Thursday, March 8, 2012

International Women's Day: Becoming a 'legal' person

Image courtesy of the Graphics Fairy
Today throughout the world there are many celebrations marking International Women's Day. Although celebrations are often scheduled around this specific date, many are held throughout the month of March. In Canada this year's theme for International Women's Day is: Empower Rural Women - End Hunger and Poverty. In honour of International Women's Day, once again I want to share with you something about which I learned at my very first International Women's Day celebration.

In 1986, when I was in my first year of university, I participated in the university's celebration marking International Women's Day. On that day I learned of an historical event which I would mark later in that year, "Persons" Day. Before participating in the International Women's Day events, it had never occurred to me that there had ever been a time in which women the world over were not legally recognized as persons. As a young woman it seemed to me as though there was never a door that was closed to me. The world was my oyster, so to speak.

Around the world there is a wide variance with respect to the dates on which women were legally declared as persons. In the United States the Supreme Court legally declared women as “persons" in 1875, but held that women constituted a “special category of nonvoting citizens". In Canada women were not legally declared as "persons" until 18 October 1929. The historic legal victory which led to this declaration was due to the persistence of four Alberta women and their leader Emily Murphy.

Born in 1868 into a prominent legal family, Emily Murphy became a self-taught legal expert at an early age. When she moved to Alberta in 1903, Emily began a campaign to ensure the property rights of married women. Largely because of her work, the Alberta legislature passed the Dower Act in 1911, protecting a wife's right to one-third of her husband's property.

The fight to have women legally recognized as persons began in 1916, when Emily Murphy and a group of concerned women tried to attend the trial of Edmonton prostitutes arrested under "questionable" circumstances. Emily and her compatriots were ejected from the court on the grounds that the testimony was "not fit for mixed company." She was outraged, and protested to the provincial Attorney General.

"If the evidence is not fit to be heard in mixed company," Emily Murphy argued, "then the government [must] set up a special court presided over by women, to try other women." To everyone's surprise the Minister agreed, and offered Murphy the post of presiding over such a court. Accepting the offer with some reticence, Murphy became the first woman police magistrate in the entire British Empire.

Although as a new magistrate Murphy was welcomed by some of her colleagues in the courts, others challenged her position purely on the grounds that she was a woman. A woman was not "a person" under the British North America Act of 1867; therefore, they argued that her decisions meant nothing. This argument echoed one which had been mounted in opposition to the appointment of a woman to the Canadian Senate. When petitions from various women's organizations failed to open the Senate to women, Murphy turned to the law. She found a section of the Supreme Court Act which allowed any five interested citizens the right to petition the government for a ruling on a constitutional point.

For twelve years Murphy led the fight to have women declared legal persons in Canada, and enlisted the help of the following four Alberta reformers:

1. Nellie McClung, a good friend of Murphy's, was renowned as a human rights advocate and suffragist. She was also a former member of the Alberta Legislature.
2. Louise McKinney, a leader in the temperance movement.
3. Henrietta Edwards, a vigorous campaigner for women's rights and a legal expert in law pertaining to women and children.
4. Irene Parlby, a Minister without Portfolio in the Alberta Legislature. Parlby had entered politics with the goal of improving the lives of women in rural Alberta. Her participation in the campaign signified the support of the Government of Alberta.

The Persons Case, as it is called, reached the Supreme Court of Canada in March 1928. The court ruled against women. Undaunted Emily Murphy and her party brought the case before the Privy Council in Britain. In the Privy Council's celebrated ruling of 18 October 1929, it declared that women were indeed legal "persons" under the British North America Act.

To have legal recognition of personhood was quite an important development in the rights of women. Before such a time a woman was viewed as chattel (i.e. property) and could be disposed of in what ever way the male members of her family saw fit. In other words a woman could be given in marriage without her consent, could be divorced on the word of her husband alone, and in the most extreme case, if a woman was murdered by her husband he might suffer minimal or no penalty.

Thanks to the efforts of Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney, Henrietta Edwards, and Irene Parlby, Canadian women have been legally "persons" since 1929. Their story serves as a good reminder that in some countries in this world women still do not possess the legal status of 'person'. There is still much work to be done.


For more information visit this archived page on the Alberta Heritage site: The Famous Five

Copyright©irisheyesjg2012. (parts of this article appeared on this blog 8 March 2011).


  1. Fantastic post, Jennifer. My mother was b. in Oct 1929 in Canada so it's easy for me to remember this date. And having been in university through the 60s while women continued to struggle for recognition as competent in occupational fields other than nursing/teaching/social work/secretarial... I have to say that women definitely have more options now. Great history points - thanks for sharing.

  2. Hi Celia,

    Thanks so much for your comments; I really appreciate them. I figure since I live in Canada, I should occasionally say something about Canadian History, and this history in particular was a real eye-opener for me.



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