13 April 1895
Prior to the twentieth century, women in Canada, and indeed throughout most of the world, had few political, economic or social rights. Typically, women went directly from the jurisdiction of their fathers to that of their husbands. They had little control over property, income, children, or their own bodies. Women were denied the franchise, banned from most professions, and were often forbidden university-level education. A woman’s place in society was limited to caring for her husband, raising a family and managing the household. Few married women were in the paid labour force. If a single woman was forced by poverty to seek out paid employment, she was confined to occupations that were extensions of home life—carrying for children, sick, or elderly, or being a seamstress, or a house maid. Teaching was also acceptable. Once married, however, a woman was expected to resign her position so that she could devote her time to wifely duties. In 1901, only 14 per cent of Canadian women were in the paid labour force, many earning only a pittance, much less than their male counterparts doing the same work, a rationale being that a man had a family to support whereas a woman had only herself.
However, during the later decades of the nineteenth century, Canadian women began to organize and agitated for change. They challenged the widely-held belief that it was ordained by God that a woman’s place was in the home. They also rejected the paternalistic notion that they were the weaker sex, who must be sheltered from the hurly burly of politics, or worse did not have the intellectual capacity to work in the professions. But change came slowly in Canada, and when it did it came in small steps. In 1872, the Married Women’s Property Act gave married women the right to their own wages. Three years later, Dr Jennie Trout became the first woman to be licensed to practise medicine in Ontario. In 1876, Toronto women formed the Women’s Literary Society with a covert aim of obtaining equal rights; it later was transformed into the Toronto Women’s Suffrage Association. The Young Women’s Christian Association and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union were also formed during the 1870s, with a mission, among other things, to improve the lot of women. In 1884, Ontario granted married women the right to own and dispose of their own property without the consent of their husbands. In 1889, the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association grouped local suffrage groups into a national body, giving them more political clout. In 1893, Lady Ishbel Aberdeen, the wife of the Governor General at that time and an early feminist, formed the National Council of Women in Canada to improve the status of women. The Council’s initial efforts focussed on women immigrants, factory workers and prisoners. In 1895, the Law Society of Upper Canada agreed to admit women as barristers.
Female suffrage was still a dream, however. In June 1895, the House of Commons debated votes for women…and thoroughly rejected such an outlandish idea. One Member of Parliament, Flavien Dupont, expressed the prevailing sentiment of the time. He argued against throwing “upon woman’s shoulders one of the heaviest burdens that bears on those of men, the burden of politics, the burden of electoral contests, the burdens of representation.” He contended “To invite the fair sex to take part in our political contests seems to me to be as humiliating and as shocking a proposition as to invite her to form part of our militia battalions.” Women over 21 years of age had to wait until 1917 to be enfranchised in Ontario, and until 1918 to be able to vote in federal elections.
Against this backdrop, the Ottawa Evening Journal ran a unique edition on Saturday, 13 April 1885—an all-women production of the newspaper. For that one day, Ottawa women assumed all the responsibilities, including managing, editing and reporting, necessary for producing a newspaper. The Editor for the day was Annie Howells Fréchette, a poet and the author of many magazine articles, some of which were published in Harper’s Magazine. She was the wife of the translator for the House of Commons. The Managing Editor was Mary McKay Scott, while the News Editor was Ellie Cronin. The Journal’s office boy was “the only person of the male persuasion” who assisted in the newspaper’s production. Female reporters selected and edited international stories that came in over the newswires, as well as covered local newsworthy events, including sports. Instead of a “Woman’s” column, a common feature in newspapers of the age, a “Gentleman’s” column appeared. Women also solicited advertisements from area businesses, and all letters to the Editor were written by women.
This special edition of The Evening Journal was in support of the creation of a “Free” or Public Library in Ottawa. At that time, library resources in the Capital was essentially limited to the Parliamentary Library, the University of Ottawa library and the library of the Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society (OLSS). The OLSS, which had a small, circulating collection of roughly 3,100 volumes in 1895, was funded by Society members and an annual grant from the Ontario government. The Ottawa Council of Women, founded by Lady Aberdeen, together with women’s church groups and other charities, were the principal advocate of a free Ottawa Library that would be open to all. The special newspaper edition was a way of rallying support for the initiative. More tangibly, the profits from the issue would form the nucleus of a library fund. Library supporters hoped that others would contribute and, in time, lead to a grant from the City that would fund a Public Library.
