The "Persons Case" was raised by five Alberta women and resulted in the October 18, 1929, decision by the British Privy Council that women were legally "persons," not just in Canada but throughout the whole British Empire.
The case had its roots back in 1916, when Emily Murphy took her seat in Edmonton as the first woman police magistrate in the empire. A lawyer against whose client she had ruled claimed that, as a woman, she was not a "person" in terms of the British North America Act, Canada's enabling legislation, and hence was not eligible to serve as a magistrate. The lawyer did not follow up his objection, but ten years later Justice Murphy began to be considered for appointment as Canada's first woman senator. The British North America Act allowed qualified "persons" to sit in the Senate, but an 1876 British court had ruled that "women are persons in matters of pains and penalties, but are not persons in matters of rights and privileges." Murphy joined forces with four others–Nellie McClung and Louise McKinney, both suffrage leaders and former members of the Alberta Legislative Assembly; Henrietta Muir Edwards, an expert on women's legal status; and provincial cabinet minister Irene Parlby–to ask for an interpretation of the act. When the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that women were not "persons" in the senatorial sense, the five women pursued the case to the British Privy Council, then Canada's court of last resort, which eventually admitted that women were "persons."
A statue commemorating the "Famous Five" was erected in Calgary, Alberta, in 1999.
Frances W. Kaye University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Prentice, Alison, Paula Bourne, Gail Cuthbert Brandt, Beth Light, Wendy Mitchison, and Naomi Black. Canadian Women: A History. Toronto: Harcourt Brace Canada, 1996.
Savage, Candace. Our Nell: A Scrapbook Biography of Nellie L. McClung. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1979.