The 1901 census listed 50 women journalists at a time when the population of Canada was about 5.4 million and newspapers were wildly popular—the equivalent of the internet today. Widespread literacy and rapidly increasing urbanization had made the daily newspaper “indispensible” to city dwellers, according to author Linda Kay, a journalism professor at Concordia University, in The Sweet Sixteen: The Journey That Inspired the Canadian Women’s Press Club. “As early as 1883, the average Toronto family bought two newspapers a day,” she writes, pointing out that in Montreal “Le Monde declared the newspaper to be ‘un article de première nécessité, comme le pain et la viande.’” Publishers would be laughed out of their own newsrooms if they dared to make such a statement today.
This slim book speaks volumes about how little we know about the history of early female journalists in this country. Partly that is because women were relegated to society and advice columns and almost exclusively wrote under pseudonyms. Kay has picked a good subject and worked extremely hard to trace the lives and careers of the 16 women, half of them francophones, who climbed aboard a Canadian Pacific Railway train in Montreal and founded the Canadian Women’s Press Club during a junket to the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904.
The first such national organization in the world, the CWPC had three aims: to promote and protect the professional interests of its members, to advance Canadian nationalism and to encourage literary excellence in newspapers. The goals were audacious considering that women did not have the right to vote, hold office, or manage their own business and legal affairs. Higher education was discouraged; women were meant to marry, raise children, stay out of public affairs and accede to their husbands’ comfort and views.
Sara Jeannette Duncan had been the pioneer in finding a foothold in the transition between the restrictions of the late Victorian era and the promise of the new century. The schoolteacher from Brantford, Ontario, travelled to the Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans in 1884 and sold newspaper articles, under the pseudonym Garth Grafton, to Canadian and American outlets. Two years later she was hired full time by the Toronto Globe (now The Globe and Mail), a first for a female journalist. She worked on the editorial board of The Washington Post and became the Ottawa correspondent for the Montreal Star, a gig she quit to travel around the world, sending back travelogues that were published by Chatto and Windus in 1890 under the title A Social Departure: How Orthodocia and I Went Round the World by Ourselves. Duncan’s life and career changed abruptly in Calcutta, where she met and married Everard Cotes, a civil servant and journalist. Although she wrote some 20 books (many under her married name) including the politically and historically significant The Imperialist, Duncan is barely known today.
I was surprised that Kay did not mention Duncan’s journalistic foray to New Orleans, or make more of the connection between her as a role model and the Sweet Sixteen’s journalistic and literary ambitions. The same year that The Imperialist was published to dismissive reviews in Canada, Margaret “Miggsy” Graham, who wrote under the initials MG, walked into the head offices of the CPR in Windsor Station in Montreal and asked to see George Ham, CPR’s publicity chief. Graham, 34, and a former schoolteacher like many of the female journalists of the day, was the Ottawa correspondent for the Halifax Herald.
Full of bluster, perhaps because she had just snared an important interview with the wife of Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, she demanded to know why the CPR regularly transported men on excursions while “women had altogether been ignobly ignored.” She told Ham that women journalists had a significant readership and the CPR would benefit if it organized a female junket to the World’s Fair later that summer. Much to Graham’s surprise, Ham issued his own challenge: find a dozen female writers with assignments from newspapers and he would personally take them to St. Louis on a CPR train and pay their expenses. Flabbergasted, Graham turned to Ham’s assistant, Kate Simpson Hayes, and began thinking of names.
Hayes was a huge help as, in addition to her job at the CPR, she also wrote, under the pen name Mary Markwell, for the Free Press in Winnipeg. Together they signed up 16 journalists—the sweet sixteen of the title. Two of them—Kathleen “Kit” Coleman and Robertine Barry were famous. Coleman was born Catherine Ferguson in May 1864 near Galway, Ireland. Well educated, she was married off by her parents to a wealthy and much older landowner when she was a teenager. Widowed at 20 and disinherited by her late husband’s family, she immigrated to Canada, married, again unhappily, and bore two children.