Given the purpose of the special, twenty-page, newspaper edition, there was an extensive front-page article making the case for a free, public library in Ottawa. Three principal motivations were outlined: a way of uplifting men and women to a higher plane; a means of securing greater remuneration for work; and a way to form better citizens, thereby adding to the advancement and stability of the state. A public library was viewed as an extension of the school system—a “peoples’ university where “rich and poor, old and young, may drink at its inexhaustible fountain.”
Besides articles in support of an Ottawa library, there was an array of fascinating news stories, both national and international, that emphasized women. One article titled La Penetenciaria featured a hard-hitting report on an Ottawa lady’s visit to a Mexican state prison in Guadalajara. Other story focussed on Canadian women in poetry. Front and centre was Emily Pauline Johnson, the daughter of a Mohawk hereditary chief and an English mother. Johnson’s poem “In Sunset” was published. Johnson is recognized today as one of Canada’s leading poets of the nineteenth century. Others profiled included Ethelwyn Wetherald, author and journalist at The Globe newspaper in Toronto, who wrote under the nom de plume Bel Thistlewaite, and Agnes Maule Machar. As well as being an early feminist, Machar wrote about Christianity and Darwinism, arguing that Christians should accept evolution as part of God’s divine plan.
Others stories had a more domestic focus. One provided tips on how to deal with servants: “If the mistress wishes her household machinery to run smoothly, give her orders for the day immediately after breakfast.” In turn, servants were advised never to “put white handled knives into hot water, and to “cleanse the sink with concentrated lye at least once a day.” In the light-hearted “Gentlemen’s Column,” “matters pertaining to the sterner sex” were dealt with, including “men’s rights, and, “the age when a man ceases to be attractive.” Regarding the former, the columnist thought that men looked after their own rights and the needs of their own sex far better than did women, “because they probably know more about them.” As for the latter issue, she thought that there was no definite conclusion.
Notable women in the Ottawa community also contributed articles to the special newspaper edition. Lady Aberdeen wrote a lengthy column about what “society girls” might do. She opined that “service is the solution of the problem of life.” In Experimental Farm Notes, Mrs William Saunders, the wife of the director of Ottawa’s Experimental Farm, described life on the Farm, and wrote about what the visitor could see in April, which included a “good display of early spring flowering bulbs.” Mrs Alexander, the Assistant Librarian at the Geological Museum, located at the Geological Survey at the corner of Sussex Avenue and George Street, wrote about the many treasures to be found there. In addition to an extensive collection of rocks and minerals, there were botanical, entomological exhibits as well as a collection of birds and mammals. A range of “Indian relics” were also on display from western Ontario, Yukon and the Queen Charlotte Islands, including a sacrificial stone of the Blackfoot Indians, also known as the Niitsitapi, presented to the Geological Survey by the Marquis of Lorne, a previous Governor General. The Geological Museum later became known as the Canadian Museum of Nature.
The most fascinating stories deal with women’s rights, providing a glimpse of the state of play at that time, and the aspirations of Canadian women in the late nineteenth century. There were at least two references to the decision just made by the Law Society of Upper Canada to admit women as barristers. One reporter with considerable foresight wrote:
Until two weeks ago, women in the province of Ontario had only the privilege of obeying or breaking the law. Now, however, they may assist men in interpreting it. And who can say that he is altogether wrong who looks forward to the time when they shall share in making it, either through the ballot box or the legislative assembles, or becoming its interpreters upon the bench?
