Henrietta Edwards

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Only seven months after Alberta became a province in April 1906, a woman stood in front of the members of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta.

She was presenting her Dower legislation, which if passed, would give new property rights to married women who were abandoned by their husbands, or were widows.

At the time, if husbands left or died, women typically lost everything, including property, and while still expected to support her children.

It was an unenviable situation and the woman standing in front of the Legislature hoped to change that.

She had spoken with Alexander Rutherford, the first premier of Alberta, and he had pledged his support. He led the Liberal Party of Alberta, which held 22 of 25 seats. His support ensured an expected easy passing Helped in her pursuit was the fact that her close friend Annie Bulyea, who supported the legislation as well, was the spouse of the Lt. Governor of Alberta.

With these powerful allies, it seemed as though the legislation was a lock to pass, or so she thought.

When it came time to vote, Rutherford rescinded his support. Without it the rest of the party followed suit and the Dower Act died on the Legislature floor.

But that was not the end of the fight. The woman, who had spent decades campaigning for women’s rights, would spend decades more in that pursuit.

Her name was Henrietta Edwards, and this wouldn’t be the last time The Alberta Legislature would see the Dower Act.

I’m Craig Baird…and this is Canadian History Ehx!

Henrietta Louise Muir was born on Dec. 18, 1849, in Montreal to Jane and William Muir, an upper middle-class family.

The deeply devoted evangelical family built the first Baptist chapel in Montreal, as well as the Montreal Baptist College.

Her parents were also highly progressive for the time, especially when it came to women’s rights. For example, their marriage contract guaranteed Edward’s mother Jane her own property and protection from legal responsibility for William’s business obligations and personal debts should he pass away before her.

Edward’s grandfather was similarly progressive, choosing to equally divide his estate among his children regardless of sex 

From an early age, Henrietta displayed an artistic talent, which would serve her well in her life. She was homeschooled initially by her parents, before she attended private school where she was inspired by women who advocated for them to be included in academia.

In 1865, her father and uncles sponsored a debate on the right of women to vote in political elections. While the bill was unsuccessful, it sparked an interest in suffrage that would last for the rest of Henrietta’s life.

In 1871, her mother established the Montreal Educational Association, and Henrietta started to attend lectures on arts and science at McGill University, but she was unable to attend officially due to being a woman.

To remedy this, her mother Jane campaigned extensively for women to be admitted to McGill as students.

The university finally admitted women in 1884, but only for the art program and in separate classes from the men.

It would be decades before women could enroll to earn a medical degree, or other science degrees.

In 1874, Henrietta asked her father to rent a house in Montreal.

The house was the base for the Working Girl’s Association which her and her sister Amelia founded. It served as a reading room, library and gathering place for young women in the city.

It effectively became one of the first YWCAs in Canadian history.

The organization also published a periodical The Working Women of Canada which brought attention to the working conditions of women and was funded almost entirely by the sale of Henrietta’ artwork.

At the same time, Henrietta attempted to enroll in an art school but was denied. Wanting to train as an artist, she travelled to New York City to study under Wyatt Eaton, the founder of the Society of American Artists.

Upon her return in 1875, Henrietta married Oliver C. Edwards, a prominent doctor who had a strong interest in homeopathy medicine. She copied the marriage contract of her parents before she made anything official with her new husband.

Together Henrietta and Oliver had three children and he was always a strong supporter of his wife’s causes, and often taught health classes at her Working Girls’ Association.

In 1883, she moved with the children to Indian Head in what is now Saskatchewan. Oliver had already been living in the area for a year to get established before the family joined him.

Her husband was a government doctor, serving the Indigenous reserve nearby and in her new home, Henrietta continued her work pushing for women’s rights in Canada.

She also informally studied Canadian law at home, especially codes that concerned women and children.

While in Indian Head, she established the Qu’Appelle Women’s Christian Temperance Union and was instrumental in getting a cottage hospital maternity section built in Indian Head.

A few years after moving to Indian Head, Henrietta’s husband fell ill.

Now…let me pause for a second…. I couldn’t find a direct mention of his ailment, regardless, the family moved to Ottawa in 1890 to be closer to modern hospitals.

Although Oliver was still able to work, homeopathy medicine was not popular in Ottawa and as a result, his practice lacked patients, and the family’s financial situation began to suffer.

