Emily Murphy

From New World Encyclopedia

Statue of Emily Murphy in the monument to The Famous Five, Parliament Hill, Ottawa

Emily Murphy (March 14, 1868 - October 17, 1933) was a Canadian women's rights activist. In 1910, she was the first woman appointed to the board of Edmonton Hospital. In 1916, she became the first woman magistrate in Canada, and in the British Empire. She was also appointed as Judge of the Juvenile Court of Edmonton, hence is sometimes referred to as Judge Murphy. She is best known for her contributions to Canadian feminism, specifically to the question of whether women were "persons" under Canadian law. Victory in this important legal case resulted in women being eligible to stand for election as well as confirming her own right to serve on the bench. She campaigned for the 1917 Dower Act, which established that a wife has a legal entitlement to one-third of her husband's estate. From 1913 to 1920, she was President of the Canadian Women's Press Club. She is honored with a statue on Parliament Hill, Ottawa and appears on the reverse of the $50 bill, issued 2004. Her legacy is regarded as ambiguous. On the one hand, she opened the way up for Canadian women to assume their rightful place in society; on the other her views about race and population control suggest that she thought white people were genetically superior. Her defenders point out that she was writing at a time when white racism was typical, not exceptional. Others think it reprehensible that a sanitized version of her legacy has often been presented to the Canadian public; they think that she does not merit the honor that has been given her, since her views negatively impacted race relations even though she did extend women's rights.

There is little doubt, however, that Emily Murphy's role in winning legal recognition of the "person-hood" of women in Canada represents moral progress. However, while the achievements of some people are easy to evaluate as on the whole good or bad, others' are less easy to judge. Murphy's achievements are remarkable enough for her story to deserve telling but from a moral perspective, ambiguous enough for a note of caution to be sounded regarding her worthiness as a so-called "hero." What can be argued is that yesterday's mistakes must not be perpetuated today. Yesterday, not everyone saw that to fight for civil rights for some while excluding others was misguided and wrong. Human rights are the property of all people, not of any privileged party, whether defined by gender, race or creed. The tenacity with which Murphy pursued women's rights needs to be extended to ensure that all people enjoy freedom and justice.


In 1927, Murphy and four other women: Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby, who together came to be known as "The Famous Five" (also called "The Valiant Five"), launched the "Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General)|Persons Case," contending that women could be "qualified persons" eligible to sit in the Senate. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that they were not. However, upon appeal to the Judicial Committee of the British Privy Council — the court of last resort for Canada at that time — the women won their case. Cairine Wilson was subsequently appointed the first woman senator in 1930.[1]

Murphy was also a journalist and author. Her experience in the courts led her to inveigh against drugs, in particular opium and cannabis. Using the name Janey Canuck, Murphy wrote a number of articles about drugs and attendant social problems and four travel books. The articles were published in The Black Candle (1922) under her pen name. Her writings contributed to a push for legislation dealing with narcotics in Canada, leading to changes that are still reflected in legislation. As most of the drug users that Murphy wrote about were "[[China|Chinese, Assyrians, Negroes, and Geeks,[2], her writings reinforced racial biases that were then widespread in Canada.[3]

Her legacy is disputed, with her important contributions to feminism being weighed against her nativist views. In addition to being against immigration, she was a strong supporter of Alberta's legislation for the Sexual Sterilization of the Insane at a time when compulsory sterilization was practiced in some North American jurisdictions.[4] However, it has been argued that that those in the vanguard make mistakes; Murphy's views were a product of her times, and this should not vitiate her activism on behalf of Canadian women.[5]

Early life

Emily Murphy was born the third of six children in Cookstown, Ontario to wealthy landowner and businessman Isaac Ferguson and his wife – also named Emily. As a child, Murphy frequently joined her two older brothers Thomas and Gowan in their adventures; in fact, their father encouraged this behavior and often had his sons and daughters share responsibilities equally. Considering her family involvement in the law and politics, it is no surprise that Murphy became one of the most influential suffragists in Canada. Murphy grew up under the influence of her maternal grandfather, Ogle R. Gowan who was a politician that founded a local branch of the Orange Order in 1830 and two uncles who were a Supreme Court justice and a Senator, respectively.[6] Her brother also became a lawyer and another member of the Supreme Court. Her family were prominent members of society and she benefited from parents who supported their daughter receiving formal academic education. Murphy attended Bishop Strachan School, an exclusive Anglican private school for girls in Toronto and, through a friend, she met her future husband Arthur Murphy who was 11 years her senior. In 1887, they were married and had four daughters Madeleine, Evelyn, Doris and Kathleen. Tragically, Doris died at a young age of diphtheria. After Doris’ death, the family decided to try a new setting and moved west to Swan River, Manitoba in 1903 and then to Edmonton, Alberta in 1907.

