BORN: Cookstown, Ontario • 14 March 1868
DIED: Edmonton, Alberta • 27 October 1933
Emily Murphy’s destiny as one of Canada’s most important reformers was probably sealed on a summer’s day in 1916. It was her first day presiding over an Edmonton court as a police magistrate— she was the first woman so elevated in the British Empire—and an overbearing barrister was already giving her trouble. “You have no right to be holding court,” he exclaimed at last. “You’re not even a person.”
This was a startling taunt, but also a legal argument of some merit at the time. According to British common law tradition, women were not “persons” in many areas of the law, and there was some question whether Murphy was actually eligible for her post. Eventually the courts ruled she was, and the empire’s first woman judge went on to a successful fifteen-year career on the bench.
She did not forget the incident, however, and Murphy’s name soon became associated with a legal struggle aimed at giving a desperately simple question a conclusive answer: Were women “persons” under the law ? Murphy was already a reformer of some renown when she accepted her appointment to the bench.
The wife of an Ontario minister, she had followed her husband’s missionary work around Canada and England for several years before settling in Edmonton in 1907.A talented and independent woman who intended to leave her own mark on society, Murphy had built a prominent career as a freelance journalist and author.
The Impressions ofjaney Canuc\ Abroad (1902) was especially popular in both Canada and Britain. In Edmonton, Murphy led several municipal reform initiatives and was the prime mover behind the Alberta Dower Act of 1911, which protected the claims of widows to their deceased husbands’ estates.
An appointment to the bench came about by accident after Murphy made inquiries on behalf of women who were barred from police court because they were women.Though she had no formal training in the law, she overcame initial scepticism and became a respected judge.
Magistrate Murphy was especially known for her unbending approach to narcotics cases, and she published a book in 1922 that became the standard Canadian text on the drug trade for a generation.Her growing familiarity with the law led her in 1927 to initiate the case for which she is most famous.
Under the Supreme Court of Canada Act, any five Canadians had the right to ask Parliament to refer a constitutional question to the country’s highest court. Murphy enlisted four other women activists to petition the Liberal government to ask the court if women were “persons” eligible for appointment to the Canadian Senate.
Mackenzie King’s Liberals agreed to ask the question, but the Supreme Court’s answer in 1928 was a setback. Persons, the court held, meant men—that was the intention of the Fathers of Confederation, and that was how it ought to be. Murphy and the others pressed the case to the highest court in the empire, and a voice of sanity was heard at last in 1929.
The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council ruled that “the word persons includes members of the male and female sex.” It was an undiluted victory: Canadian women were at last legally guaranteed political equality, and the empire’s highest appeal court had made its first avowedly pro-woman statement.
Many expected that Emily Murphy would be the first women appointed to the Senate, but Prime Minister King gave that honour to well-known Liberal Cairine Wilson in 1930. Murphy was disappointed, but she used the fame won by the court case to campaign across Canada for the rights of women. Before she died suddenly in 1933, few “persons” of either sex could claim to have made such a difference