This Week in History


One of Five But Not The Least!

For the week of Monday December 16, 2002

Henrietta Louise Muir was born in Montréal on December 19, 1849. A talented artist, she also became a militant feminist and played a pivotal role in achieving recognition for women as “persons” under the law in Canada.

Henrietta Muir Edwards

Henrietta Muir Edwards
© Glenbow Archives / NA-2607-7

Raised in an affluent and cultured family, Henrietta studied arts in Canada, the United States and Europe. Several of her paintings were featured at the Royal Canadian Academy of Art and she was nationally recognized for her miniatures of Lord Strathcona and Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Upon her return to Montréal, she used earnings from the sale of her paintings for social causes. In 1875, she and her sister Amélia founded the Working Girls’ Association, the precursor to the YWCA. In the same period, she bought a printing press and launched the first Canadian magazine for working women, Working Woman of Canada, which she and her sister edited.

In 1876, Henrietta married Dr. Oliver Edwards, with whom she had three children. Dr. Edwards practiced mainly on Aboriginal reserves and was required to move frequently. In 1883, the couple and their children left for Saskatchewan. This move did not curtail Henrietta’s social activities. There, she studied law and became involved in feminist organizations. In 1890, the Edwards family returned to Eastern Canada, settling in Ottawa. Three years later, together with Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Governor General of Canada, she founded the National Council of Women. For more than 35 years, she served as chair for Laws Governing Women and Children. Also in collaboration with Lady Aberdeen, she founded the Victorian Order of Nurses in 1897. In 1903, Henrietta and her family settled in Fort Macleod, Alberta.

Henrietta Muir Edwards<br>Commemorative postal stamp (30¢)

Henrietta Muir Edwards
Commemorative postal stamp (30¢)
© LAC / POS-003703

Canadians are most familiar with Henrietta’s final years. At the turn of the 20th century, she was an avid supporter of prison system reform and fought for family allowances. She carefully examined provincial and federal laws relating to women. In 1917, the federal government published her book Legal Status of Women in Canada. Ten years later, in 1927, she joined forces with four other Alberta women activists to sign a petition requesting that the Supreme Court of Canada review its interpretation of the law concerning the term “person” in section 24 of the British North America Act to include women. After the Court ruled that the term did not include female persons, the Famous Five took their cause to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, in London. The Committee found in their favour in 1929.

Henrietta Muir Edwards, a person of national historical significance, died on November 10, 1931. A plaque in her honour can be found in Fort Macleod, Alberta, and another, commemorating the Persons Case will soon be unveiled at Emily Murphy Park, in Edmonton, Alberta.

Further information can be found in the archives of This Week in History: Women Are Persons... Aren't they?

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