Encountering Emily: Alberta Women's Correspondence with Magistrate Murphy

In the 1920's Alberta could boast a colourful cast of strong, outspoken women wielding legal skill and political power. Lord Sankey, of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England, began his judgment in the famous 'Persons Case' by reviewing the impressive civic credentials of the five Alberta women appellants. He wrote:

Of the appellants, Henrietta Muir Edwards is the Vice-President for the Province of Alberta of the National Council of Women for Canada; Nellie L. McClung and Louise C. McKinney were for several years members of the Legislative Assembly of the said Province and Emily F. Murphy is a police magistrate in and for the said Province; and Irene Parlby is a member of the legislative assembly of the said province and a member of the Executive Council thereof.1

It was clear from this first sentence of his judgment that he would go on to overturn the earlier decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in the case2 and find that women were indeed included in the meaning of "persons" in s. 24 of the British North America Act, 1867. Of this 'famous five', Emily Murphy is perhaps the figure who stands out as the most compelling heroine of the early women's rights movement, not only in Alberta, but in Canada and beyond.

For many prairie women, Murphy inspired hope and a heady optimism about the ransformative potential of the law. The ideas Murphy stood for gave rise to great expectations and inspired energetic enthusiasm. One woman from Chauvin, Alberta expressed that sentiment in the following letter:

Chauvin Dec. 27-24

Mrs. E Murphy
Magistrate of Juvenile Court
Edmonton

You cannot conceive the great joy and blessing and up-lifting of heart and spirit it gives and will give to women to see some of the old laws concerning our sex, smashed to pieces, and to see laws of justice taking their place, and we can thank our brave women of Alberta who have stepped forward into public life, which in time past was known only to man, hence the selfish manmade laws.

My heart aches for some poor brow-beaten wives, I tell you if these poor creatures had as much legal rights to the home property as their husbands, those very same husbands would be very much more considerate to their wives and their poor wives would not be looking old enough to be their husband's mother or perhaps grandmother.

God Speed you in your good work.

Yours Sincerely
Mrs. L.A. Cayford
Chauvin Alberta3

Murphy inspired the belief that changes in women's entitlement to property in marriage would alter the relation of domination and subordination between husband and wife. This hope is echoed in the following letter written to Emily Murphy by another prairie woman.

Dear Madam,

Seeing the notice in the Free Press re Dower Law for Alberta, I think it is time we did have such a law. I don't understand quite what the Dower Law is. But I am thinking that it is a Law giving married women a lawful right to half of everything that her husband owns, lands houses and moveable property of all kinds, is that so?

My husband is always crying that I never help him enough, and yet I raise lots of chickens, ducks and turkeys for him to sell, the profits of which I never get. I never get 5 cents to spend as I like. I must account for every cent he gives me for provisions etc.

I think if a wife got one half of all her husband's property and everything belonging to him it would be only her due and little at that. If the other half went to the children they would only get it when they come of age and many young folks would only spend it foolishly while if it could be spent on their education that would help greatly.... I really think that if we women had a Law compelling men to go equal shares with their wives there would be more home comforts and true happiness, less bachelors, less suicide, as wives would not fear having to provide for and educate their children if left with a big family. Shame on the Farmers of Western Canada. They cry for Equity Associations, Good, Honesty. But how few of them would ever think of being Even and Equal with the wife of his bosom.

A Western Canadian Wife

Confidence in the law as a transformative tool gave rise to this utopian vision of the future where women's work in the home was no longer unpaid and unacknowledged, where husbands were considerate of wives, where children's needs for support and education were provided for.

Yet despite the power of her inspiration for so many women, Murphy's larger-than-life persona has recently become a lightning rod for debate. Murphy's racism and her support for eugenics are now infamous.5 We wonder now how we ought to relate to a historical figure who was both a fearless champion of women's equality, and an outspoken advocate and powerful agent of inequality in the areas of race, religion, and mental and physical disability. Yet as we struggle with our own ambivalence around Murphy's legacy, it is interesting and instructive to look back to the voices of the Alberta women who encountered Murphy in her work as the first woman police magistrate in the British Empire. We should not be surprised to find our own conflicted responses to Murphy reflected in the responses of the many Alberta women whose lives she influenced. Indeed, Murphy's exuberance in the exercise of legal power was not always met with accolade and support even in her own time. A fascinating critique of Murphy's sensibility and lack of compassion for women who failed to measure up to her standards is found in an exchange of correspondence, dated February, 1921, between Murphy and a woman named Virginia Clin. Clin, having been released from the mental hospital in Ponoka, wrote to Murphy to complain about her treatment there. Clin had some considerable savings she had hoped would provide her with the means to live once she got out of the hospital. These savings appear to have been devoured by an account rendered by the hospital to cover her stay there. One can imagine the disappointment, frustration, and alienation Virginia Clin must have felt upon receiving the following letter from Emily Murphy.

Miss V. Clin.
Halkirk, Alberta

My dear Miss Clin:

I have your letter of the 16th of February. It is indeed regrettable that you have had to pay out your savings on account of ill health, for I am sure you have been a thrifty, hard-working girl to have saved the amount of money you mention. Still we are all subject to a like misfortune, none of us being immune from sickness.

According to your letter, you were in the hospital for about 1600 days, and during that time paid out $917.00 which sum included your transportation, board, laundry, food, medical attention etc. The hospital charges $1.00 a day apart from transportation, so you see the total account would be $1600.00, and that the hospital stood to lose approximately $700.00 on your illness.