To help bring in money for the family, Henrietta began to paint miniatures for prominent figures including future prime minister Wilfrid Laurier, and Lord Strathcona, one of the richest men in Canada.

You might even recognize Strathcona as the person who drove in the Last Spike on the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885.

But back to Henrietta…. while in Ottawa she also opened an art studio and provided lessons for young artists in the city.

It was also there that her profile started to rise as a leader in the women’s right movement.

With the increased profile came more opportunities to showcase her artwork as well.

The Canadian government asked Henrietta to paint a set of dishes that were displayed at the Canadian exhibit at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

She began working with Lady Aberdeen, the wife of the Governor General, and together they created the National Council of Women of Canada in 1893.

The organization exists to this day and is one of the oldest advocacy organizations in Canada.

Four years later in 1897, Henrietta established the Victorian Order of Nurses with Lady Aberdeen. This is another organization that still exists and provides support services to over 10,000 people from Ontario to Nova Scotia.

With these organizations, Henrietta routinely provided help on petitions, resolutions, and official documents thanks to the years she studied law at home. She also used her growing legal knowledge to campaign for prison reform in the country.

After her husband recovered from his illness, he moved to Regina in 1896 to work with the Department of Indian Affairs.

But money was still tight, so Henrietta and her children moved in with family in Montreal, instead of joining Oliver in Regina.

In Montreal, Henrietta worked with women’s organizations and pursued her art career.

Meanwhile, her husband saw patients throughout Alberta and the Yukon until 1901 when he returned to Montreal.

Reunited, Henrietta and her husband moved to the North West Territories in 1904 and settled near Fort Macleod in what is now south of Calgary, Alberta.

Her husband once again served as a medical officer on a reserve, this time for the Blood tribe. Serving 1,700 people on the reserve was no small task. This was the largest reserve in Canada and half the size of Holland.

Oliver was the only doctor and by now he was approaching 50 years old so traveling across the reserve to see patients was difficult.

To help ease the travel and workload, Henrietta often went with him, which was nothing new for her. Over the course of their marriage, she had often traveled with him on his rounds and lived among Cree, Assiniboine, Blackfoot and Peigan.

She photographed Indigenous people and created artwork of them.

The couple also accumulated a large collection of Indigenous artifacts and these interactions allowed for a deep respect to be fostered between Henrietta and the Indigenous women.

In 1905 Henrietta was given the name Otter Woman by the Blood Indigenous. This name was given to her as she was seen as a strong spiritual leader.

And it was during this time that the seed was planted in Henrietta’s mind… for the battle that was to come

On these medical rounds with her husband, Henrietta saw that many prairie women and children struggled after divorce, or the death of a husband, both on and off the reserve.

Sometimes, the husband had sold the family house out from under his wife, regardless of how much she had invested or helped to pay for the house.

This showed Henrietta the importance of having Dower legislation in the province. It also sparked in her the belief that women needed more political power to make changes to the law.

To that end, she joined the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and began to engage in campaigns for women’s suffrage.

Women’s suffrage was growing in strength at this point, as women from across the country campaigned to gain the right to vote.

Women in the first decade of the 20th century couldn’t sit on city or town councils, for the most part, or represent a riding provincially or federally.

In Ontario, unmarried women could vote in municipal elections, but married women were barred from doing so.

For a woman to vote in a municipal election, she had to have the same property qualifications as a man, something that was exceedingly rare at the time.

In 1901 she wrote,

“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.”

The husband in the home had power over children, how they were educated, what religion they practiced and even their earnings until they turned 21.

Henrietta said that the mother had the same legal power as a stranger in this arrangement and argued that single women had more rights than married women.

Henrietta commented at one point that until 1900, there was little interest among women for political equality, and even hostility towards it.

By the early part of the 1910s though, things were beginning to change as women started to pursue higher education and work outside the home.

She said in 1907,

“We do not ask for the vote because we are antagonistic to men-far from it-we do not want the vote in order that we may vote against the men, the men are our fathers, husbands and brothers, their best interests are ours. We want the vote that we may strengthen their hands in all that stands for right and justice.”

A year later in 1908, Henrietta, wrote her first book, the Legal Status of Canadian Women.

As her fight for women’s suffrage was gaining steam, she suffered a personal tragedy when her husband died in 1915.

No longer allowed to live in the Agency house on the Blood Reserve, she moved to a small home in Fort Macleod using money loaned to her by her son William.

