"It is good to live in these first days when the foundations of things are being laid, to be able, now and then, to place a stone or carry the mortar to set it good and true." ~Emily Murphy
Emily Murphy is heralded as being one of Canada's greatest women who helped further the Canadian feminist movement in the nineteenth century. She is most famous for her court battle to have women declared "persons" under the British North American Act. Some of her achievements also include: being the first female magistrate in the British Empire, author of several books, president of the Women's Canadian Club, and was active in implementing the Dower Act. Emily Murphy is regarded as being an influential woman in the first-wave feminist movement and she represented the women of her time period. Yet, despite all her accomplishments and her belief in equality for all, she was a strong advocate of eugenics and sterilization as well as being a racist, which mars her legacy. The question then is, should Emily Murphy be praised and held up as a role model to women when she degraded and disparaged immigrants and non-white people. The answer to this question is complicated as Murphy was a product of her time and one cannot simply view her through the lens of contemporary principles. However, this also cannot be used as an excuse for her negative rhetoric, but to understand Emily Murphy's view one must look at the era in which she belonged. Emily Murphy may not be a role model to women but society cannot overlook her deeds and accomplishments.
Emily Murphy was not always interested in women's politics and the suffragist movement. She was born in Cookstown, Ontario in 1868 into a family environment of "affluence, accomplishment, affection, and high ideals."1 In 1887 she married Arthur Murphy, a minister, and settled down to married life. For the next ten years Emily and Arthur moved around Ontario wherever a clergyman was needed. During this time Emily and Arthur had two girls. In 1898 the Murphy's moved to England for a year where Arthur would act as a missionary. It was during this time that Emily Murphy began her career as a writer. She began writing under the pen name Janey Canuck, the feminine form of Johnny Canuck, which was a nickname for a Canadian, and wrote four books under this pseudonym. In 1916 the Murphy's moved to Edmonton and Emily began to get interested in politics starting with community projects. She became focused on women and property rights. During this period in Alberta a wife did not have any property rights. Murphy went about to rectify this. She became a primary figure in the campaign for the Dower Act, which recognized a married women's right to a share of property.2 In 1911 the Dower Act was passed, stating that wives would get a third of their husband's estates even when a will was not present. This was another advancement of women's rights thanks to Emily Murphy. Another great achievement of Murphy was to be appointed first female magistrate of the British Empire. This was not a role that Murphy campaigned for but fell into by accident. She was trying to get the Attorney General of Alberta to set up a women's police court ruled by women and with cases that involved women, when he suggested that Murphy herself fill the position of magistrate. So, in June 1916 Murphy took on another role- police magistrate. As well during this time Murphy became the first woman appointed to the Edmonton Hospital Board and became president of the new Federation of Women's Institutes. All these achievements made her an important force in the first-wave feminist movement. Yet, Murphy herself dismissed being called "feminist". She once said, "I do not like the word feminist.' It is a poor and paltry word when applied to a movement which today dominates all other questions that involve the social, individual and moral freedom of the entire world. This is a humanist' movement."3
One of Emily Murphy's greatest achievements was...
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Murphy, Emily. The Black Candle. Toronto: Thomas Allen, 1922
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White, Anne. "The Persons Case: A Struggle for Legal Definition & Personhood."
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