Dower Act

While Arthur was working as an Anglican priest, Murphy explored her new surroundings and became increasingly aware of the poverty that existed. At the age of 40, when her children became independent and began their separate lives, Murphy started to actively organize women’s groups where the isolated housewives could meet and discuss ideas and plan group projects. In addition to these organizations, Murphy began to speak openly and frankly about the disadvantaged and the poor living conditions that surrounded their society. Her strong interest in the rights and protection of women and children intensified when she was made aware of an unjust experience of an Albertan woman whose husband sold the family farm; the husband then abandoned his wife and children who were left homeless and penniless. At that time, property laws did not leave the wife with any legal recourse. Murphy found out that a woman could devote her entire life and energy to a farm that was not legally entitled to her. This case motivated Murphy to create a campaign that assured the property rights of married women. With the support of many rural women, Murphy began to pressure the Alberta government to allow women to retain the rights of their land. In 1911, Murphy successfully persuaded the Alberta legislature to pass the Dower Act that would allow a woman legal rights to one third of her husband’s property. Murphy’s reputation as a women’s rights activist was established by this first political victory.

The Persons Case

Murphy’s success in the fight for the Dower Act, along with her work through the Local Council of Women and her increasing awareness of women’s rights, influenced her request for a female magistrate in the women’s court. In 1916, Murphy, along with a group of women, attempted to observe a trial for women who were labeled prostitutes and were arrested for “questionable” circumstances. The women were asked to leave the courtroom on the claims that the statement was not “fit for mixed company.” This outcome was unacceptable to Murphy and she protested to the provincial Attorney General. "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.” With some reluctance, Murphy’s request was approved and she became the first woman police magistrate for the British Empire. Her appointment as judge, however, became the cause for her greatest adversity concerning women within the law. In 1917, she headed the battle to have women declared as “persons” in Canada, and, consequently, qualified to serve in the Senate. Lawyer, Eardley Jackson, challenged her position as judge because women were not considered “persons” under the British North America Act of 1867. This understanding was based on a British Common Law ruling of 1876, which stated, "women were eligible for pains and penalties, but not rights and privileges." The only hope for women to be considered in the federal government, the British North America Act would need to be changed.

Murphy began to work on a plan to ask for clarification of how women were regarded in the BNA act and how they were to become Senators. In order for her question to be considered, she needed at least five citizens to submit the question as a group. She enlisted the help of four other Albertan women and on August 27, 1927 she and human rights activist Nellie McClung, ex MLA Louise McKinney, women’s rights campaigners Henrietta Edwards and Irene Parlby signed the petition to the Supreme Court of Canada. The women asked, "Does the word 'person' in Section 24 of the British North America Act include female persons?" The campaign became known as The Persons Case and reached the Supreme Court of Canada on March 1928. The court denied the women from challenging the interpretation of the word “persons” which lead the five women to bring the case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain. On October 18, 1929, in a decision called Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General), the Privy Council unanimously declared that women will also be considered as “persons” under the BNA Act and are eligible to serve in the Senate. The women were known as the Famous Five and were considered leaders in education for social reform and women’s rights. They challenged convention and established an important precedent in Canadian history. In Canada’s Senate Chamber, the five women are honored with a plaque that reads, “To further the cause of womankind these five outstanding pioneer women caused steps to be taken resulting in the recognition by the Privy Council of women as persons eligible for appointment to the Senate of Canada." Murphy, along with the rest of the Famous Five are featured on the back of the Canadian 50 dollar bill (issued 2004).

Drugs and Race

Although Murphy’s views on race changed over the course of her life[7], the perspective contained in her book, the Black Candle is considered the most consequential because it played a role in creating a widespread “war on drugs mentality” leading to legislation that “defined addiction as a law enforcement problem.”[8] A series of articles in McLean’s Magazine under her pen name, “Janey Canuck,” forms the basis of the Black Candle. Using extensive anecdotes and “expert” opinion, the Black Candle depicts an alarming picture of drug use in Canada, detailing Murphy’s understanding of the use and effects of opium, cocaine, and pharmaceuticals, as well as a “new menace,” “marihuana.”[9] Murphy’s concern with drugs began when she started coming into “disproportionate contact with Chinese people” in her courtroom because they were over represented in the criminal justice system.[10] In addition to professional expertise and her own observations, Murphy was also given a tour of opium dens in Vancouver’s Chinatown by local police detectives. Vancouver at the time was in the midst of a moral panic over drugs that was part of the anti-Oriental campaign that precipitated the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923.[11] Canadian drug historian Catherine Carstairs has argued that Murphy’s importance regarding drug policy has been “overstated” because she did not have an impact on the drug panic in Vancouver, but that nevertheless “her articles did mark a turning point and her book … brought the Vancouver drug panic to a larger Canadian audience.”[12]

