Biography of Emily Murphy, Canadian Women's Rights Activist

Leader of the "Famous Five"

Emily Murphy

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Emily Murphy(1868–1933) was the first woman police magistrate in Alberta, in Canada, and in the British Empire. A strong advocate for the rights of women and children, Emily Murphy led the "Famous Five" in the Persons Case which established the status of women as persons under the BNA Act.

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: October 27, 1933, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
  • Education:  Bishop Strachan School
  • Published Works: The Black Candle; he Impressions of Janey Canuck AbroadJaney Canuck in the WestOpen 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's parents and grandparents were well-to-do and highly educated. Two relatives had been Supreme Court judges, 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.

Marriage and Children

While she was at school in Toronto, Emily met and married Arthur Murphy. A young theological student, he went on to become an Anglican minister. The couple moved with Manitoba and then, in 1907, to Edmonton Alberta. The Murphys had three daughters of whom one, Dora, died in childhood.

Early Career

Emily Murphy wrote four popular books of patriotic travel sketches under the pen name Janey Canuck between 1901 and 1914. She was the first woman appointed to the Edmonton Hospital Board in 1910. Emily Murphy was active in pressuring the Alberta government to change the Dower Act in 1911. She was a member of the Equal Franchise League and worked with  Nellie McClung on the vote for women.

First Woman Magistrate

In 1916, when prevented from attending a trial of prostitutes because it was not suitable for mixed company, Emily Murphy protested to the Attorney General and demanded that a special police court is set up to try women and that a women magistrate be appointed to preside over the court. The Attorney General agreed and appointed Emily Murphy as the police magistrate for the court in Edmonton, Alberta. She became the first woman police magistrate in Alberta, in Canada, and in the British Empire.

On her first day in court, Emily 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.

Emily 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 did not recognize women as persons.

The "Persons Case"

From 1917 to 1929 Emily 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. Emily Murphy became president of the new Federation of Women's Institutes in 1919.

Controversial Causes

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

Emily Murphy's record was mixed, however, and she is a controversial figure. Like many others in Canadian women's suffrage and temperance groups of the time, she strongly supported the eugenics movement in Western Canada. She, along with Nellie McClung, and Irene Parlby, lectured and campaigned for the involuntary sterilization of "mentally deficient" individuals. In 1928, the Alberta Legislative Assembly passed the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act. That law was not repealed until 1972, after nearly 3000 individuals were sterilized under its authority. British Columbia passed a similar law in 1933.

In 1922 Emily Murphy wrote The Black Candle on drug trafficking in Canada, advocating changes to laws on drugs and narcotics. Her writing reflected the belief, typical of the times, that poverty, prostitution, alcohol and drug abuse were caused by immigrants to the West.


Emily Murphy died in 1933 in Edmonton, Alberta.


While she herself did not become a member of the Canadian Senate, her work was critical to the appointment, in 1930, of Cairine Wilson, the first woman in the Canadian Senate. Murphy was also an important part of the process of raising awareness of women's causes and changing laws to empower women both legally and politically.


  • “Emily Murphy | .” Biography Online,
  • “Emily Murphy.” Emily Murphy | The Canadian Encyclopedia,
  • Kome, Penney (1985). Women of Influence: Canadian Women and Politics (1st ed.). Toronto, Ontario: Doubleday Canada