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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2004

Historian Takes Us Through Canadian Women's History

Wendy Robbins

100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces

Merna Forster. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2004; 320 pp; ISBN: 1-55002-514-7; paper $24.99 CA.
"If you've never heard of Helen McNicoll, you're not alone." So begins one of Forster's biographies - compact, powerful and multifaceted, like diamonds. Forster has researched 100 daring, indomitable, original, high-achieving, civic-minded, and all-too-often invisible, Canadian women, such as McNicoll, a gifted Impressionist painter. The foreword by Kim Campbell, Canada's first woman prime minister, drives home a key point: "In virtually all societies, leadership is gendered male."

Forster's poignant portraits include Viking Gudridur Thorbjarnardottir, the first white woman to reach North America, and Shanawdithit, the last Beothuk. There is Black rebel slave Marie-Joseph Angélique, who set ablaze her owner's house in eighteenth century Montreal, and Black abolitionist and women's emancipationist Mary Ann Shadd, the first woman to found and edit a newspaper in Canada. Early Native land claims activist Nahnebahwequay courageously petitioned Queen Victoria herself. The first Chinese woman to immigrate to Canada, Mrs. Kwong Lee, came in 1860 to live in a Victoria slum known as The Forbidden City. She had bound feet. Racism hobbled her whole community.

We encounter celebrated feminist Thérèse Casgrain, powerful Inuit artist Pitseolak, and union organizer Léa Roback, who led 5,000 garment industry workers on a massive strike in the 1930s. There are nuns and nurses, mountaineers and aviatrixes, graingrowers and sourdoughs, politicians and judges, authors and opera stars and fabulously wealthy businesswomen, such as evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and Hollywood star Mary Pickford. We see the conscious, decisive action of Canada's best-known heroine, Laura Secord, setting out alone on her hazardous mission, without a camouflage of cows. The collection includes saints and mandarin (a title akin to knighthood) Leonora Howard King, who devoted her life to practising medicine in China - 60 years before Norman Bethune. Some women actually disguised themselves as men to accomplish their dreams.

Of most interest to Bulletin readers, perhaps, are the women academics. Carrie Derick earned international recognition for pioneering research on genetics and heredity and was listed in American Men of Science (1910). Although she met the requirements for a PhD, the University of Bonn would not award the degree to a woman. She published papers and joined professional associations not previously open to female academics, yet she struggled to be promoted to a lectureship at McGill University. She was a suffragist and reformer, lecturing the premier of Quebec on the merits of birth control. He dismissed her as "that old maid from McGill." But the most painful slight was working for three years as acting chair of the botany department, only to have McGill give the position to a younger American man. As a sop, McGill's board of governors appointed her a full professor in 1912, with no raise in salary, for, as the principal told her, it was a "courtesy title." Despite the insults and frustrations, Derick was the first woman ever appointed to a full professorship at a Canadian university.

Harriet Brooks was compelled by her employer to choose between marriage and her career at Columbia University's women's college. Outraged, she broke off her engagement and resigned her job, moving to Europe to work with Marie Curie. Eventually Ernest Rutherford lauded her as "next to Mme Curie ... the most prominent woman physicist in the field of radioactivity."

Maud Menten, a gifted biochemist armed with four degrees - including an MD and a PhD - who was unable to secure an academic position in Canada, continued her career in the U.S. With a colleague at the University of Berlin, she developed the Michaelis-Menten Equation for measuring the rate of a biological reaction catalyzed by enzymes - a process implicated in the production of most modern drugs. She also studied human hemoglobins using electrophoresis (predating Linus Pauling who usually gets the credit). Despite authoring or coauthoring about 100 research papers and making these important contributions to scientific and medical knowledge, she was not granted a full professorship until 1949, when she was 70 years old and a year from retirement.

Happier stories are those of Adelaide Hunter Hoodless, founder of Macdonald College, Anna Leonowens, governess in the household of the King of Siam and later first director of what became the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and Elizabeth Gregory MacGill, the first woman in Canada to receive an electrical engineering degree (from the University of Toronto in 1927). She was also the first woman in North America to earn a degree in aeronautical engineering.

Not since Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party have we been invited to quite such a smorgasbord of women's accomplishments - this one Canadian. The sense of excitement and pride that Archibald Lampman expressed on first reading Charles G.D. Roberts' Orion, of finding "one of ourselves" capable of greatness, or the emotion American Alice Walker reported on discovering Black foremother Zora Neale Hurston, which filled her with an inestimable "joy and strength and my own continuity" - this is the kind of luminous experience that awaits readers of 100 Canadian Heroines.

"No they weren't the good old days. We tore out our hearts to change them" (Laure Gaudreault). The lessons that these life-sketches contain about creativity, imagination, passion for social justice, iron-willed endurance and humanitarian responses to discouragement or tragedy are rousing and unforgettable. The vignettes are finely grained and empirical and the documentation is unobtrusive but extensive, yet there should be more context and chronology. The alphabetical arrangement is not necessarily the best for a historical reference work and alternative lists of contents might well have been included: chronological, geographical, thematic. It would also have been interesting to have data showing who married, divorced, was widowed, and did or did not have children.

These suggestions hopefully can be incorporated in a further volume with more and/or more recent Canadian heroines, who, like these, live with the intelligence and commitment "to ring true and stand for something" (Agnes Cameron).

Wendy Robbins, on sabbatical leave from the University of New Brunswick, is CAUT's 2004 visiting scholar.