Henrietta Muir Edwards
Henrietta Muir Edwards (1849—1931)
The source of her greatness was not so much in the high offices she held as in her tenacious ways which brought lasting benefits for Canadian women and children.
– Grant MacEwan, “Henrietta Edwards.” Mighty Women: Stories of Western Canadian Pioneers.
While Henrietta Muir Edwards may be the least well known of the “Famous Five,” her imprint is felt by millions of Canadians every day. For over sixty years, Henrietta Edwards had a preverbal toe dipped into every lake, puddle, or stream that had to do with women’s and children’s rights. While you may not recognize this formidable women’s name, chances are, you know her work. She co-founded the National Council of Women of Canada and the Victorian Order of Nurses; she published the first magazine in Canada for working women; she alerted the government to the need for a Department of Public Health and a Department of Child Welfare; she campaigned for women’s and children’s rights relentlessly; she explored every law relating to women and published a legal tract on the subject; and, at the age of eighty, in 1929, Henrietta Edwards, along with four other women, challenged the Supreme Court of Canada in the well-known “Person’s Case”—a case that resulted in the recognition of women as persons under the British North America Act.
Henrietta Muir was born in 1849 to a wealthy Montreal family. She studied art nationally and internationally, and used her artistic talents to help publish the first magazine for working women in Canada. Henrietta and her sister Amelia, wrote for and managed the publication, entitled Working Women of Canada.
In 1875, Henrietta and Amelia opened the Working Girls Association, a safe haven where girls could receive training, shelter, and food, while seeking employment. The Working Girls Association provided shelter and education for up to sixty women at a time, and helped fill a need for single women who came to the city in search of employment—services later provided by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). In an unidentified 1875 newspaper clipping, Henrietta describes the Club as such:
Our Association Rooms…have fully answered to all expectations in engaging them in so central a part of the city in the number of young women who take advantage of them, not only in applying for work of all kinds, but as a place for social intercourse.
The same newspaper indicated that at times, over 1000 women a month visited the rooms. The Working Girls Association also offered weekly gospel meetings, monthly tea meetings, and educational classes two evenings a week.
Henrietta’s passion for advocacy did not falter after she married Dr. Oliver C. Edwards in 1876. Even though she relocated several times throughout Canada because of her husband’s career, Henrietta never stopped campaigning for such issues as equal grounds for divorce, equal custody of children, raising the age of consent for girls to eighteen, reform of the prison system (especially as it pertained to women), adoption of mother’s allowances, equal pay for male and female workers, and female suffrage. Throughout her life, Henrietta lived in Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Alberta, and with each move, she brought with her a passion for change.
In 1890 Henrietta and Lady Aberdeen co-founded the Victorian Order of Nurses and three years later, the same two women co-founded the National Council of Women. The work of these women was so impressive that other countries looked to Canada as a model when forming their own similar organizations.
Henrietta Edwards not only maintained a passion for women’s rights, but she also educated herself on the status of Canadian women with respect to the law. In 1924 a tract Henrietta authored entitled Legal Status of Women of Canada was published by the Federal Government. This useful resource provided a breakdown of provincial laws pertaining to women’s rights. While she had no formalized training in the law, Henrietta was so knowledgeable on the subject that lawyers and judges sought her out for advice and opinions.
During the First World War, Henrietta Edwards served as a Red Cross Leader. Toward the end of the war, when allied resources were being taxed to the limit, Edwards’ advice was sought out by the War Committee on conservation measures —the first time in Canadian history that the government had called upon a woman to assist with a review of public policy. Edwards responded by suggesting the creation of the Department of Public Health and the Department of Child Welfare. Subsequently, she was made secretary of the National Subcommittee on Thrift and Economy in Canadian Homes. Her work with this committee involved giving numerous talks on the role of the homemaker in reducing waste. Henrietta focused on cooking and the crime of producing waste in a time when many were going hungry because of the war.
At the time of the famous Person’s case, Henrietta was nearing the end of her life. Her old age did not slow her down as she was responsible for most of the legal research necessary for the case. Alphabetically, her name came first, and, therefore, the Person’s case is filed under her name. While she may be the least well-known of the Famous Five, the categorized system that allows for the case to be under her name ensures the link between Edwards and women’s rights is firmly connected.
Henrietta Edwards is a role model for Canadian women. She never stopped fighting for what she believed in, and it is because of her relentless passion that we can credit the existence of many valuable organizations. Jean Bannerman describes Henrietta Edwards as a “modern Hypatia.” Hypatia’s father, Theon, was considered to be the most educated man in Alexandria, Egypt, and raised his daughter in a world of education. While Henrietta did not pursue formal education in the modern-day sense, nobody can dispute her determined quest for knowledge, and, moreover, her persistence in applying her knowledge to improve conditions for Canadian women. She stands as a symbol to Canadian women, representing change and the possibility for change. She symbolizes what can be achieved if Canadian women take a stand, and unite in our beliefs.
At the present time almost every Canadian woman, who is at all interested in questions of the day dealing with education, philanthropy, or social life, is in favour of some form of woman franchise, whether school, municipal, or parliamentary… The higher education of women, their organized efforts to ameliorate the condition of the poor, or benefit the community, their position in the labour market necessitating laws to protect their interests and welfare, have taught our women that on this account it would be well to have a direct influence upon those who govern. (H.Edwards, 1901)
For more information:
- Bannerman, Jean. Leading Ladies: Canada, 1639—1967. Dundas, Ont: Carnswood, 1967.
- MacEwan, Grant. Mighty Women: Stories of Western Canadian Pioneers. Toronto: Greystone Books, 1975.
- The Famous 5: Heroes For Today. Heritage Community Foundation.