. . . 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 favor 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.
—Henrietta Muir Edwards (1901)
Born 19 years before any other member of the Famous 5,
Henrietta Edwards was one of Canada's earliest activists for
women's rights. A front-line worker for the cause of women
for a period of 57 years, Edwards is perhaps the least
famous of the five, but her contribution is no less valuable
despite less recognized.
Although never a militant feminist, from an early age
Edwards' wrath was aroused by injustice—especially towards
women. Strongly motivated by her deep religious faith, the
first women's organization that she joined (along with her
mother and sister) was the Baptist Women's Missionary
Society in Montreal in 1876. Edwards' newspaper Women's Work
For Women grew out of her Christian activism. Her sister
Amélia edited a Baptist women's newspaper called Missionary
Link in the 1880s.
Edwards' public career started in 1875 at the age of 25.
After finishing her education and touring Europe, Edwards
returned to Montreal, where she and her sister Amélia talked
their father into buying a house downtown. There they
established the Working Girls' Club, which offered young
women some novel services including reading rooms and study
classes. Here single girls could get rooms, meals, job
training, and legal advice. The Working Girls' Club filled a
need for young women who came to the city in search of
employment and provided services similar to those later
offered by the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA).
While the first YWCA in Canada was established in 1870 in
St. John, New Brunswick, the organization did not become a
national association until 1895—20 years after Edwards and
her sister established the Working Girl's Club.
The two sisters complemented their work at the Club by
editing and publishing the first Canadian magazine for
working women, The Working Women of Canada. In an effort to
draw public attention to urgent social problems, the sisters
funded the publication largely out of their own pockets,
sacrificing all luxuries, and painting and selling miniature
In 1903, when the Edwards family moved west to what, in
1905, would become the province of Alberta, Henrietta's
involvement in issues of social welfare did not cease. She
assisted her husband with his work on the Blood Reserve, as
well as writing letters and researching Canadian laws
pertaining to women. In 1908, at the request of the Canadian
government, Edwards compiled a summary of Canadian laws,
both federal and provincial, which pertained to women and
children. On the basis of this work, the Legal Status of
Canadian Women was published by the National Council of
Women of Canada (NCWC) in 1908.
During the the course of her work, Edwards made the
acquaintance of such people as Premier Haultain, Emily
Murphy, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby, and Nellie McClung.
Thus, when Nellie McClung, acting within the framework of
the NCWC, called a meeting to discuss how women could best
use their newly-won right to vote, and the decision was made
to form a Provincial laws Committee, Edwards was approached
to become its chairperson.
Once again, Edwards undertook an intensive analysis of
federal and provincial laws affecting women. It was a
time-consuming and tedious task, but her summarization of
the law pointed out the glaring inadequacies of existing
laws and the need for new legislation.
Emerging from her work was her second legal handbook,
Legal Status of Women in Alberta, published in 1917. The
second edition, published in 1921 was "issued by and under
authority of the Alberta Attorney General"—which was quite
an endorsement, considering it was produced by a woman who
had no formal legal training.