|(image source: Famous Canadian Women on Postage Stamps)|
Henrietta Muir Edwards was a life-long women's rights activist and reformer. She spent her long life advocating for the rights of women and children in Canada.
She was born in Montreal, where she grew up in an upper-middle-class family, with all the duties to honor and culture that brought with it. Her family placed a high value on education and religious activity and Henrietta belonged to many organizations, especially those with a religious nature.
When she was older she traveled to Europe to study painting and other artistic pursuits. She was also exposed the burgeoning feminist movement, and began to question her involvement in and perpetuation of traditions that excluded women from their ranks, as well as her interest in a career in the arts where women were not welcome.
She began to focus her attentions on empowering women to help themselves and each other. Along with her sister Amélia, she founded a Working Girls's Club in Montreal in 1875, which provided meals, classes, and reading rooms for young women. They also published The Working Women of Canada, a magazine which worked to bring attention to the issues facing women in Canada. They raised the funds to support these works entirely from their earnings as artists. In this same period, they also began the Working Girls' Association, a safe haven where young women seeking employment could receive training, shelter, and food. They could house up to sixty women at a time, and offered services to up to a thousand of other women a month, and played a vital role in the lives of young women who came to the city looking for work.
In 1876, Henrietta married Dr. Oliver C. Edwards. Although they had three children and moved quite often, Henrietta maintained her high level of activity in the world of women's issues. She continued to advocate for 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, among other issues.
Her husband's work took them to live among several of the indigenous tribes in western Canada. She adjusted to each new environment with good humor and flexibility, but like many other white women in positions of power in the late 19th century, she was not a true ally to the aboriginal women she lived with. She and her husband collected artifacts with the hope of preserving the relics of the peoples she and many others believed were dying out. Often her dealings with aboriginal women were sympathetic, but maternalistic. She and her husband were strong advocates for the health of native peoples, and it was their hope that many of the people they met would eventually assimilate into white culture.
|(image source: Knitting Under Water)|
She worked with Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Governor General, to establish the National Council of Women in 1893. Henrietta served for 35 years as the chair for Laws Governing Women and Children. Also with Lady Aberdeen, she helped establish the Victorian Order of Nurses in 1897 and was appointed chair of the Provincial Council of Alberta.
She quickly gained a reputation as an expert in regards to laws relating to women and children, and she was called in to review public policy.
During the latter period of the First World War, when supplies and morale were at low, the Government of Canada selected individuals to assist in an advisory capacity about how to invoke stricter conservation measures. Mrs. Edwards was part of the selected committee, and it was the first time in Canadian history that a woman had been called for a review of public policy with the Government.Henrietta wrote two books about her work to help women and the legal problems they faced. She worked with Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby and Emily Murphy to win married women the rights to their dowery and married property.
In 1927, in the fight for the Persons Case, along with the other members of "The Famous Five," Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, and Irene Parlby, she petitioned the national court to recognize women as equals to men in the eyes of the British North America Act.
It was not until October 18, 1929, after taking their cause to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, that a reversal of the Supreme Court decision granted Canadian women the right to be appointed to the Senate. By joining the "Famous Five," Henrietta Muir Edwards brought to the cause of "women not officially recognized" her determination, extensive knowledge of the Canadian legal system and the prestige of having fought so many battles aimed at re-defining the position of women in Canadian society.In October 2009, the Senate voted to name Edwards and the rest of the Five Canada's first "honorary senators."
(source: Library and Archives Canada)
Unsettled Pasts: Reconceiving the West Through Women's History, edited by Sarah Carter
Wikipedia: Henrietta Muir Edwards
Library and Archives Canada: Henrietta Muir Edwards
The Famous Five Women
Edwards Magazine - Henrietta Edwards
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