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This Week in History: The Person’s Case, October 19th, 1927

ByLily Settari

Oct 23, 2016

Young generations must not take present rights for granted – what may sound like an empty phrase can be confirmed by a short look at the recent legal history of so-called developed countries.

On 19 October 1927, a case on whether women could be considered ‘capable persons’ and appointed to the Senate – which became known as the Person’s Case – was submitted to the Supreme Court of Canada.

It started in 1916, when a group of women wanted to attend a trial of alleged female sex workers, in the province of Alberta. Among them was women’s rights activist Emily Murphy. After they had been excluded from the court rooms on the grounds that the testimony was ‘not fit for mixed company’, Emily Murphy appealed to the Attorney General of Alberta, arguing that that brought with it the necessity for a special court for only female defendants and judges to be created.

Surprisingly, the Attorney General agreed and even appointed Ms Murphy as the magistrate. This was, however, opposed by a lawyer who referred to the British North America Act, which stated that women were not considered capable persons.

This triggered protests, and in the following year, the Supreme Court of Alberta ruled that women were legally persons. However, federal law still stated that ‘women were eligible for pains and penalties, but not rights and privileges’.

In 1927, Irene Marryat Parlby, Nellie Mooney McClung, Lousie Crummy McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards joined Emily Murphy in demanding that the legal status of women were reviewed by the Supreme Court of Canada. One year later, it ruled that women were not capable persons and thus unfit to sit in the Senate, although it was acknowledged that the role and perception of women had changed since the North America Act had taken effect.

The same group of women, known as the Famous Five, took the case to the highest legal instance at the time, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

The Committee ruled, at last, that women could be considered capable persons and where thus allowed to hold the position of a senator, stating that ‘to those who ask why the word [‘person’] should include females, the obvious answer is why should it not.’

Image: Eugene M. Finn

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