I may say that $1.00 a day only pays for the actual expenses of the patient, and does not cover the costs of staff, buildings, and upkeep. These are all borne by the tax-payers of Alberta.

I would like to point out too, that if you had remained ill for the rest of your life, the hospital would have kept you without any remuneration whatsoever. When you come to think it over like this, you will, I am sure, agree that you have not been looking at it properly.

After all, apart from the financial end of the question, you owe a debt to the hospital that money could never repay, in that they restored you to sanity again. Never forget that.

If I were you, I would forget any grievance which you feel you may have, because if you brood on it, you may become insane again. Don't let yourself think for a moment that you were held improperly, for the Government is only too glad to get rid of their patients upon whom they are losing money.

Think kind, helpful thoughts like a good girl, and I am sure all will be well with you. You say you were a friend of Irene Lewis. Poor Irene was not so fortunate as you, for you know she died in one of her spasms. Esther Lewis is home again and doing well.

I am glad you wrote to me, and hope this letter will straighten out your difficulty.

Yours very truly,
E.F.M.

Murphy dismisses Clin's concerns with the cruelly manipulative suggestion that to pursue a justice based claim was to court the risk of further mental illness. In a difficult but compelling response, Clin meets Murphy's supercilious and condescending advice with a wild, courageous, and far more powerful eloquence. Through her pain, Clin's wisdom and sincerity emerges, and ultimately she has the better of the debate. Clin's allegations appear to be that she was forcibly and unlawfully confined in the mental hospital, that she was forced to do work there when she should have been receiving treatment and that she was made to do work on her Sabbath. Further, she suggests that improper nutrition in the hospital contributed to her mental and physical ill health. She also indicates her concern for the well being of other patients.

Halkirk, AB
February 22,1921

Mrs. E. Murphy

Received your letter tonight. You don't know me but am sure, Mrs. Murphy, that you will appreciated my feeling. I am sorry to say you know Ponoka Insane Asylum and I will get you acquainted a little more.

Like you, I say it is too bad that sometimes we have to bear ill health. But to stand a hell of 1200 days where you are force to work while you are there in Hospital, it is the limit.

Mrs. Murphy, if you give me the credit of being good hard working girl why in such a case would a girl have to work there at all? Don't forget the cash was with me. Why did they collect more?

I was refused leave on the 12 of December 1923 and I sent to the nurses home instead with a bad cold and pain in my right lung. Where is the doctor? Before that I was only kept to help for the bazaar and was made to sew on Sunday. All I got was suffer it all.

Don't you know with a little care a person will soon get better. But from the start to the finish there was none. I was so poorly physically when I left there not fit to work anyway. Not that I was incurable but neglected only. God is the strength to the one who are afflicted and always the best of Friend and never you are alone.

I am sorry to have to contradict you but no man living could cure insanity. If you are acquainted of some one, I would be please to be acquainted also. God Himself gives and takes away. He is the only healer.

My own brother came to take me home 10 days after I first was sent there. They laugh of my suffering.

Do you know that by taking care properly they would only have half the patients there. You tell me that if I brood over it I will break down and become insane again. I never made a God of money and only saved it for necessities like sickness and old age. Three years in my young life and turned out at the age of thirty five. It was a saving of ten years. I was working at thirteen. So I owe you educated people great thanks.

I asked while there to be move to jail, were it the proper way to punish people.

I believed the public respects humanity too much to ever leave those who are left behind me and I hope you be the first one to think of them. A citizen of Alberta I am and I do not wish for the money but truthfully expect Alberta to give little better service.

Virginia Clin.

The beauty of Virginia Clin's fragmented expression and the sadness of her story are moving. I can only wonder what Murphy's response to this letter was, whether she felt any twinge of genuine affinity for this woman's situation or whether she would have completely cut herself off and insulated herself from the risks of extending her moral imagination into the insight and pain of this woman. From what they have left for us to understand them by, it would seem that the scattered, poignant, authentic, and poetic world of Virginia Clin was altogether uninhabitable for Emily Murphy.8

Even this one example of an encounter with Emily reveals that our project of relating to her historical persona is now necessarily conflicted. We may question whether her attitudes and actions can be fairly judged by our standards of equality and inclusiveness. We may seek to acknowledge and celebrate her accomplishments while expressing regret about her multiple forms of bigotry. But unqualified veneration of Murphy is no longer available as a legitimate response to her legacy.

In coping with these complex emotional responses to our history it is instructive to refer to the work of historian Eric Foner.9 Foner argues that our relationship to history can become more meaningful if, instead of trying to obliterate and tear down those historical figures whom we now find embarrassing or reprehensible, we would juxtapose our old memorials to tarnished heros and heroines with new counter-memorials signifying our critique of these figures as well as our recognition of the struggles of those whom they oppressed. Drawing on this insight we might, for example, respond to the recent controversy over whether a battered women's shelter should no longer bear the name of Emily Murphy given her complicity in inequality and injustice10, by forgoing the impulse to expunge Murphy's name while also embracing the need to recognize those people who were victims of her injustice. Perhaps, our historical understandings would be immeasurably enriched, made more authentic and complex, if we were even able to imagine naming a battered women's shelter Emily Murphy and Virginia Clin House.