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Themes - Activism

Emily Ferguson Murphy

Photograph of Emily Ferguson Murphy


Social activist, author


Born in Cookstown, Ontario in 1868, Emily Ferguson Murphy was the third of six children of Isaac Ferguson, a wealthy landowner and businessman. Her maternal grandfather, Ogle R. Gowan was a newspaper owner and politician who had founded a local branch of the Orange Order in 1830. Emily grew up in a household where lively discussions of law and political events were frequent dinner conversations. Her uncles included a Supreme Court justice and a senator. One of her brothers became a lawyer and another a member of the Supreme Court. Emily was sent to Bishop Strachan School, an exclusive Anglican girls' private school in Toronto and, through a friend there, she met Arthur Murphy, a theology student several years her senior.

In 1887, Emily married Arthur Murphy an Anglican minister, and they moved west. Emily was a natural leader and had a strong interest in the protection of women and children. The experience of an Alberta woman who, after years of hard work supporting the family homestead was left with nothing when her husband decided to sell the farm, motivated Emily to study the legal implications of this injustice. Her work for women's rights was strongly supported and encouraged by many rural women and, after several setbacks, she pressured the Alberta government into passing the Dower Act in 1911. This Act protected a wife's right to a one-third share of her husband's property.

Emily Ferguson Murphy actively organized women; she founded the Federated Women's Institute for rural women and later became a member of the Equal Franchise League, where she worked with activist Nellie McClung to obtain the vote for women.

Her dedication to the protection of women and children frequently brought Emily Murphy before the courts which was unusual for a woman in the early part of the 20th century. Despite facing disdain and ridicule from men, she was appointed the police magistrate for the city of Edmonton in 1916, becoming the first woman magistrate in the British Empire. In the courts, she was frequently exposed to the evils of drugs and narcotics, resulting in her writing copious articles advocating changes to the laws. These articles were published in 1922 as The Black Candle, under her pen name, Janey Canuck. Her writings led to legislation governing narcotics that was not changed until the 1960s.

In The Black Candle and other writings, Emily Murphy expressed stereotypical and prejudiced views about various racial and ethnic groups. Like many Anglo -Protestants of her time, Emily Murphy believed that social problems of the era, such as poverty, prostitution, alcohol and drug abuse, were linked to the influx of immigrants into western Canada. These views informed some aspects of her social and legal reform work.

A member of what is now known as the "Famous Five" (together with Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards) carried the Persons Case to the Privy Council in England where, on October 18, 1929, the decision was handed down that women were persons qualified to become members of the Senate of Canada. Emily Murphy was still involved in social activism and research when she died in 1933.


James, Donna. — Emily Murphy. — Don Mills : Fitzhenry & Whiteside, c1977. — 63 p.

Karamitsanis, Aphrodite. — Emily Murphy : portrait of a social reformer [microform]. — Ottawa : National Library of Canada, 1992. — 2 microfiches. — (Canadian theses on microfiche ; no. 70075). — M.A. thesis, University of Alberta, 1991.

Legault, Suzanne. ; Silver, Marie-France. — "Emily Murphy : 1868-1933". — Vierges folles, vierges sages : kaléidoscope de femmes canadiennes dans l'univers du légendaire. — Saint-Boniface, Man. : Éditions des Plaines, c1995. — P. 123-127

Mander, Christine. — Emily Murphy : rebel : first female magistrate in the British Empire. — Toronto : Simon & Pierre, c1985. — 150 p.

Murphy, Emily F. — The black candle. — Toronto : Thomas Allen, 1922. — 405 p.

Murphy, Emily F. — Janey Canuck in the West. — 4th ed. — Toronto : Cassell, 1910. — 305 p.

Murphy, Emily F. — Seeds of pine. — Toronto : Musson, c1922. — 301 p.

Sanders, Byrne Hope. — Emily Murphy, crusader : "Janey Canuck". — Toronto : Macmillan, 1945. — 355 p.

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