Women Are Persons!

Women Are Persons!

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

Women Are Persons!

I feel myself equal to high and splendid braveries!

Emily Murphy

Judge Emily Murphy was frustrated. Her last petition had been no more successful than all the others she had sent over the past ten years. It was 1927, and Canadian women were still defined by British common law, which astonishingly stated: “Women are persons in matters of pains and penalties, but not in matters of rights and privileges.”

Emily was not at all happy about the outrageous indignity of being told she was “not a person.” She had set her sights on becoming Canada’s first female senator, but because women were not “persons,” no woman was eligible! Emily was determined to change things.

And so it was that between 1921 and 1927, over 500,000 people, men and women, had signed letters and petitions requesting that Judge Murphy be appointed to the Canadian Senate. For most of them, it wasn’t about becoming a senator. Like her, they were upset and offended that women were not considered to be persons. Amazingly, despite all her efforts, two prime ministers had still said “no!” But Emily refused to take “no” for an answer and kept up her relentless pressure. Then one day, after ten years of lobbying, she happened upon a new strategy.

Her brother had discovered a legal clause stating that any five citizens acting as a unit could appeal to the Supreme Court to clarify a point in the constitution. So in late 1927, she invited Henrietta Edwards, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby and Nellie McClung to her Edmonton home. All four of these prominent Alberta women had been active in fighting for women’s rights, and all of them were determined that by the end of their efforts, Canada would recognize them and all women as “persons.”

That day, the five women signed Emily’s petition, and with great hopes and expectations they sent their appeal. Then they sat back and waited. Several months later, Judge Murphy excitedly opened the telegram that arrived from the Supreme Court of Canada.

But her hopes were dashed. “No,” read the reply from the learned justices, “Women are not eligible to be summoned to the Senate. Women are not ‘persons.’”

Emily and her colleagues were devastated. First two prime ministers, and now the highest court in Canada had formally ruled against them, and they feared they had done irreparable damage to their cause. However, further research revealed one more option. The absolute final court for Canada in those days was still the Privy Council of Great Britain—it could be appealed there. But they were not hopeful. They would have to persuade the Canadian government to appeal the decision, and the rights of women in England were far behind those so far gained in Canada.

Holding her breath, Emily wrote to Prime Minister Mackenzie King, asked for his support, and urged him to appeal this matter to the Privy Council. To her great elation, he responded with his full support, and that of his government, and in addition they would pay for the cost of the appeal!

With their hopes back up, the five women wondered, Should they go to England? Should they write articles for the newspapers? Contact their friends there? No, they were advised, only the merit of the case would be heard. Just wait.

Finally, in October 1929, the five British Lords made their historic decision. When Emily and her friends learned that the new definition of the word “persons” would from that day forward always include both men and women, they were overjoyed! They had won!

As the word spread, women around the world celebrated. The five friends were gratified to know that because of their efforts, every woman in the British empire would now be recognized as a “person,” with all the same rights and privileges as men.

[EDITORS’ NOTE: On October 18, 2000, a memorial celebrating the Famous 5 and their tremendous accomplishments was unveiled, and our five heroes became the first Canadian women in history to be honoured on Parliament Hill. The monument depicts an imaginary moment when the women received the news of their victory. A joyous Emily stands beside an empty chair and beckons visitors to join the celebration. Today, many come and visit so they can sit in Emily’s chair and thank the Famous 5 for what they did. And everyone who does makes a pledge to do their best to participate in the building of a better Canada!]

Frances Wright
Calgary, Alberta

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