Tuesday, March 8, 2016

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


Today, throughout the world there are many celebrations marking International Women's Day. Although festivities are often scheduled around this specific date, many are held throughout the month of March. The theme for this year's International Women's Day is: #PLEDGE FOR PARITY1 — a call to continue to fight for gender equality throughout the world.

In 2014, the World Economic Forum predicted in that it would take until 2095 to achieve global gender parity. One year later, they estimated that a slowdown in the pace of progress means the gender gap will not close entirely until 2133.

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 in October of that year, that event is 'Persons Day', the commemoration of the date on which women were legally declared as persons in Canada. 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. Although life would soon reveal to me my own naiveté, when I was a young woman I believed there would never be 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. In the Republic of Ireland, married women were not legally recognized as 'persons' until the passage of the Married Women's Status Act of 1957. Until the new Act was passed — abolishing the rules of old common law which had legally incapacitated married women — such women in Ireland possessed no independent legal status apart from their husbands.2, 3

Since I have no Canadian ancestors, I rarely write about Canadian matters on this blog; however, given that I currently live in Canada, I would like to share the history of the Canadian legal victory which led to the declaration of women as legal persons. It 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 male colleagues of the court, 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 loudly protested that Emily Murphy's 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, Emily turned to the law. There she found a section in the Supreme Court Act which allowed any five interested citizens the right to petition the government for a ruling on a constitutional point.

Emily banded together her five citizens — herself and four Alberta reformers: Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Henrietta Edwards and Irene Parlby4 — and for twelve years she led them in the fight to have women declared legal persons in Canada.

THE PERSONS CASE, as it is called, finally 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, Henrietta Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, and Irene Parlby, Canadian women have been legal 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.


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Footnotes and Further Reading:

1. Purple is the colour of International Women's Day. In 1908, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) of Great Britain used the colours of purple, white and green on their banners, badges and signs as the colours of the Suffragettes. Also, since that time the purple iris has been the flower most readily associated with women's activism. On social media look for the hashtags: #PLEDGE FOR PARITY, #womensday, #IWD2015, #internationalwomensday

2. S.I. #5/1957 ‘Married Women's Status Act’, 1957. The Irish Statute Book, Office of the Attorney General, Ireland.

Section 2(1) of the Married Women’s Status Act, 1957, provides that a married woman shall:
(a) be capable of acquiring, holding and disposing of any property; and
(b) be capable of contracting; and
(c) be capable of rendering herself, and being rendered, liable in respect of any tort, contract, debt   or obligation; and
(d) be subject to the law relating to bankruptcy and to the enforcement of judgements and orders, as if she were unmarried.

3. The Married Women’s Property Act [Ireland 1865] allowed women limited rights with respect to the retention of their own property after marriage, including up to £200 of their own money; however, following the formation of The Irish Free State in 1922, this Act no longer applied in the 26 counties of the Free State.

4. 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. Louise McKinney was a leader in the temperance movement. Henrietta Edwards was a vigorous campaigner for women's rights and a legal expert in law pertaining to women and children. Irene Parlby was 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. For more information visit the archived page on the Alberta Heritage site: The Famous Five.

Copyright©irisheyesjgg2016. (parts of this article appeared on this blog in 2015).

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