With the loss of her husband, she threw herself into her suffrage work and with that… she made history because as the First World War raged on, wartime rationing became stricter.

To deal with rationing and its impact on the morale of Canadians, an advisory committee was created by the federal government.

Henrietta was appointed to this committee, making her the first woman to be called upon for a review of public policy in Canadian history.

She advised the committee to establish a Department of Public Health and a Department of Child Welfare. She also demanded that the women working in factories be paid the same as the men who had left the positions to fight overseas.

Her work with the committee greatly raised her profile among women’s groups across the country and she became a sought-after speaker on the issue of suffrage and women’s rights.

She started to work heavily on campaigns, writing petitions, and attending meetings.

Her work, along with that of others in Alberta, came to fruition on April 19, 1916, when Alberta gave women the right to vote.

Henrietta said,

“The Alberta women who, by their courage, endurance and ability did team work with their husbands and brothers in all that has made for the development of the province.”

In 1921, Henrietta wrote her second book, the Legal Status of Women in Alberta.

Soon after publishing her second book, Henrietta began to work with women’s rights activists Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby and Emily Murphy to lobby the Alberta government to recognize dower and matrimonial property rights.

It had been two decades since she had first taken the cause to the Alberta government, only to be betrayed by then premier….name and she was ready to do it again.

Parlby was the first woman to hold a cabinet position in the Alberta Legislature, while Louise McKinney was the first woman elected to the Alberta Legislature.

Murphy was the first female magistrate in Canadian history.

It was their hope that they could get the Dower Act finally passed in the province. They were aided by the fact the Liberal Party was out of power, and the United Farmers of Alberta, a more progressive government, was now leading the province.

That’s how in 1925 the four women were successful in protecting married women’s property rights with the Dower Act.

Due to the Act, a home could not be sold in Alberta without the signature of the wife.

Unfortunately, while the Act was highly progressive for the time, it would be years before it was properly enforced.

With that battle won. The four women set their sights on a new target.

For that fight they were joined by Nellie McClung, who played a leading role in women’s suffrage, helping women gain the vote in Manitoba and then Alberta.

These five women became known as The Famous Five because they changed Canadian history.

And it all began with a question Murphy had years earlier. Since women could now sit in Legislatures and Parliament, could one sit in the Canadian Senate?

To test the issue, Murphy allowed her name to be put forward to Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, prime minister from 1911 to 1920, as a candidate for the Canadian Senate.

Borden stated that he was willing to do so but was unable to legally because of an 1876 British Common Law that ruled women were eligible for pains and penalties, not rights and privileges.

 In other words, women were not persons under the law.

So…Over the next several years, Murphy began to work for clarification on how women were regarded under the British North America Act of 1867 to find a way to allow them to become senators.

During that time, Canada went through three prime ministers, Borden, Arthur Meighen and then William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Eventually, the five women decided to sign a petition on August 27, 1927, asking the federal government to refer the issue to the Supreme Court of Canada -Today… it’s the country’s highest court

But back then, Henrietta was approaching 80 years old, and was the only member of the Famous Five born before Confederation.

To put that into perspective…, Henrietta was founding organizations to help women while the other Famous Five were toddlers.

Despite her age, she threw herself into this new fight for women’s rights.

On their petition the women asked the court to consider two main questions.

The first was if power was vested in the Governor General in Council in Canada or the Parliament of Canada, or either of them, to appoint a female to the Senate of Canada.

The second was if it was constitutionally possible for the Parliament of Canada under the provisions of the British North America Act, or otherwise, to make provision for the appointment of a female to the Senate of Canada.

Ernest Lapointe, who was Minister of Justice, reviewed the petition and recommended that the questions be narrowed down to one, which related to women being appointed to the Senate of Canada.

On Oct. 19, 1927, the Cabinet submitted the question of “Does the word Persons in section 24 of the British North America Act 1867 include female persons?” to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court heard the case on March 14, 1928 and issued its decision on April 24 of that same year.

Chief Justice of Canada, Francis Alexander Anglin, reviewed the provisions of qualifications to be a senator including that the person had to be at least 30 years old, a British subject, own real and personal property worth at least $4,000 and live in the province that they are appointed in.

He also described the qualifications as continuing the pronoun, he, which contributed to the argument that only men could be appointed to the Senate.

In the end, all five justices held that qualified persons, under section 24 of the act, did not include women.

