We were fortunate to have two guest presenters for our Zoom speaker session of October 25, 2023. Paul Litt, an author and Professor of Public History at Carleton University, (cross-appointed to the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies), met with us live via Zoom while Brenda Norris, daughter of Phyllis Turner Ross, sister of John Turner and a remarkable individual in her own right, graciously pre-recorded an interview with Paul Litt and Ben Weiss to share with us.
Paul told us that Phyllis Gregory’s parents were both from the Maritimes. Her father was a mining-hoist engineer and her mother was the daughter of a ship owner. They had moved to British Columbia as part of the gold rush and had settled in Rossland. Phyllis was bright, hard-working and ambitious, so in 1921, aged 17, and encouraged by her mother, she enrolled in the University of British Columbia, then a small and relatively new institution in Vancouver. This was an unusual step for a woman at this time, not only that she chose to go to university but in her selection of programs. Paul explained that, in general, society still held to traditional gender roles, although it was beginning to accept women as professionals in the field of Health Care, Social Work, Education or other “nurturing” applications. Phyllis, however, chose Economics and Political Science, fields which were considered to be appropriate only for men. After graduation she went on to graduate school, winning a scholarship to study Economics and Politics at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia. In 1927 she received another scholarship and entered the college’s doctoral program. She studied at the London School of Economics in 1927-1928 and then travelled to the University of Marburg in Germany to do research for her thesis. While in England, she met Leonard Turner. The couple had three children: John, (who became our 17 th Prime Minister), Brenda, (our pre-recorded guest this evening) and a middle child, Michael, who died in infancy. In late 1932 another tragedy befell the family when Leonard, aged 28, died from complications following a thyroidectomy. This left Phyllis alone, far from home, unemployed, in the middle of the Depression and with two children to support.
Returning to her parents in Rossland, Phyllis took some time to consider her future. By the fall of 1933, however, she had moved to Ottawa to take a trial position with the newly formed Tariff Board. Brenda remarked that Phyllis had been told not to bring her children along, in case things didn’t work out, but she did anyway, and things certainly worked out well. Paul explained that the Civil Service at that time was becoming more professional, transitioning from one based on patronage appointments to one based on merit, and so becoming one of the best Civil Services in the world. Its senior ranks were also exclusively male. Women were allowed to work in the Civil Service but were required to resign when they married. Widows, recognized as heads-of-households, and so needing to work, were accepted, if not welcomed. Phyllis, as a devote Catholic, was also unusual in what was a predominantly Protestant and Anglican organization.
Charming and attractive, Phyllis quickly became well known and well liked in Ottawa. Paul noted that she frequently served as the official escort for R. B. Bennett, who Brenda revealed had romantic interests in her, and for Mackenzie King, who did not. Phyllis, for her part, was focussed on her work and her family. Paul recounted that by 1939 her hard work and ability saw her rise to the role of Chief Research Economist for the Tariff Board. The outbreak of the Second World War only added to the demands that work placed upon her. She was seconded to the Wartime Prices and Trade Board, which Paul explained was established at the start of the war to stop the inflation and war profiteering that had taken place during the First World War. Phyllis was initially responsible for the acquisition and allocation of sugar. Hoarding of sugar by consumers, coupled with a drop in supply as the ships generally used to carry it became unavailable, was creating a crisis. Phyllis worked tirelessly to restore the supply and then determine how it should be distributed between Canadian consumers, Canadian industry and Great Britain. Later, she became the “Oils and Fats Administrator”, an unattractive title, but a vital role. Paul listed some of the uses of oils and fats, which included: as lubricants, paints, polishes, soaps, shampoos, ink, adhesives and explosives, as well as being a food product. To conserve the supply, Phyllis imposed production controls, rationing and recycling. To increase the supply, she encouraged the development of a cod liver oil industry on the east coast and a dogfish liver oil industry on the west coast. She also persuaded farmers to plant flax to prevent an anticipated shortage of linseed oil. She was increasingly involved in negotiations with the British and Americans, travelling frequently to Washington. Paul pointed out that Phyllis was the highest ranking woman in the federal public service at that time, though paid less than her male counterparts.
Paul described how the press, anxious to protect and support the existing gender stereotypes, dealt with the power and success of a woman. One NBC radio host remarked that Phyllis, who was very attractive was “Not at all the movie version of a woman economist”, while Maclean’s magazine wanted to assure their readers that despite her career success, she was still beautiful, had a great fashion sense and could cook, clean and sew. Nor did it interfere with her role as a mother. Brenda recalled that her mother had hired a much-loved Scottish housekeeper, Isabelle Kennedy, who handled most of the daily domestic duties. Brenda went on to say that she and John had a wonderful childhood. Their mother always put the children first, though she expected them to do their best. When asked if it mattered that there was no father in the home, Brenda observed that during the war, most families had no father in the home, so they were no different than anyone else.
Brenda told us that Phyllis met Frank Ross, a B.C. based industrialist and millionaire, who asked her to marry him in 1943. At her insistence, however, they waited until 1945, when their war work was done. Phyllis left the Public Service, aged 41, and they moved to Vancouver, where she turned her talents to volunteer work. She served on the executive of the Canadian Federation of University Women and the senate of the University of British Columbia, becoming their Chancellor in 1961, the first woman in the Commonwealth to hold such a position. In 1955, Frank was appointed as Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia, Phyllis throwing herself into this new challenge. Brenda commented that they entertained frequently, noting that they became close to several members of the Royal Family.
Paul revealed that by 1981, Phyllis was beginning to suffer from the effects of Alzheimer’s and died in 1988, never knowing that John had gone on to become Prime Minister.
In conclusion, Paul noted that there is still much we don’t know about Phyllis Turner Ross, especially about her private life. As a career-woman, Phyllis was a trail-blazer and it is strange that no biography has yet been written, and that today she is largely unknown. Paul expressed his hope that the interest shown by the Historical Society of Ottawa in the life of Phyllis Turner Ross will spark a graduate student to undertake the thorough research demanded of a thesis and warranted by the career and life of this remarkable woman.
To view the full presentation by Paul and Brenda, please see Phyllis Turner Ross Career Woman and Single Mother on the HSO YouTube channel .
To read the Historical Society of Ottawa pamphlet # 120 “Phyllis Turner Ross - Career Woman and Single Mother”, by Paul Litt and Christine F. Jackson, please see the publication section of our website .