By 1889 Coleman was on her own and working as a freelance writer for Saturday Night to support her children. Five years later, she was at the peak of her powers: the first woman to run her own section of a newspaper, The Mail; a nationally syndicated columnist; and the first woman accredited as a war correspondent anywhere in the world. She reported from Cuba in the final stages of the Spanish American War in 1898.
Barry, who wrote under the name Françoise, was the first woman hired full time by a Quebec newspaper, La Patrie. Her column, “Chroniques du Lundi,” which ran once a week from September 1891 to March 1900, gave Barry a platform to proselytize about the benefits of higher education and jobs outside the home for women and the need for public libraries as social and cultural institutions and to promote Canadian literature, especially the poetry of Émile Nelligan. In 1902, she capitalized on her influence and became a significant role model as the editor and publisher of her own newspaper, Le Journal de Françoise. Now she could employ other women and provide an outlet for their writing. Barry, who was bilingual, quickly enlisted seven other francophone journalists.
In their wide-brimmed fancy hats and tailored jackets over shirtwaists and long triangular skirts, they assembled at Windsor Station on the evening of June 16, 1904, climbed aboard the special sleeper car and set off on their ten-day adventure with their patron George Ham. The trip was a public relations bonanza for the CPR and a career challenge for the women who were reporting and writing assignments that were normally only given to men. The railway company was keen to bolster its lines and its revenues by luring easterners and immigrants from Britain and the United States to the Canadian West. The novelty of female writers and the myriad outlets for which they filed articles guaranteed the CPR lots of free publicity in editorial pages of newspapers and magazines.
The fair, which celebrated the centennial plus one year of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, was the third biggest American news story of the year, after the Russo-Japanese War and the upcoming presidential election between Republican incumbent Theodore Roosevelt and Democratic nominee Alton B. Parker. More than 20 million people walked through the gates of the 1,200-acre site in St. Louis, with exhibits provided by 62 countries in addition to the national and state displays erected by Americans.
While the exhibition provided lots of interesting copy and opportunities for the journalists to expand both their horizons and their reporting and writing skills, the real triumph, from Kay’s perspective, was the synergy the women themselves created and the decision they made somewhere en route to form the Canadian Women’s Press Club. Kit Coleman was the first president, but it was undoubtedly Kate Simpson Hayes, the club’s first secretary, who organized the membership and the annual meetings while working at the CPR as Ham’s assistant. Ham continued his patronage of the club as honourary president. Not surprisingly, the first three annual meetings were held in Winnipeg, the Gateway to the West, in 1906, 1907 and 1908, in a not so subtle attempt by the CPR to push western migration.
The CWPC was a big success in its early days, although the concentration on the west failed to entice a lot of Québécois members. Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung and Lucy Maud Montgomery were all members of the CWPC, which at one time boasted 13 regional branches. At its peak in the late 1960s, the CWPC had nearly 700 members. As time passed and social mores changed, as women overcame journalistic hurdles and learned how to juggle careers and family life, many saw little need for a separate professional club for women. They wanted to work, argue and play in the same venues as their male colleagues. Consequently, the CWPC celebrated its centennial in 2004 by disbanding.
The most poignant part of Sweet Sixteen is the epilogue in which Kay sketches brief lives of the Sweet Sixteen after the excursion to St. Louis. Only one woman, Anne-Marie Graham, managed to have a long productive career as a journalist and combine it with a successful family life. Françoise died suddenly of what was probably a stroke less than six years after the trip to St. Louis. She was 46. Kit Coleman quit the Mail and Empire in 1911 in a dispute over salary and expenses and died of pneumonia four years later at age 59. The rest died early or faded away, swamped by the same pool of indifference that had overwhelmed Sara Jeannette Duncan when she tried to become a serious writer. These early journalists had ambition, talent, daring, but most of them lacked endurance and the ability to surmount the male-dominated social strictures of the era. Without them, though, Canadian journalism would be less vibrant today. The women who came afterward owe them a debt, one that Kay has showcased in this fascinating account.