Biography of Emily Murphy, Canadian Women's Rights Activist

She helped change laws to recognize that women are 'persons'

Emily Murphy

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Emily Murphy (March 14, 1868–Oct. 27, 1933) was a strong advocate for Canadian women and children who led four other women, collectively called the "Famous Five," in the Persons Case, which established the status of women as persons under the British North America (BNA) Act. An 1876 ruling had said that women "are not persons in matters of rights and privileges" in Canada. She also was the first female police magistrate in Canada and in the British Empire.

Fast Facts: Emily Murphy

  • Known For: Canadian women's rights activist
  • Born: March 14, 1868 in Cookstown, Ontario, Canada
  • Parents: Isaac and Emily Ferguson
  • Died: Oct. 27, 1933 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
  • Education: Bishop Strachan School
  • Published WorksThe Black Candle, The Impressions of Janey Canuck Abroad, Janey Canuck in the West, Open Trails, Seeds of Pine
  • Awards and Honors: Recognized as a Person of National Historic Significance by the government of Canada
  • Spouse: Arthur Murphy
  • Children: Madeleine, Evelyn, Doris, Kathleen
  • Notable Quote: "We want women leaders today as never before. Leaders who are not afraid to be called names and who are willing to go out and fight. I think women can save civilization. Women are persons."

Early Life

Emily Murphy was born on March 14, 1868, in Cookstown, Ontario, Canada. Her parents, Isaac and Emily Ferguson, and her grandparents were well-to-do and highly educated. Two relatives had been Supreme Court justices, while her grandfather Ogle R. Gowan was a politician and newspaper owner. She was brought up on equal footing with her brothers, and, at a time when girls were often uneducated, Emily was sent to the prestigious Bishop Strachan School in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

While she was at school in Toronto, Emily met and married Arthur Murphy, a theological student who became an Anglican minister. The couple moved to Manitoba, and in 1907 they relocated to Edmonton, Alberta. The Murphys had four daughters—Madeleine, Evelyn, Doris, and Kathleen. Doris died in childhood, and some accounts say Madeline died at an early age as well.

Early Career

Murphy wrote four popular books of patriotic travel sketches under the pen name Janey Canuck between 1901 and 1914 and was the first woman appointed to the Edmonton Hospital Board in 1910. She was active in pressuring the Alberta government to pass the Dower Act, a 1917 law that prevents a married person from selling the home without the consent of the spouse.

She was a member of the Equal Franchise League and worked with activist Nellie McClung on winning voting rights for women.

First Woman Magistrate

In 1916, when she was prevented from attending a trial of prostitutes because it was deemed unsuitable for mixed company, Murphy protested to the attorney general and demanded that a special police court be set up to try women and that a female magistrate be appointed to preside over the court. The attorney general agreed and appointed Murphy as the police magistrate for the court in Edmonton, Alberta.

On her first day in court, Murphy's appointment was challenged by a lawyer because women were not considered "persons" under the BNA Act. The objection was overruled frequently and in 1917, the Alberta Supreme Court ruled that women were persons in Alberta.

Murphy allowed her name to be put forward as a candidate for the Senate but was turned down by Prime Minister Robert Borden because the BNA Act still did not recognize women for consideration as senators.

The 'Persons Case'

From 1917 to 1929, Murphy spearheaded the campaign to have a woman appointed to the Senate. She led the "Famous Five" in the Persons Case, which eventually established that women were persons under the BNA Act and so were qualified to be members of the Canadian Senate. Murphy became president of the new Federation of Women's Institutes in 1919.

Murphy was active in many reform activities in the interests of women and children, including women's property rights under the Dower Act and the vote for women. She also worked to promote changes to the laws on drugs and narcotics.

Controversial Causes

Murphy's varied causes led to her becoming a controversial figure. In 1922, she wrote "The Black Candle" about drug trafficking in Canada, advocating for laws against the use of drugs and narcotics. Her writing reflected the belief, typical of the times, that poverty, prostitution, alcohol, and drug abuse were caused by immigrants to western Canada.

Like many others in Canadian women's suffrage and temperance groups of the time, she strongly supported the eugenics movement in Western Canada. Along with suffragette McClung and women's rights activist Irene Parlby, she lectured and campaigned for the involuntary sterilization of "mentally deficient" individuals.

In 1928, the Alberta Legislative Assembly made the province the first to approve sterilization under the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act. That law was not repealed until 1972, after nearly 3,000 individuals were sterilized under its authority. In 1933, British Columbia became the only other province to approve involuntary sterilization with a similar law that wasn't repealed until 1973.

While Murphy did not become a member of the Canadian Senate, her work raising awareness of women's causes and changing laws to empower women was critical to the 1930 appointment of Cairine Wilson, the first woman to serve in the legislative body.


Emily Murphy died of diabetes on Oct. 27, 1933, in Edmonton, Alberta.


Though she and the rest of the Famous Five have been hailed for their support of property and voting rights for women, Murphy's reputation suffered from her support for eugenics, her criticism of immigration, and her expressed concern that other races might take over white society. She warned that "the upper crust with its delicious plums and dash of cream is likely to become at any time a mere toothsome morsel for the hungry, the abnormal, the criminals and the posterity of insane paupers.”

Despite the controversies, there are statues dedicated to Murphy and other members of the Famous Five on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and in the Olympic Plaza in Calgary. She also was named a Person of National Historic Significance by the Canadian government in 1958.


  • Emily Murphy.” Biography Online.
  • Emily Murphy.” The Canadian Encyclopedia.
  • Kome, Penney. "Women of Influence: Canadian Women and Politics." Toronto, Ontario, 1985. Doubleday Canada.
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Munroe, Susan. "Biography of Emily Murphy, Canadian Women's Rights Activist." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Munroe, Susan. (2021, February 16). Biography of Emily Murphy, Canadian Women's Rights Activist. Retrieved from Munroe, Susan. "Biography of Emily Murphy, Canadian Women's Rights Activist." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).