Recent memorializing of the Famous Five, such as the illustration on the back of the 50-dollar bill, has been used as the occasion for re-evaluating Murphy’s legacy. Marijuana decriminalization activists especially have targeted Murphy for criticism as part of the movement to discredit marijuana prohibition. They charge that today’s drug laws are built on the racist foundations laid by Murphy and that the drug war has harmed more women than the Persons Case has benefited.[13] Conversely, Murphy’s defenders have been quick to point out that she was writing at a time when white racism was typical, not exceptional, so Murphy’s views were widely shared. Moreover, her views on race or drugs in no way negate Murphy’s positive accomplishments in advancing the legal status of women, they argue.[14]Akpata says that as a result of Murphy's campaigning:

Thousands were deported, many were jailed unfairly, and Chinese exclusion laws were endorsed and publicly supported by Emily Murphy. Laws made it illegal for white women to be employed by Chinese men until the 1930s in British Columbia, and 1946 in Saskatchewan and Alberta. Although she helped white Canadian women win the right to vote in 1919, Asian persons were not allowed to vote until 1949.[6]

She was, he says, "instrumental" in securing the adoption of the "Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act … in 1928." She "approved all the legislation that passed through her bench at the time, which included all of the Chinese exclusion acts, the Indian Act of 1923 and the Residential School Act of 1925." "From 1923 to 1980," Akpata continues, "the Canadian government took native children off their designated reservation, to be raised by Christian-run schools and dormitories."[6]

Race permeates the Black Candle, and is intricately entwined with the illegal drug trade and addiction in Murphy’s analysis. Yet she is ambiguous in her treatment of non-whites.[15] In one passage, for example, she chastises whites who use the Chinese as “scapegoats,”[16] while elsewhere, she refers to the Chinese man as a “visitor” in this country, and that “it might be wise to put him out” if it turns out that this visitor carries “poisoned lollipops in his pocket and feeds them to our children.”[17] Drug addiction, however, not the Chinese immigrant, is “a scourge so dreadful in its effects that it threatens the very foundations of civilization,” and which laws therefore need to target for eradication.[18] Drugs victimize everyone, and members of all races perpetrate the drug trade, according to Murphy.[19] At the same time, she does not depart from the dominant view of middle class whites at the time that “races” were discrete, biologically determined categories, naturally ranked in a hierarchy. In this scheme, the white race was facing degradation through miscegenation, while the more prolific “black and yellow races may yet obtain the ascendancy”[20] and thus threatened to “wrest the leadership of the world from the British.”[21]

Murphy’s ambiguity regarding non-whites is reflected in scholarly debates, but what is not controversial is that the Black Candle was written “for the express purpose of arousing public demands for stricter drug legislation” and that in this she was to some degree successful.[22] This motivation may have influenced her racial analysis by playing to the popular prejudices of her white audiences. On the other hand, she may have deliberately tried to distance herself from those prejudices, especially the ones propagated by the more vulgar and hysterical Asian exclusionists in BC in order to maximize her own credibility and sway her more moderate readers.[23] Murphy supported tighter immigration controls.

The Eugenics Movement

During the early twentieth century, scientific knowledge emerged in the forefront of social importance. Advances in science and technology were thought to hold answers to current and future social problems. Murphy was among those who thought that the problems that were plaguing their society, such as alcoholism, drug abuse and crime were caused because of mental deficiencies. In a 1932 article titled “Overpopulation and Birth Control,” she states: "…over-population [is a] basic problem of all…none of our troubles can even be allayed until this is remedied."[24] As the politics behind the Second World War continued to develop, Murphy, who was a pacifist, theorized that the only reason for war was that nations needed to fight for land to accommodate their growing populations. Her argument was that: if there was population control, people would not need as much land. Without the constant need for more land, war would cease to exist. Her solution to these social issues was eugenics. Selective breeding was considered a progressive scientific and social approach and Murphy supported the sterilization of those individuals who were considered mentally deficient. She believed that the mentally and socially inferior reproduced more than the “human thoroughbreds” and appealed to the Alberta Legislative Assembly for eugenic sterilization. In a petition, she wrote that mentally defective children were, “a menace to society and an enormous cost to the state… science is proving that mental defectiveness is a transmittable hereditary condition.” She wrote to Minister of Agriculture and Health, George Hoadley that two female “feeble-minded” mental patients already bred several offspring. She called it: “a neglect amounting to a crime to permit these two women to go on bearing children. They are both young women and likely to have numerous offspring before leaving the hospital.” Due in part to her heavy advocacy of compulsory sterilization, about 2,800 Canadians in Alberta, mostly in mental hospitals, who were not considered to possess any intelligence, were sterilized, some unknowingly, under the Sexual Sterilization Act before its repeal in 1971.


