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  Weekly Feature (October 24, 2004)

Emily Murphy: Person


In honour of Women’s History month, I found myself inspired by the courage and determination of the five women in the following story.

I can make a difference! I will be a Senator in Parliament! With those words, Emily Murphy, and four other brave Canadian women, pioneered women’s status as “persons” in the law. They embarked upon a historic journey for justice that would take them, in 1929, to Canada’s highest court: the British Privy Council. The battle they would win would secure a victory not just for themselves, but for all Canadian women.

In 1916, Emily Murphy was Canada’s first female judge. But her dreams went far beyond being a judge. She wanted to make a difference, to serve her country at the highest political level, as a Senator in Parliament. But, she discovered to her dismay and astonishment, she could not. There was a problem. Legally, under Section 24 of the British North America Act, she was not a “person!” And so, it followed, if she was not a person, she could not hold office. Yet, how could she run her daily life, act as a judge, dispense justice, if she was not a “person”? This was ridiculous. Clearly, the law had to be changed.

Supported by four other women, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney, Henrietta Edwards, and Nellie McClung, she applied to the Supreme Court of Canada for justice. Surely, they would immediately see that this situation was wrong, But this was to be a long journey for Emily and her small, staunch group of four. The federal government had no wish to change the law. Everything was working well so far. Why change? And, in 1928, the Supreme Court agreed with them. They ruled that women were not “persons.”

Daunted, but determined not to give up, the group then appealed to the very highest Canadian court: the British Privy Council. And finally, in 1929, by order of the British Privy Council, the legal status “person” was finally granted to them and to all other Canadian women. They stood their ground, and in doing that. won for us all legal existence.

Links to other sites on this topic:

1. National Archive of Canada a clear account with pictures (note that the file is in Adobe format. Get a file reader here.

2.  The Legal Case for Personhood

3. Human Rights in Canada

4. The Famous Five Foundation

Visit Last Week's Feature: The United Nations

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(Includes all 2002-2004 Weekly Features with descriptions)


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