Manitoba History: Review: Christine Mander, Emily Murphy: Rebel. First Female Magistrate in the British Empire
by Linda Kealey
Biographies often open doors to historical subjects and periods by enticing readers to examine not only the subject of the biography, but also the relationship between individuals and their historical contexts. A good biography explains the individual’s choices and actions by revealing the interplay between these choices and actions and the historical forces shaping them. For those interested in women’s history and social history generally, good biographies provide stimulating material which illuminates gender roles and their influence on the choices made by women in the past. Unfortunately in Canadian women’s history there are few examples of such biography and Mander’s biography of Emily Murphy does not alter this assessment. 
Mander’s Emily Murphy is not intended to be a scholarly biography; the book, nevertheless, is disappointing in its treatment of this colourful, opinionated writer, reformer, organizer of women’s groups and police magistrate. Far from “comprehensive,” as the dust jacket claims, this volume makes little effort to understand Murphy in the context of those movements and organizations she so assiduously nurtured. The reader is no wiser on the last page than on the first as to the “whys” of Murphy’s intense involvement in any of her chosen activities. Nor does the author provide much context for readers unfamiliar with the social history of the period.
Murphy’s personal and family life are portrayed in some detail by Mander without adding much to the earlier account by Byrne Hope Sanders. Murphy’s writing and journalism interests are presented as unproblematic and the reader gains no insight into Murphy’s motivations for taking up the pen. Her important role in the Canadian Women’s Press Club is briefly mentioned but without attaching much significance to that role or to the press club itself; the CWPC was part of the burgeoning and overlapping network of middle class women’s organizations. The social reform and women’s club movement of this period were intertwined, and women writers and journalists were central to them.
While acknowledging Murphy’s role in some areas the author seems unaware of others. Murphy was the instigator, for example, of Edmonton’s Women’s Canadian Club in 1911 as well as a prominent member of the Local Council of Women. Prior to the Edmonton move in 1907, Emily Murphy and her family lived in Swan River, Manitoba, a small settlement northwest of Winnipeg; the importance of Murphy’s connections with reform-minded Winnipeg women journalists is ignored by Mander. Murphy’s Winnipeg connections, including her close collaboration with Nellie McClung, were key to her own initiatives in improving the position of women in the Canadian west. Despite Murphy’s close relationships with women like McClung and her vocal support for woman suffrage, she never became formally involved with suffrage organizations. Given her other interests in public health, dower law reform and political equality for women in general, this surprising fact should raise questions for a biographer, but Mander does not ask them; nor does she present the reader with a coherent description of the suffrage context for her readers. 
Clearly Mander views Murphy’s life up to her appointment as a police magistrate in 1916 as a rehearsal for this role and for her later involvement in the Persons case of the 1920s. Her handling of Murphy as a magistrate does give the reader some feel for the difficulties faced by a pioneer in a new field, but there is no attempt to situate Murphy within the contradictions of such a role in class, gender or ethnic terms. Murphy’s sympathies for young women in trouble, often prostitutes, are described but Mander does not attempt to come to grips with either Murphy’s ethnic prejudices or middle-class reform world view. Her advocacy of sterilization for inmates of asylums is accepted without discussion, for example, and without demonstrating the link that these reformers perceived between crime and mental illness. For Murphy as for others, these problems were tied to the perceived increase in undesirable immigrants to Canada.
Was Murphy a feminist? The author eschews the word but her rendition of the Persons case suggests that she views Murphy through the lens of equal rights feminism, that is, as one who claimed the same rights and privileges for women as men without questioning the political, economic and social structures which shaped those rights. Mander does not seem familiar with the term or the debates surrounding “maternal feminism,” nor does she utilize Murphy’s published works to delineate Murphy’s views on the organized women’s movement.
Emily Murphy: Rebel will satisfy no one. It is definitely not a scholarly biography because of its failure to provide adequate sources and footnotes as well as historical context. Nor is it a successful popular biography which places the historical figure in an understandable context; the con-text is lacking or inadequately explained. Those with some knowledge of the period and the history will be frustrated with the lack of documentation and the lack of connection between Emily Murphy and the broader social reform movement; Mander tends to create dialogue and to imagine emotions and responses to help move the chronological narrative along. Those who enjoy a good popular biographical approach will be disappointed by the jumbled treatment of the social reform and suffrage movements, the inclusion of irrelevant details in the descriptions of people and events peripheral to the narrative, and occasional name dropping without identification. For those interested in Murphy as the author of Janey Canuck in the West, Seeds of Pine or The Black Candle, there is little insight into the writer, although the book is liberally sprinkled with unattributed quotes from her published work. One cannot help feeling disappointed — Emily Murphy deserves better.
1. See for example in the U.S. literature, Kathryn K. Sklar’s Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity, (New Haven, 1973) as an example of excellent biography; see also Mary A. Hill, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896, (Philadelphia, 1980).
2. A more recent study of women journalists does raise this issue; see, Susan Jackel, “First Days, Fighting Days: Prairie Presswomen and Suffrage Activism, 1906-16,” in Mary Kinnear, ed., First Days, Fighting Days. Women in Manitoba History, (Regina, 1987), 553-75.Back to top of page