Henrietta Louise Edwards, née Muir, women’s rights activist, reformer, artist (born 18 December 1849 in Montréal, Canada East; died 9 November 1931 in Fort Macleod, AB). Edwards fought from a very young age for women’s rights and education, as well as women’s work and health across the country. A gifted artist, talented interpreter of the law and tireless activist and organizer, she helped found a great number of movements, societies and organizations aimed at improving the lives of women in Canada. Edwards aimed to expand women’s rights in the political and especially the legal sphere, and was one of the five appellants, “The Famous Five,” in the Persons Case.
Early Life and Education
Henrietta Muir was one of seven children born to Jane and William Muir. The Muirs were a prosperous merchant-tailor family in Montréal. Strongly guided by their evangelical faith, the Muir family had built St. Helen’s Chapel — the first Baptist chapel in Montréal — as well the Montreal Baptist College. According to historian Patricia Roome, Henrietta learned a great deal about women’s legal rights from her parents’ “democratic religious faith.” For example, her parents’ marriage contract was progressive for the time, as it “guaranteed Jane [Muir] would have her own property and protected her from legal responsibility for William’s business obligations and personal debts.” Henrietta made a copy of her parents’ marriage contract before her own marriage in 1876, which she kept among her personal papers. What’s more, her grandfather’s estate was divided equally among his children, regardless of gender — a stipulation of his will.
Henrietta was both home-schooled and sent to private schools in Montréal, where she encountered strong female role models — school principals and other organizers who advocated for women’s inclusion in academia (see Women and Education).
Philanthropy and Artwork
In 1874, Henrietta requested that her father and other investors rent a house in Montréal, where she and her sister Amelia opened the Young Women’s Reading Room, a library and gathering place for religious meetings and social events.
The sisters also worked with the Working Girls Association (later, the Working Women’s Association; WWA), a philanthropic project to help young women get a good start toward independence. The WWA helped provide young women with affordable boarding, training and support and was was backed by the Baptist Church (see Baptists), Edwards’s father and his colleagues. Later made sole director, Henrietta provided some funding for the association by selling her artwork.
Ineligible to enrol in art school in Montréal because she was a woman, Edwards turned to private training. She went to New York City in 1876 to study under renowned portrait artist Wyatt Eaton. Edwards became an accomplished artist herself, painting portrait miniatures of such prominent figures as Wilfred Laurier (a personal friend) and Lord Strathcona. Her paintings were exhibited at the Art Association of Montreal, Ontario Society of Artists and the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. In 1893, the Dominion government commissioned Edwards to paint a set of china for the Canadian pavilion at the Chicago World’s Fair.
In 1876, Henrietta married Dr. Oliver C. Edwards. (One of the guests at their small ceremony was the eminent Dr. William Osler, who was best man.) The newlyweds moved into the Muir home as Dr. Edwards established his medical practice. Between 1878 and 1885, the pair became parents to three children: Alice, William and Margaret.
Woman’s Work in Canada
In 1878, Edwards and her sister Amelia launched Woman’s Work in Canada, a monthly publication considered to be the first Canadian magazine for working women. The publication was unique in that it employed only women and trained them to print the publication themselves.Henrietta and Amelia also established the Montreal Women’s Printing Office in 1878. Meantime, Edwards continued to paint and exhibit her work from her studio. Proceeds from her artwork were funnelled into her philanthropic endeavours, including Woman’s Work.
In 1883, the Edwards family moved west to Indian Head, North-West Territories (now Saskatchewan), for Dr. Edwards’s job as government physician on First Nations reserves. Henrietta made time to study Canadian law informally, especially those codes concerning women and children.
When her husband took ill in 1890, Edwards and family moved to Ottawa. Edwards met and later joined forces with Lady Ishbel Aberdeen, the Governor General’s wife, and helped her found several organizations. Edwards’s skills in organization, creating cohesive bylaws, and her talent for communications were indispensable in establishing the Victorian Order of Nurses, the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC) and the Ottawa Young Women’s Christian Association.
Lady Aberdeen appointed Edwards the convenor of the NCWC’s Law Committee. At first, Lady Aberdeen was unsure about Edwards, writing that she was “not so well-known, not so practical & is rather aggressively evangelical for a post which will bring her much in contact with [Roman Catholics].” However, during the 30 years in which Edwards was convenor, she wrote two legal handbooks for women: Legal Status of Canadian Women (1908) and Legal Status of Women of Alberta (1916) — the second edition of which was “issued by and under authority of the Alberta Attorney General” in 1921.
When associations needed help writing resolutions, petitions and official documents, they called on Edwards for her legal knowledge. Conversant in laws regarding women and children, she didn’t go to lawyers or judges for help, it was said that they came to Edwardsfor advice. Edwards did not attend law school, pass the Bar or possess formal legal training.