1868 – Born in Cookstown, Ontario on March 14th

1887 – Marries Arthur Murphy and has four daughters Madeliene, Kathleen, Evelyn, and Doris

1898 – Family moves to England. Emily begins to write under the pseudonym – Janey Canuck.

1901 – Moves to Swan River, Manitoba. The Impressions of Janey Canuck Abroad is published.

1907 – Moves to Edmonton, Alberta and begins her social activism.

1910 – First woman appointed to the Edmonton Hospital Board.

1911 – The Dower Act of 1911 is passed and gives Alberta women property rights.

1913 - President of the Canadian Women's Press Club. (Until 1920).

1916 – Alberta women get the vote. Becomes first female magistrate in the British Empire.

1922 – The Black Candle concerning the drug trade in Canada is published.

1927 – Enlists Nelly McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby to support a petition to the Supreme Court of Canada to include women in the definition of “persons.”

1929 – October 18 England’s Privy Council holds that women, pursuant to s. 24 of the British North America Act, 1867 (now called the Constitution Act, 1867), are eligible for appointment to the Canadian Senate.

1933 – Dies in her sleep on October 17 at the age of 65.

Famous Quotes

"Nothing ever happens by chance; everything is pushed from behind."

"It is claimed, but with what truth we cannot say, that there is a well-defined propaganda among the aliens of color to bring about the degeneration of the white race."

"This is courtship all the world over - the man all tongue; the woman all ears." [25]


The house where Murphy lived from 1919 until hear death, now on the campus of the University of Alberta, was named Emily Murphy House in her honor and declared a provincial historic resource on June 28, 1977. She is commemorated by a statue on Parliament Hill, Ottawa and in Calgary, Alberta both sponsored by the Famous Five Foundation. Statues on Parliament Hill "are usually reserved for Prime Ministers or Royalty."[6] Despite the controversial aspects of her views, Murphy 's life significantly helped women to take their rightful place alongside men in employment and pubic life. She balanced family and public life, too, showing that women are capable of raising children while they also assume responsibilities outside the home. Her views on race, however, shared by other members of the Famous Five, have led to debate about whether the Famous Five should be on the Canadian $50 bill, issued November 2004.[26] Murphy's achievements in the cause of women's rights can not be overlooked. However, her inability to see that racism and sexism were both based on unjustified assumptions of superiority remains a flaw in her moral outlook. Whether the negative consequences of her racism outweighs the positive consequences of her suffragist achievements is a difficult call to make. For some, honoring her memory dishonors others:

"It is a mistake to honor the woman until we look at the whole picture. Everyone has been taught that two wrongs don't make a right - no matter how much the government and some feminists try to convince us otherwise, because it was wrong of Murphy to advocate suppressing the rights of others so honoring her is wrong too."[13]

Harper add, in conclusion, "We cannot change the past or it's mistakes, but there is no excuse or reason why we cannot correct today and the future."[13] Murphy fought tenaciously to achieve what she did achieve. The same conviction of purpose, extended to fight for the rights of all people, might move mountains.


