Murphy grew up under the influence of her maternal grandfather, Ogle R. Gowan who was a Politician that founded a local branch of the Orange Order in 1830 and two uncles who were a Supreme Court justice and a Senator, respectively. Her brother also became a Lawyer and another member of the Supreme Court. Her family were prominent members of society and she benefited from parents who supported their daughter receiving formal academic education. She her uncle was Thomas Roberts Ferguson, an MP, and she was related to James Robert Gowan, who was a Lawyer, judge, and senator.
In 1887, they married, and subsequently had four daughters: Madeleine, Evelyn, Doris and Kathleen. Doris died. After Doris' death, the family decided to try a new setting and moved west to Swan River, Manitoba in 1903 and then to Edmonton, Alberta in 1907.
Her appointment as judge, however, became the cause for her greatest adversity concerning women within the law. In her first case in Alberta on July 1, 1916, she found the prisoner guilty. The prisoner's Lawyer called into question her right to pass sentence, since she was not legally a person. The Provincial Supreme Court denied the appeal.
In 1917, she headed the battle to have women declared as "persons" in Canada, and, consequently, qualified to serve in the Senate. Lawyer, Eardley Jackson, challenged her position as judge because women were not considered "persons" under the British North America Act 186. This understanding was based on a British Common law ruling of 1876, which stated, "women were eligible for pains and penalties, but not rights and privileges."
Emily Murphy's house in Edmonton, Alberta, is on the Canadian Register of Historic People and Places. She lived in this home from 1919 until her death in 1933. It is now located on the campus of the University of Alberta and houses the Student Legal Services.
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 because it played a role in creating a widespread "war on drugs mentality" leading to legislation that "defined 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 and "expert" opinion, 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'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. In addition to professional expertise and her own observations, Murphy was also given a tour of opium dens in Vancouver's Chinatown by local police detectives. Vancouver at the time was in the midst of a moral panic over drugs that was part of the anti-Oriental campaign that precipitated the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923.
Murphy began to work on a plan to ask for clarification of how women were regarded in the BNA act and how they were to become Senators. 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 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. The women's petition set out two questions, but the federal government re-framed it as one question, asking the Supreme Court: "Does the word 'person' in Section 24 of the British North America Act include female persons?" The campaign became known as The Persons Case and reached the Supreme Court of Canada in March 1928. The Court held that women were not qualified to sit in the Senate. The five women then appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain. On 18 October 1929, in a decision called Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General), the Privy Council declared that 'persons' in Section 24 of the BNA Act of 1867 should be interpreted to include both males and females therefore women were eligible to serve in the Senate.
Despite the ruling, Murphy was never appointed to the Senate. The Prime Minister at the time, william Lyon Mackenzie King, was a Liberal, and Murphy was a partisan Conservative, so she was passed over in favour of philanthropist Cairine Wilson in 1930. After the Conservatives under R. B. Bennett won the 1930 federal election, Murphy was denied to chance to sit in the Senate again in 1931, because the vacancy had been caused by the death of a Catholic senator, and Murphy was a Protestant. Murphy would die in 1935 without fulfilling her dream of sitting in Canada's upper chamber.
Murphy was among those who thought that societal problems like alcoholism, drug abuse and crime resulted from 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.
In 1958, she was recognized as a Person of National Historic Significance by the government of Canada. A plaque commemorating this is installed at Emily Murphy Park on Emily Murphy Park Road in Edmonton. The "National Persons" case was recognized in 1997 as a National Historic Event with a plaque at the same place.
Due in part to her heavy advocacy of compulsory sterilization, thousands of Albertan men and women were sterilized without their knowledge or consent under the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta before its repeal in 1972.
The women were 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. In Canada's Senate Chamber, the five women are honoured with a plaque that reads, "To further the cause of womankind these five outstanding pioneer women caused steps to be taken resulting in the recognition by the Privy Council of women as persons eligible for appointment to the Senate of Canada." Murphy, along with the rest of the Famous Five, was featured on the back of one of the Canadian 50 dollar bills issued in 2004 as part of the Canadian Journey Series. In October 2009, the Senate voted to name Murphy and the rest of the Five Canada's first "honorary senators".
Murphy is known as one of "The Famous Five" (also called "The Valiant Five")—a group of Canadian women's rights Activists that also included Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby. In 1927, the women launched the "Persons Case," contending that women could be "qualified persons" eligible to sit in the Senate. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that they were not. However, upon appeal to the Judicial Committee of the British Privy Council, the court of last resort for Canada at that time, the women won their case.