Women’s Suffrage in Canada
Dr. Edwards returned to Alberta and was struggling to make a living until he was appointed doctor to the Kainai (Blood) and Piikani (Peigan) in 1901. Two years later, his wife and children followed him, settling near Fort MacLeod. Henrietta joined the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and also became vice-president of the North-West Territories chapter of the NCWC. It was through the WCTU that Edwards engaged in campaigns for women’s suffrage and equal rights. At the time, both the NCWC and WCTU focused on prison reform, financial allowances for women and equal grounds for divorce. However, the NCWC had yet to officially support women’s suffrage.
Edwards wrote about women’s suffrage in a 1900 NCWC handbook:
The woman is queen in her home and reigns there, but unfortunately the laws she makes reach no further than her domain…. If her laws, written or unwritten, are to be enforced outside, she must come into the political world as well — and she has come.
She campaigned tirelessly for women’s right to vote, organizing campaigns, passing around petitions and attending meetings, until the majority of women in that province won the right to vote and hold provincial office on 19 April 1916.
Dower Act (1917)
Assisting her husband on his medical rounds, Edwards observed that Prairie women and children often struggled after divorce, or after husbands died, or when husbands sold the family house out from under their wife, even if the home was bought with her money. Edwards worked with Magistrate Emily Murphy and independent MLA Louise McKinney to push the Dower Act (1917) through the Alberta legislature. The act was a vital piece of legislation that protected a married woman’s property rights (see Dower).
In August 1927, Emily Murphy invited Edwards, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Nellie McClung to a meeting at her Edmonton home. Murphy had carefully drafted a petition to put before the Supreme Court of Canada regarding the interpretation of the word persons in the British North America Act (Constitution Act, 1867). At the time, women were not included in the definition of persons under the Constitution. Murphy and her fellow activists signed the petition — Edwards’s signature appeared first, thus the case was titled Edwards v. Attorney General of Canada. The petition asked the Supreme Court whether the word persons in Section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867 included women. If it considered women to be persons, the Constitution would allow for a woman to be appointed to the Senate.
Handing down the judgment on 24 April 1928, the Supreme Court denied the petition. However, the fight was not over. First called the “Alberta Five” and later “The Famous Five,” the women took their request to the highest court, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England.
On 18 October 1929, Lord Chancellor John Sankey read out the names of the five Alberta appellants. He then thoroughly explained his legal argument in what became known as the Persons Case. Sankey summed up his decision: women are persons under the law. As a result, women were eligible for Senate appointments.
As Edwards wrote in the following year, “The rejoicing all through Canada was not so much that it opened the door of the Canadian Senate to women, as it was that it recognized the personal entity of women, her separate individuality as a person.”
Members of the Famous Five are often criticized as having been racist and elitist; and their reputation and accomplishments are often seen as tarnished by their associations with the eugenics movement. Though she was not an outspoken or public advocate for sexual sterilization, Edwards did possess nativist — or prejudiced — views of non-Anglo immigration.
However, Edwards’s views on race were complex. As convenor of the NCWC Law Committee, she sought legal equality for Indigenous women, as she wrote, “such legislations as will raise the social status of our Indian women and afford her equal legal protection with our white women.” Though Edwards was appointed as an NCWC representative to the Social Service Council's Committee on Indian Affairs in 1921, her ideas were not considered by the Department of Indian Affairs.
In 1928, Edwards was appointed to the Alberta government’s Advisory Committee on Health, during which time the Sexual Sterilization Act (1928) was passed. Edwards believed that the law would help bring an end to “moral perversion” in particular.
Sexual sterilization laws were passed in Alberta (1928–72) and British Columbia (1933–73), during which time thousands of people deemed “psychotic” or “mentally defective” underwent eugenic sterilization.
Significance and Legacy
In 1962, she was named a Person of National Historic Significance by the Government of Canada. In October 2009, 80 years after the Persons Case, the Senate of Canada voted to recognize the Famous Five as honorary senators. It was the first time the Senate had bestowed such a distinction.
Comics artist Kate Beaton illustrated a Google Doodle published on 18 December 2014 to celebrate Edwards on what would have been her 165th birthday. Said Beaton: “Henrietta was a woman who made things happen and fought for it all with unflappable conviction. Canada is a richer country for having her as a citizen.”
Patricia Roome, Henrietta Muir Edwards: The Journey of a Canadian Feminist (1975)
Robert J. Sharpe and Patricia I. McMahon, The Persons Case: the Origins and Legacy of the Fight for Legal Personhood (2007)
Nancy Millar, The Famous Five: Five Canadian Women and Their Fight to Become Persons (2003)