There is a common misconception that the Supreme Court held that women were not persons, but the majority of the Supreme Court stated that there was no doubt that the word persons when standing alone includes women.

The court made this clear in the judgement, but the Supreme Court did not answer directly the question posed by the government, giving its own interpretation instead.

The formal judgement of the court was “Understood to mean ‘are women eligible for appointment to the senate of Canada? The question is answered in the negative.”

But that was not the end of the fight, because back then the Supreme Court was not the highest court in the land.

In 1929?  the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, was the court of last resort in the British Empire.

On Oct. 18, 1929, The Lord Chancellor, Lord Sankey, found that the meaning of qualified persons could be read to include women, which reversed the decision by the Supreme Court of Canada.

In his ruling, he wrote, “the exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours and that to those who ask why the word person should include females, the obvious answer is why should it not.”

Henrietta said of the decision,

“This decision marks the abolition of sex in politics. Personally, I do not care whether or not women ever sit in the Senate, but we fought for the privilege for them to do so. We sought to establish the personal individuality of women and this decision is the announcement of our victory.”

On Jan. 23, 1930, the Calgary Women’s Canadian Club held a victory lunch for the Famous Five. When Henrietta spoke, she gave credit to the many women who had supported the petition, and to the men who supported the cause.

On Feb. 15, 1930, Cairine Wilson became the first woman appointed to the Senate of Canada.

Then, 632 days later, on Nov. 9, 1931, Henrietta Edwards passed away.

Despite her role in the Persons Case only two years previous, there was very little news coverage of her death beyond a few quick blurbs in various newspapers.

At her funeral, the reverend said,

“She has passed on to her reward, but in the passing she has thrown down the gauntlet and left a challenge to those who are left behind to carry on the good work which was her life interest.”

In 1962, Henrietta was recognized as a Person of National Historic Significance and in 2009, she was named an honorary senator along with the other four women of the Famous Five.

On Dec. 18, 2014, a Google Doodle was created to honour Henrietta on what would have been her 165th birthday.

Doodle artist Kate Beaton said,

“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.”

But there’s another part of Henrietta’s legacy… which sadly has not aged as well as her work for women’s rights.

Today, the concept of eugenics is deeply frowned upon.

The idea of sterilizing a group of the population based on factors such as intelligence is condemned but that was not always the case.

In the early 20th century, eugenics were not only a popular idea, but it was also government policy in various jurisdictions.

There were 32 American states and two Canadian provinces, British Columbia, and Alberta, which implemented eugenics.

Of the two, Alberta went the furthest with its program.

The Alberta Eugenics Board was in place from 1928 until 1972, during which time 2,832 sterilizations were approved, mostly on Indigenous women.

And something to think about… because this horrible history is not actually a thing of the past. a Senate report released just last year showed that Indigenous, Black and other women of colour were coercively sterilized between 2005 and 2010. The committee says it is aware of a case of forced sterilization as recent as in 2019.

Back then supporters of eugenics argued that alcoholism, promiscuity, and criminal behaviour was due to low intelligence and sterilizing those of low intelligence could improve society.

Many prominent Canadians also supported eugenics including the Father of Medicare, Tommy Douglas, who wrote his thesis at McMaster University in 1933 on the topic of what he called the subnormal family and the benefit of eugenics.

In his defense, I will add that he abandoned his support for eugenics by the 1940s and refused to implement it in Saskatchewan when he was premier.

This brings us to Henrietta, who along with the other members of the Famous Five, was a supporter of eugenics.

In 1928, she was appointed to the Advisory Committee on Health in Alberta, during which time the Sexual Sterilization Act was passed.

While other members of the Famous Five, such as Nellie McClung, may have been a stronger supporter of eugenics, Henrietta believed that Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act was a solution to what she termed as moral perverts.

Henrietta also felt that non-Anglo immigration to Canada should be limited. At the same time, likely due to her many interactions with Indigenous people, she argued for legal equality for Indigenous women to give them the same protections as white women in Canada.

Henrietta, although she was a trailblazer when it came to women’s rights, sadly helped shape policies that created structures that uphold systems of oppression…  like so many others in Canadian history

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Eugenics Archive, Famous Five Foundation, Wikipedia, Library and Archives Canada, 200 Remarkable Alberta Women, Macleans, Calgary Herald, The Ottawa Citizen, Wine Glass Ranch,

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