Emily Murphy

​Emily Murphy (née Ferguson, pen name Janey Canuck), writer, journalist, magistrate, political and legal reformer (born 14 March 1868 in Cookstown, ON; died 27 October 1933 in Edmonton, AB). Emily Murphy is best known for her role in the Persons Case, the successful campaign to have women declared “persons” in the eyes of British law. A self-described rebel, she was an outspoken feminist and controversial figure. In recent years, Murphy has attracted criticism for her views both on eugenics and immigration as well as acclaim for her success as a suffragist.

Murphy, Emily
In 1916 Murphy was appointed police magistrate for Edmonton, the first woman magistrate in the British Empire (courtesy PAA).
McClung, Murphy and Jamieson
Nellie McClung (left), Emily Murphy (right) and Alice Jamieson (March 1916) were the leaders of the feminist cause in western Canada (courtesy City of Edmonton Archives).
Famous 5
A model of the "Women Are Persons!" statue, honouring the contributions of the Famous 5 (Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Emily Murphy). The final sculpture was unveiled on Parliament Hill in 2000 (sculpted by Barbara Paterson, photo by Marc Mennie, courtesy Famous 5 Foundation).


Emily Murphy was born into a prominent Ontario family, with relatives in business, politics and the law, including two Supreme Court judges. In 1830, her maternal grandfather, politician and newspaper owner Ogle R. Gowan, founded the first Orange Order lodge in Canada. She therefore grew up in a family that frequently discussed legal and political matters.

Murphy attended the prestigious Bishop Strachan School, a private Anglican girls’ school in Toronto, Ontario. While in Toronto, she met Arthur Murphy, a theology student whom she later married. Murphy moved west in 1903 to Swan River, Manitoba, with her husband, now an Anglican minister and entrepreneur, and their two daughters. In 1907, the family moved to Edmonton, Alberta.

Author and Activist

A prolific contributor of book reviews and articles to Canadian magazines and newspapers, Emily Murphy adopted the pen name Janey Canuck and published four very popular books of personal sketches: The Impressions of Janey Canuck Abroad (1901), Janey Canuck in the West (1910), Open Trails (1912) and Seeds of Pine (1914).

Murphy combined family life, writing and a multitude of reform activities in the interests of women and children. This included women’s property rights. While travelling through the Alberta countryside, Murphy met a woman who had been abandoned by her husband; the man had sold their farm and left her without home or money. Legally, the woman had no rights to the property. Incensed, Murphy began a campaign to protect women’s property rights. In 1915, the Alberta legislature passed the Married Woman’s Home Protection Act. This gave women the right to file a caveat, which effectively prevented the transfer, mortgage or lease of a woman’s home without her consent. In 1917, this was replaced by the Dower Act, which protected a wife's right to a one-third share in her husband's property.

Murphy was also prominent in the suffrage movement, as well as a long-time executive member of the Canadian Women's Press Club(president 1913–20), the National Council of Women of Canada, the Federated Women's Institutes of Canada (first national president) and over 20 other professional and volunteer organizations.

First Woman Magistrate

Emily Murphy's career took an unexpected turn in 1916. In March of that year, members of the Edmonton Local Council of Women tried to attend the trial of several women who had been arrested as prostitutes. The women were ejected from the court on the grounds that the testimony was "not fit for mixed company." Murphy was outraged, and 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." To her surprise the Minister agreed, and offered Murphy the post of presiding over such a court.

Murphy accepted the offer and in 1916 was appointed police magistrate for Edmonton and then Alberta, the first woman magistrate in the British Empire. Exposed to a succession of cases involving prostitution and juvenile offenders, she became an implacable enemy of narcotics, which she blamed for much organized crime and for victimizing the defenceless.

The Black Candle

The Black Candle (1922) by "Judge Murphy" was an expansion of articles published in Maclean's magazine describing in lurid detail the evils of the drug trade; her exposé led to laws governing narcotics that remained unaltered until the late 1960s.

