Emily Murphy was a prominent suffragist and reformer. In 1917, she spearheaded the fight to have women declared "persons" in Canada and, therefore, eligible to serve in the Senate.
She became the first female police magistrate in the British Empire and wasn't afraid to face a battle. If she had a good cause in hand, she was prepared to fight it to a successful end.
For Emily, the "Persons" Case was only one triumph in a lifetime of achievement. She combined family life with a writing career and a wide variety of reform activities in the interests of women and children. Emily was a member of the Canadian Women's Press Club (president, 1913-1920), the National Council of Women, the Federated Women’s Institute, and twenty other organizations.
On one occasion, while accompanying her husband on a trip around the countryside, Emily met a woman who had been left homeless and penniless when her husband sold their farm and left without her and their children. Much to Emily's horror, there was no legal recourse for the woman who had spent eighteen years working on the farm.
Emily set out to change this situation, and spent several years of study on her own. She worked to convince MLAs to support her cause. The Dower Act was finally passed in 1917 in the Alberta legislature. This established a wife's right to one-third of her husband's estate, but unfortunately, it took many years before authorities enforced its provisions.
The fight for the Dower Act, plus Emily's work in the courts through the Local Council of Women, led her to request a female magistrate for the women's court. The Attorney General accepted the idea and appointed Emily herself as a magistrate in 1916, much to her surprise. After her first day in court, Emily wrote, "It was as pleasant an experience as running a rapids without a guide."
Judge Murphy was not in court a full day before her presence there was challenged and the cause for her next battle became evident. A lawyer, Eardley Jackson, challenged her appointment as a judge because, he argued, women were not "persons" under the British North America Act of 1867. The Judge calmly overruled the objection that day and many days thereafter. Finally In 1917, the Alberta Supreme Court settled the issue for Alberta by ruling that women were persons—thus answering a gender-based challenge to a ruling by Judge Alice Jamieson of Calgary. This, however, was not the case in other provinces or in federal matters.
Eventually, Emily decided to test the situation, and allowed her name to go to the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, as a candidate for the Senate. He rejected her on the grounds that, under the British North America Act women indeed were not "persons." This interpretation was based on a British Common Law ruling of 1876 which stated that, "women were eligible for pains and penalties, but not rights and privileges."
The campaign to appoint a woman to the Senate, particularly Emily, was gaining momentum across the country. Nearly 500,000 Canadians signed a petition asking that Emily Murphy be appointed to the Senate.
Prime Minister Border and Mackenzie King both indicated that they were willing to appoint a woman to the Senate but because of the 1876 ruling, they were not able to do so. Despite her achievements and national renown, as far as the federal government was concerned, there seemed to be no hope for women unless the British North America Act could be changed.
Emily decided she would have to change it. With the help of one of her brothers, who was a lawyer, she devised a plan to work through the Supreme Court to ask for constitutional clarification regarding women becoming Senators. Such a question had to be submitted by a group of at least five citizens, but that posed no problem for Emily.
Her group—Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby and herself—met for tea at Emily's house on August 27, 1927 and signed her petition to the Supreme Court of Canada. Disregarding the two questions which Emily and her colleagues submitted, the Department of Justice recommended to Prime Minister King that the best question to present to the Supreme Court was,Does the word "persons" in Section 24, of the British North America Act, 1867, include female persons? The arguments were presented on March 14, 1928, Emily's 60th birthday and after a daylong debate, the Supreme Court of Canada decided against the women on April 24, 1928.
However, the Famous 5 refused to give in and with the approval of Prime Minister Mackenzie King, the decision was appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, England, the true Supreme Court for Canada at that time.
After several more months of waiting, Emily finally got the answer she had been waiting for. On October 18, 1929, the Privy Council decided, that women are "persons" and can serve in the Senate.
Emily was elated, but she was not to receive the first appointment to the Senate. That went, about five months later, to Cairine Wilson, with Emily's blessing. In 1931, the Edmonton Press Club wired Prime Minister R. B. Bennett: "This woman in Canada has given so freely of herself to the public service of her country, and no woman is more worthy"—to no avail.
Senate appointments are made on the basis of geographic areas and also political allegiances. The first opening after the victory of the 'Persons' Case occurred in Ottawa. Emily lived in Edmonton. Prime Minister Mackenzie King was a Liberal and Emily was an ardent Tory. In 1931, R. B. Bennett, Calgary's only Prime Minister, was required to appoint a Senator from northern Alberta. He was advised that because the other Senators from Alberta were Protestants, it was necessary to appoint a Catholic, like the member who had died. The senator appointed, Patrick Burns, was Catholic but he was also Liberal. Many people still wonder why it was possible in this case to overlook political affiliation but not religious affiliation. It was not until 1979 when Martha Bielish was appointed to the Senate that Alberta received its first female senator, even though in 1929 Emily and four other Alberta women succeeded in having a key aspect of the British North America Act, 1867 re-defined.
Emily died, of diabetes, in Edmonton, October 17, 1933, at the age of 65. Her mausoleum drawer lists her many achievements, including the "Persons" Case, which improved the democratic life of women throughout the British Empire.