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Hero vs. Monster


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Both Nellie McClung and Emily Murphy were the catalysts for the rise of women in Canada. They worked both separately and together to get women the right to vote, be recognized as persons, and to be able to have positions in the senate. Along their road to success, these two women also, in some people’s views, faltered. They both supported the sterilization act in Alberta, and Emily Murphy was particularly racist. These two women have achieved amazing things for Canadian workingwomen, as well as Canadian women and the law; but did they do more harm than good? More specifically, does their work in favor of women’s rights, and women becoming recognized “persons”, make up for their love of eugenics and the many lives they ruined sue to their beliefs that people of different races and with different mentalities were not suitable for parenthood? This paper will explore both sides of their work, looking at the persons case, women becoming involved in the senate, as well as the eugenics and sterilization that they supported. These two women were not solely good or bad, they were good with some poor decisions along the way, “although their vision, like our own, was sometimes faulty and incomplete, it also embodied an uncommon personal politics of courage and optimism…Feminists don’t have to be perfect to be worth a respectful hearing.” (Strong-Boag).
Nellie McClung is a feminist hero of Canada, “her zest, and her convictions, her campaigns helped shape the Canada we live in today.” (Gray, 5). She was a popular novelist, and she helped improve the conditions of working women. She was also one of the famous five women who worked to have women recognized as equal under the law, gaining women the right to vote and hold political office. She changed the world for women in Canada, “from Nellie’s perspective, progress was measurable in the improvements to women’s lives—and she didn’t only mean access to political power and office. She welcomed the spread in Alberta and elsewhere of programs like mother’s allowances, school nurses, travelling libraries, and the establishment of public schools where immigrant children could quickly acquire English.” (Gray, 163). As a working mother, Nellie McClung sought to make life better for workingwomen, especially mothers, all over Canada. “In 1911, Nellie McClung burst onto the scene. Although her fifth child, Mark, had just been born, she was “not content with punching holes in linen and sewing them up again” or “making butterfly medallions for my camisoles.” She joined the Canadian Women’s Press club, which was deeply concerned with women’s rights.” (Benham, 24). She was, however, also responsible for the forced sterilization of thousands of Canadian women. Nellie McClung was, with other feminists, a proponent of Eugenics, and used the breeding ideas for cattle and other animals toward humans. “The Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act passed on March 7, 1928, creating a Eugenics Board with the power to authorize the sexual sterilization of individuals.” (Marsh). According to Emily Murphy, the first Canadian woman Magistrate: "Insane people are not entitled to progeny." (Marsh). Nellie McClung, who became MLA for the province of Alberta in the 20’s, argued that legislation was needed for forced sterilization and that "young simple-minded girls," would particularly benefit. (Marsh). In 1942, Alberta expanded the act to include those with epilepsy and syphilis.
“The mothering ideal was central to McClung’s feminism […] she regarded motherhood as the highest achievement of her sex. She believed that ‘every normal woman desires children.’ “ (Strong-Boag, In Times Like These, viii). During McClung’s five-year term she championed temperance, public health, mother’s allowances, rural improvement, and women’s rights. She also favored birth control and supported Alberta’s act for the sterilization of the mentally unfit as a means of improving the nation’s health. (Strong-boag, In Times Like These, xiv).
The Eugenics board went specifically after women, teenagers and the native population: “Beginning in the 1940s, women were more likely to be presented to the Board, even though they constituted less than 40% of all patients in the feeder institutions. On average, 64% of all women who were presented were sterilized...Although teenagers and young adults made up less than 20% of the Albertan population at the time, they comprised 44% of all presented cases, and 55% of all sterilization cases. In the last few years that the Act was in place, Indians and Métis comprised about 27% of the sterilizations, although they were only accountable for 2.5% of the population.” (Grekul). The girls who were sterilized had often been previously transferred to Schools for Mentally Defectives and determined to be of low IQ. However, they were most often victims of their parents’ sexual and physical abuse. (Grekul).
At 35 years of age, Emily Murphy and her husband moved to Alberta where she soon became actively involved in women’s rights campaigns. She persuaded the Alberta government to pass the Dower Act in 1911. The Dower Act allowed a wife's right to a one-third share of her husband's property if he passed away. Emily Murphy’s many other accomplishments included working alongside her close friend, Nellie McClung, to obtain the vote for women in the Equal Franchise League and to found the Federated Women’s Institute. Emily believed in a country where women and men could work alongside one another, and women were considered people, and in 1929, the Privy Council of Britain declared that women were legal persons under the British North America Act.
In 1917, Emily Murphy headed the battle to have women declared as "persons" in Canada, and qualified to serve in the Senate. She then began to work on a plan to ask for clarification of how women were regarded in the BNA act. In order for her question to be considered, she needed at least five citizens to submit the question as a group. She enlisted the help of four other Albertan women and on 27 August 1927 she and human rights activist Nellie McClung, ex MLA Louise McKinney, women’s rights campaigners Henrietta Edwards and Irene Parlby signed the petition to the federal Cabinet, asking that the federal government refer the issue to the Supreme Court of Canada.(Archives). On 18 October 1929, the Privy Council declared that women were considered as "persons" under the BNA Act and were eligible to serve in the Senate. (Archives). The women were then known as the Famous Five and were considered leaders in education for social reform and women’s rights. They challenged convention and established an important precedent in Canadian history.