In the book, Murphy discusses the involvement of Chinese, Assyrians, Greeks and “Negroes” in the drug trade. At the time, there was considerable concern about immigration (particularly Chinese immigration) in western Canada. Murphy’s comments likely reflected and contributed to these concerns. Yet she also condemned Anglo-Saxons for their role in the drug trade. In The Black Candle (pp. 150–51), she states the following:

While the Assyrians, Negroes and Greeks in Canada have become allies of the Chinese in carrying on the [drug] traffic, it is well known to the police and Government authorities that many Anglo-Saxons, men prominent in social and business circles, as well as lawyers, physicians and druggists have also become engaged in the illicit sale, because of the enormous profits accruing therefrom.

Elsewhere in the book (pp. 108–09), Murphy remarks that, “on this continent there are thousands of Chinese of … honesty and sturdiness of character.” Moreover, she argues that if “even a quarter of the amount of money expended on the detection of crime among the Chinese was applied to educating them, the results would be indubitably better.”

Scholars continue to debate Murphy’s beliefs about race and immigration; some condemn her for racist and imperial views while others argue that her main concern was the drug trade itself and that any discussion of her beliefs should also consider the systemic (or widespread) racism of the time.

The Persons Case

Emily Murphy is best known as a suffragist, particularly for her role in the famous Persons Case. On her first day as a magistrate, she was challenged by a lawyer who asserted that as a woman she was not a person in the eyes of British law. This led Murphy to embark on a decade-long campaign to have women declared legal "persons" and therefore eligible for appointive positions, including that of senator. With the support of four other Alberta women, Henrietta Edwards, Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung and Irene Parlby, she carried the Persons Case to the Privy Council in Britain, which ruled in a celebrated judgement in 1929 that women were indeed persons under the British North America Act. The long-sought Senate appointment eluded Murphy, however, and she died in Edmonton of diabetes in 1933. (See also Emily Murphy’s Famous Triumph.)


Like other members of the Famous Five, Murphy has been criticized as being elitist and racist. In addition to her concerns about immigration, she also supported eugenics, the idea that the human population could be improved by controlling reproduction. Many influential Canadians, including J. S. Woodsworth and Dr. Clarence Hincks, supported eugenic ideas in the early 1900s and promoted both “positive” eugenics (promoting the breeding of “fit” members of society) and “negative” eugenics (discouraging procreation by those considered “unfit”). Eugenicists argued that “mental defectives” and the “feeble-minded” were prone to alcoholism, promiscuity, mental illness, delinquency and criminal behaviour, and thus threatened the moral fabric of the community. These concerns led to increasing support for eugenic legislation, including the sterilization of “defectives.”

Like several other early feminists, including Nellie McClung, Murphy publicly supported negative eugenics. According to sociologist Jana Grekul, Murphy warned that the unfit were “becoming vastly more populous than those we designate as the ‘upper crust.’ This is why it is altogether likely 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.” As a judge, Murphy had considerable influence in Alberta, and her public support of eugenic policies likely contributed to the passage of Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act in 1928. The Act, which organized the involuntary sterilization of people considered “mentally deficient,” was not repealed until 1972. During that time, thousands of people who were considered “psychotic” or “mentally defective” underwent eugenic sterilization.

Emily Murphy

Further Reading

  • Jana Grekul, “The Right to Consent?: Eugenics in Alberta, 1928–1972," in Janet Miron, ed., A History of Human Rights in Canada: Essential Issues (2009); C. Mander, Emily Murphy, Rebel (1986); Erin L. Moss, Henderikus J. Stam, Diane Kattevilder, “From Suffrage to Sterilization: Eugenics and the Women’s Movement in 20th Century Alberta,” Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne 54, 2 (2013); Byrne Hope Sanders, Emily Murphy, Crusader: “Janey Canuck” (1945).

External Links