  1. Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General)(1928) S.C.R. 276. Canada Human Rights Commission. Human Rights in Canada: A Historical Perspective.
  2. Emily F. Murphy. 1922. The Black Candle. (full text) (Toronto: Thomas Allen), 150. online at Free World News. Retrieved September 14, 2008.
  3. Janie Stuart, 2003. Emily Murphy. Encyclopedia of Canadian Adult Education. University College of the Fraser Valley. Retrieved September 14, 2008.
  4. E. Murphy, 1932. Sterilization of the Insane. Vancouver Sun. Alberta Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved September 14, 2008.
  5. Jan Wong, 1998. Speech presented as part of the Famous Five Foundation Mentorship series. Famous Five Foundation. Retrieved September 14, 2008.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 John Akpata, 2005. The Medusa of Murphy. The Ottawa Express Akpata argues that Murphy was herself "closely associated with the Orange Order, an organization of Irish-descended Protestants who advocated a European-based system of apartheid." "They were exclusionary to Catholics," he says, "and all non-white persons, and closely associated with the Ku Klux Klan … from 1922 to 1937 the Klan was active in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan."
  7. Alisa Dawn Smith. 1999. Rethinking first-wave feminism through the ideas of Emily Murphy. (Ottawa, CA: National Library of Canada; Bibliothèque nationale du Canada. ISBN 9780612326972), 49.
  8. Jennifer Tooley. 2001. Demon drugs and holy wars Canadian drug policy as symbolic action. (Ottawa, CA: National Library of Canada; Bibliothèque nationale du Canada. ISBN 9780612546547), 36.
  9. Murphy, 1922, Chapter XXIII
  10. Smith, 1999, 53.
  11. Ian MacDonald and Betty O’Keefe. 2000. Canadian Holy War: A Story of Clans, Tongs, Murder, and Bigotry. (Vancouver, CA: Heritage House. ISBN 9781894384117), 9-21.
  12. Catherine Carstairs, 1999. "Deporting ‘Ah Sin’ to Save the White Race: Moral Panic, Racialization, and the Extension of Canadian Drug Laws in the 1920s," Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 16(I):65-88; 71.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Debra Harper, 2004. “Emily Murphy’s Paradox.” Cannabis Culture, Canada. Retrieved September 14, 2008.
  14. Tony Cashman, in Erik Floren, 2004. “Emily Murphy’s Legacy.” Edmonton Sun Retrieved September 14, 2008.
  15. Smith, 1999, 56.
  16. Murphy, 1922, Chapter XIII.
  17. Carstairs, 72.
  18. Murphy, 1922, Chapter VI, section II.
  19. Murphy, 1922, Chapter VII, section II.
  20. Constance Backhouse, 1996. "The White Women’s Labor Laws: Anti-Chinese Racism in Early Twentieth-Century Canada." Law and History Review 14(2): 315-368.
  21. Smith, 56.
  22. Tooley, 36.
  23. Carstairs, 72.
  24. Eugenics. The Famous Five: Heroes for Today. Retrieved September 14, 2008.
  25. Emily Murphy. Brainy Quotes. Retrieved September 14, 2008.
  26. Emily Murphy Legacy. Cannabis Culture, Canada. Calgary Herald. Retrieved September 14, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Backhouse, Constance. "The White Women’s Labor Laws: Anti-Chinese Racism in Early Twentieth-Century Canada." Law and History Review 14(2) (1996): 315-368.
  • Carstairs, Catherine. "Deporting ‘Ah Sin’ to Save the White Race: Moral Panic, Racialization, and the Extension of Canadian Drug Laws in the 1920s," Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 16(I) (1999) :65-88; 71.
  • Ferguson, Emily G. Janey Canuck in the West. Toronto, CA: Cassell, 1910.
  • James, D. Emily Murphy. Toronto, CA: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2001. ISBN 978-0889022348.
  • MacDonald, Ian, and Betty O’Keefe. Canadian Holy War: A Story of Clans, Tongs, Murder, and Bigotry. Vancouver, CA: Heritage House, 2000. ISBN 978-1894384117.
  • Mander, Christine. Emily Murphy: Rebel. Empire. Toronto, CA: Simon & Pierre, 1985. ISBN 978-0889241732.
  • Murphy, Emily F. The impressions of Janey Canuck abroad. Toronto, CA: 1902. ISBN 978-0665752186.
  • Murphy, Emily F. Open Trails. London, UK: Dent, 1912.
  • Murphy, Emily F. Seeds of pine. Toronto, CA: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914.
  • Sanders, Byrne Hope. Emily Murphy, crusader: "Janey Canuck". Toronto, CA: Macmillan, 1945.
  • Sanders, Byrne Hope. Famous Women: Canadian Portraits. Toronto, CA: Clarke, Irwin & Company Limited, 1958.
  • Sharpe, Robert J., and Patricia I. McMahon. The Persons case: the origins and legacy of the fight for legal personhood. Toronto, CA: Published for the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History by University of Toronto Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0802097507.
  • Smith, Alisa Dawn. Rethinking first-wave feminism through the ideas of Emily Murphy. Ottawa, CA: National Library of Canada; Bibliothèque nationale du Canada, 1999. ISBN 978-0612326972.
  • Tooley, Jennifer. Demon drugs and holy wars Canadian drug policy as symbolic action. Ottawa, CA: National Library of Canada; Bibliothèque nationale du Canada, 2001. ISBN 978-0612546547.


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