the Supreme Court ruling that women did not constitute a person, she remained determined to overthrow the archaic law. She appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain - the highest court of appeal.
On October 18, 1929 the Privy Council Judicial Committee unanimously reversed the Supreme Court decision and ruled that women were considered a person under the BNA Act, and were eligible to serve in the Senate. This momentous ruling paved the way for women to enter politics and fundamentally change societies’ attitudes to women in many other professions.
Emily left the world a better place on October 17, 1933. She holds prominent standing in Canadian history as an advocate for women’s rights, a suffragist and reformer, the first female magistrate in the Commonwealth, the organizer of the Person's Case, and an accomplished author.