The Women of Confederation

Canadian women from 1865-1900

Tag: nation building

Happy birthday, Henrietta

Henrietta Muir Edwards (1849-1931), Reformer and Feminist Activist

Hnrietta_MuirEdwards Henrietta Muir Edwards with her husband and children, 1890. (Source: Glenbow Archives.)

Just 18 years old when Confederation took place, Henrietta Muir was inspired by the spirit of nation building and creating a civic society:

“Henrietta Muir Edwards, a modern woman, used her determination, perseverance and dedication to help improve the plight of the women of her time. Throughout her career, her concerns were transformed into direct involvement in women’s rights.

Born in Montreal in 1849, in her early years Henrietta Louise Muir developed an interest in women helping women. Raised in an affluent, cultured and religious family, Henrietta joined the women’s movement, becoming actively involved in different religious organizations and coming face-to-face with the injustices of old traditions, where the exclusion of women was widely accepted. In Canada, the United States and Europe, she pursued studies in the field of arts, which strengthened her determination to ensure recognition for women in activities to which little consideration had previously been given.

Her involvement in women’s causes took root in Montreal, where, in 1875, she and her sister Amélia founded the Working Girls’ Association (the precursor to the YWCA). During the same era, she launched the first Canadian magazine for working women, aptly entitled Working Woman of Canada, which she and her sister edited. She financed the magazine with the proceeds from her artwork, which consisted of paintings and miniatures. Following her marriage to Dr. Oliver C. Edwards and the birth of their three children, the Edwards family moved to Saskatchewan. There, Henrietta discovered her true passion for women’s rights, and became even more involved in feminist organizations.

In 1893, Henrietta Muir Edwards, together with Lady Aberdeen, founded the National Council of Women, and for nearly 35 years served as chair for Laws Governing Women and Children. Also in collaboration with Lady Aberdeen, she founded the Victorian Order of Nurses and was appointed chair of the Provincial Council of Alberta, serving in this capacity for many years. Throughout these experiences, Henrietta Muir Edwards championed many of the accomplishments of different feminist organizations and was an avid supporter of equal grounds for divorce, reform of the prison system, and allowances for women. Her major contribution to the review of provincial and federal laws relating to women earned her a reputation for knowing more about laws affecting women than even the chief justice of Canada.

In 1927, she joined forces with Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby to sign a petition requesting that the Supreme Court of Canada reinterpret the law concerning the term “person” in 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.”

— Library and Archives Canada, “Celebrating Women’s Achievements”

Women Nation Builders

“No nation rises higher than its women.”
Nellie McClung

Lest you think, based on my most recent blog posts, that it was all fun and games for the women of Confederation – frolicking in the snow, dancing the night away, fussing with their hair; that sort of thing – here is a more serious post (and I meant serious, not boring).

The serious question is this: before women had the vote – thanks Nellie! – what could they do to help build the nation?

Certainly they could still be politically active, agitate for various causes, and write about the things that mattered to them, for instance on the ‘women’s pages’ offered by various newspapers (a subject to be taken up in a later post). They could, in other words, “participate… in the ‘imagining’ of … nations as novelists, journalists, and philosophers.” Furthermore, then as now, mothering was a political as well as a social activity, and “many more women participated by creating and reproducing … nations in the minds of their children.” And they could, and did, organize “groups, movements and institutions created by women in civil society” (Vickers 4).

Suffragettes 19th century suffragettes. (Source: Creative Commons.)

Civic Minds, Civic Actions

Briefly then, here are the ways (defined by Nira Yuval-Davis and Floya Anthias) in which women participate in national processes:

  1. as biological reproducers of [national] collectivities;
  2. as reproducers of the boundaries of ethnic and national groups;
  3. as actors in the ideological reproduction of the collectivity and as transmitters of its culture;
  4. as signifiers of ethnic and national groups – as a focus and symbol in ideological discourses used in the construction, reproduction and transformation of ethnic/national categories;
  5. as participants in national, economic, political, and military struggles. (7)

Confederation women were nation-builders by having babies and thus by literally bringing into being another generation; by acting as the guardians of the social and cultural identities of the nation; by communicating to their children and others the values, cultural and otherwise, of the nation; by serving as “symbols of cultural norms, hopes, and ideals” (Sutherland, “Peace, Order” 5); and by being mobilized, and mobilizing themselves, in times of national struggle.

But rather than perceive the women merely in essentialist terms as the biological reproducers of the nation, and/or as passive cultural reproducers, I want to add two further categories. Confederation women also participated in nation building:

  1. as actors in the generation of new ideas, movements, and approaches (rather than in the preservation of existing ones);
  2. as trailblazers who break out of the ‘reproductive’ mould and actively start down new paths.

Our Confederation foremothers did not just reproduce, preserve, guard, and symbolize, but also invent, create, and break away from nationalist tenets. Even without the vote. Although the vote (that on the federal level didn’t come until 1918) – thanks again Nellie et al. – sure didn’t hurt!

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Works Cited

Sutherland, Robin. “Peace, Order, and ‘Good Housekeeping’: Feminine Authority and Influence in Lady Agnes Macdonald’s Canada.” Diss. University of New Brunswick, 2009.

Vickers, Jill. “In Search of the Citizen-Mother: Using Locke to Unravel a Modern Mystery.” Canadian Political Science Association Conference. Halifax. June 2003.

Yuval-Davis, Nira, and Floya Anthias, eds. and intro. Introduction. Woman-Nation-State. New York: St. Martin’s, 1989. 1-15.