It will probably come as a surprise to many Canadians that October 18 is Person’s Day, the day that commemorates an historic decision made on October 18, 1929. This was the ruling handed down by Canada’s then highest court of appeal — the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of Great Britain — that women were indeed persons and therefore eligible for appointment to the Canadian Senate.
The Court’s decision, which should h ave been blindingly obvious, came after a long struggle dating back to 1916 when Emily Murphy’s appointment as the first female magistrate in the British Empire was challenged on the grounds that she was not a “person” under the British North America Act, Canada’s constitution. In 1920, the federal franchise was granted to women, but as late as 1927 women were still barred from elevation to the Senate, Canada’s upper house.This so aroused Emily Murphy and four other Western feminists that they set out to prove that the phrase “qualified Persons,” as found in section 24 of the BNA Act, applied to both men and women and that as a consequence women could be appointed to the Senate.
Judge Murphy, along with Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby, convinced the federal government to direct the Supreme Court to rule on whether women were “persons.” In 1928, after weeks of deliberation, the Court decided that the BNA Act must be interpreted in the context of what was intended when it was drawn up. In other words, since women did not hold public office of any kind in 1867 they could not be elevated to the Senate.
On the same day that this judgment was delivered — May 24, 1928 — Ernest Lapointe, Mackenzie King’s minister of Justice, announced in the House of Commons that the government would act immediately to have the BNA Act amended to allow women to be appointed to the Senate. When a year later, no action had been taken, the so-called Famous Five requested an order-in-council allowing them to appeal to the Judicial Council of the Privy Council of Great Britain. When the appeal was granted, the women succeeded in having a ruling made in their favour.
Emily Murphy did not become the first woman to be elevated to the Senate. This honour belongs to Cairine Wilson, whose appointment in 1930 launched an illustrious career, described in my book First Person: A Biography of Cairine Wilson Canad’s First Woman Senator.