In an article called “The Home,” Mrs Stone-Wiggins drew readers’ attention to the proverb “Women’s sphere is the home and of it she should be queen.” Notwithstanding the proverb’s wide acceptance by society, she asked “how many wives in Canada have a legal title to their home over which they preside so that it may be safe from the bailiff in case of financial loss on the part of the husband?” As only one in one hundred women owned their own home, she argued that the proverb “has no significance in our age.” She contended that “If the stronger sex have the almost exclusive right to possess themselves of all the offices, and the professions in the state, surely women make a modest request when they ask that the home should be the legal property of the wife.”
Another article looked toward the position of women in the upcoming twentieth century. Its author wrote:
It is my cherished belief that in the twentieth century there will be no artificial restrictions placed upon women by laws which bar them out of certain employments, professions and careers, or by that public sentiment, stronger than law, which now practically closes to them many paths of usefulness for which they seem to me to be specially adapted. All the most progressive pioneers have ever dreamed of asking is that, in the case of women as in that of men, they should not be hedged about by barriers made by the privileged classes, who, in politics, ecclesiastical, professional and business life, have secured the power to say who shall come in and who shall stay out....I confidently expect that they [women] will win their greatest laurels in the realm of government. Many of the great statesmen of the future will be women; many of the most successful diplomatists will be women; many of the greatest preachers will be women.
The special one-day “Woman’s Edition” of The Evening Journal was a great success. The newspaper sold 3,000 additional copies beyond its normal daily circulation. Many local businesses also supported the issue through their advertisements. It demonstrated that women could do men’s jobs, and excel at them. However, the women’s campaign to establish a Free, or Public Library in Ottawa foundered, at least for a time. The Capital had to wait another decade before Andrew Carnegie, the American millionaire, came to the rescue, and provided the money necessary to build a Public Library.
How have women fared in Canada since that 1895 special newspaper edition in government, in the church, in the courts, and in business? Have the “artificial restrictions” and societal pressures been eliminated? The answer is mixed. Despite the approaching hundredth anniversary of female enfranchisement in Ontario and at the federal level, women still account for a minority of federal Members of Parliament and Senators. Kim Campbell has been the only woman to become Prime Minister of Canada, holding power for only 133 days in 1993. At the provincial level, women have fared better. Kathleen Wynne is the current Premier of Ontario, while women currently head governments in Alberta and British Columbia. For a short period in 2013, six of ten provinces had a woman premier. The ordination of women as ministers or priests has been permitted since 1936 in the United Church of Canada, and since 1975 in the Anglican Church of Canada. The first woman Moderator of the United Church was elected in 1980. The ordination of the first Canadian Anglican bishop occurred in 1994. There are, of course, no woman Roman Catholic priests. At the Supreme Court of Canada, women are well represented, four of nine Justices are women, including the Chief Justice of Canada, the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin. In business, however, women continue to fare poorly, According to the 2013 Catalyst Census, only 15.9 per cent of board seats of Canadian companies are filled by women.
Anglican Church of Canada, 2016. Ordination of Women in the Anglican Church of Canada (Deacons, Priests and Bishops), http://www.anglican.ca/help/faq/ordination-of-women/.
Catalyst, 2013. Catalyst Accord: Women On Corporate Boards In Canada, http://www.catalyst.org/catalyst-accord-women-corporate-boards-canada.
Connelly, M.P. 2015. “Women in the Labour Force,” Historica Canada, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/women-in-the-labour-force/.
Evening Journal (The), 1895. “Saturday is the Day,” 11 April.
--------------------------, 1895. “Woman’s Edition,” 13 April.
--------------------------, 1895. “The Woman’s Number,” 15 April.
Gaizauskas, Barbara. 1990. Feed The Flame: A Natural History Of The Ottawa Literary And Scientific Society, Carleton University, Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research, https://curve.carleton.ca/b81c434b-04c8-4886-9c97-cfc1a560ff51.
House of Commons, 1895. Debates, 7th Parliament, 5th Session, Vol. 1, page 2141, http://parl.canadiana.ca/view/oop.debates_HOC0705_01/1081?r=0&s=1.
Ottawa Council of Women, 2016, About, http://www.ottawacw.ca/index.html.
National Council of Women of Canada, 2016. History, http://www.ncwcanada.com/about-us/our-history/.
Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History.
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.