Although Murphy’s views on race changed over the course of her life, the perspective contained in her book, the Black Candle, is considered the most consequential due to its role in creating a widespread war on drugs, her mentality leading to legislation that viewed addiction as a law enforcement problem. A series of articles in Maclean's magazine under her pen name, "Janey Canuck," forms the basis of the Black Candle. Using extensive anecdotes, the Black Candle depicts an alarming picture of drug abuse in Canada, detailing Murphy’s understanding of the use and effects of opium, cocaine, and pharmaceuticals, as well as a "new menace," "marihuana." (Murphy, 331). Murphy’s concern with drugs began when she started coming into "disproportionate contact with Chinese people" in her courtroom because they were over represented in the criminal justice system. (Smith).
Race is infused within the Black Candle, and is intricately entwined with the drug trade and addiction in Murphy’s analysis. Yet she is ambiguous in her treatment of non-whites. (Smith). Drug addiction, however, not the Chinese immigrant, is "a scourge so dreadful in its effects that it threatens the very foundations of civilization," and which laws therefore need to target for eradication. (Murphy, 59). At the same time, she does not depart from the dominant view of middle class whites at the time that "races" were discrete, biologically determined categories, and naturally ranked in a hierarchy. In this scheme, the white race was facing degradation through miscegenation, while the more prolific "black and yellow races may yet obtain the ascendancy" and thus threatened to "wrest the leadership of the world from the British."(Smith).
During the early twentieth century, scientific knowledge emerged in the forefront of social importance. Advances in science and technology were thought to hold answers to current and future social problems. Murphy was among those who thought that the problems that were plaguing their society, such as alcoholism, drug abuse and crime were caused because of mental deficiencies. In a 1932 article titled " Overpopulation and Birth Control", she states: "... over-population [is a] basic problem of all…none of our troubles can even be allayed until this is remedied." As the politics behind the Second World War continued to develop, Murphy, who was a pacifist, theorized that the only reason for war was that nations needed to fight for land to accommodate their growing populations. Her argument was that: if there was population control, people would not need as much land. Without the constant need for more land, war would cease to exist. Her solution to these social issues was eugenics. Selective breeding was considered a progressive scientific and social approach and Murphy supported the compulsory sterilization of those individuals who were considered mentally deficient. She believed that the mentally and socially inferior reproduced more, and appealed to the Alberta Legislative Assembly for eugenic sterilization. In a 1932 article titled “ Overpopulation and Birth Control”, she wrote that mentally defective children were, "a menace to society and an enormous cost to the state…science is proving that mental defectiveness is a transmittable hereditary condition." She wrote to Minister of Agriculture and Health, George Hoadley that two female "feeble-minded" mental patients already bred several offspring. She called it: "a neglect amounting to a crime to permit these two women to go on bearing children. They are both young women and likely to have numerous offspring before leaving the hospital". Due in part to her heavy advocacy of compulsory sterilization, thousands of Albertans, who were not considered to possess any intelligence, were sterilized without their knowledge or consent under the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta before its repeal in 1972.
Her legacy is disputed, with her important contributions to feminism being weighed against her nativist views. In addition to being against immigration, she was a strong supporter of Alberta's legislation for the Sexual Sterilization of the Insane at a time when compulsory sterilization was practiced in some North American jurisdictions. (Murphy, Sterilization of the Insane). However, it has been argued that those in the vanguard make mistakes; Murphy's views were a product of her times.
Recent memorializing of the Famous Five, such as the illustration on the back of the fifty dollar bill, has been used as the occasion for re-evaluating Murphy’s legacy. Marijuana decriminalization activists especially have targeted Murphy for criticism as part of the movement to discredit marijuana prohibition. They charge that today’s drug laws are built on the racist foundations laid by Murphy and that the drug war has harmed more women than the Persons Case has benefited. Conversely, Murphy’s defenders have been quick to point out that she was writing at a time when white racism was typical, not exceptional, and that Murphy’s views were more progressive than many of her peers. Moreover, her views on race or drugs in no way negate Murphy’s positive accomplishments in advancing the legal status of women.
Nellie McClung and Emily Murphy are the most famous suffragettes in Canada. Together, they fought, and achieved women’s rights in Canada, changing the lives of the women of their time, and for future women as well. They got women the right to vote, be recognized as persons, and to be able to have positions in the senate. Although they took part in some less celebrated activities, such as supporting the sterilization act, they both achieved amazing things for Canadian workingwomen, as well as Canadian women and the law. Do the positive events they supported make up for their love of eugenics and the harm they did to women they deemed as unfit? They were both amazing women, who succeeded in gaining women’s rights, but had some negative attributes to them as well. It is each person’s own view on these two women that makes them either heroic, or monstrous.

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