11 April 1894
The National Council of Women of Canada, an Ottawa-based, women’s advocacy group, celebrated its 125 anniversary in October 2018. It was founded in 1893 in Toronto by Lady Aberdeen, the wife of the then Governor General of Canada, the Earl of Aberdeen. Lady Aberdeen, born Ishbel Marie Marjoribanks (pronounced Marshbanks), was a person of outstanding ability with a strong interest in social reform, an interest shared by her husband. In Scotland, she established, among other things, the Aberdeen Ladies’ Union that helped young girls in cities, and the Onward and Upward Association that provided education to servant girls. She was also head of the Women’s Liberal Federation that advocated for women’s suffrage.
Shortly after her husband took up his post as Governor General, Lady Aberdeen attended the congresses of the National Council of Women of the United States and the Women’s Alliance held at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in May 1893. There, she spoke on women as a force in politics. This was, of course, long before women’s suffrage. Canada’s Dr. Emily Howard Stowe also spoke at the same meeting. Stowe was the president of the Women’s Enfranchisement League of Canada. Subsequently, women convened at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago where it was decided to organize a National Council of Women in every country which in turn would be affiliated with the International Council of Women. Lady Aberdeen was elected as the International Council’s first president. She was to hold this position for three extended terms—1893 to 1899, 1904 to 1920, and 1922 to 1936. May Wright Sewell, an American pioneer for women’s rights, was elected Vice President. Sewell was famous for advocating sensible clothing for women at a time when women’s clothing, which included corsets, bustles, petticoats and floor-length skirts, was anything but sensible.
The small group of Canadian women who attended the meetings in Chicago returned home ready to organize a National Council of Women of Canada. Five months later in late October 1893, hundreds of women assembled in Toronto to launch the new organization under the leadership of Lady Aberdeen. Speaking to the assembly, she remarked on how wonderful it was to look at the advances made in the recognition given to “women’s work, women’s education, women’s influence, and women responsibilities in all directions.” She also commented that women of her day owed much to the heroism of such people as prison reformers Elizabeth Fry and Sarah Martin. As well, Lady Aberdeen outlined the plan for the National Council. She envisaged every town having a local council or union of women’s organizations which in turn would send delegates to a National Council so that the “work and thought of women in the Dominion” would be represented from “Halifax to Victoria.” The locals and National Council would be free of religious denomination and open to all. The only requirement would be that the institution or organization have as its objective the good of mankind. Besides sharing information about what each group was doing and identifying gaps, the idea behind a National Council was to draw strength from unity in order to advance nation-wide social objectives. At the meeting, Lady Aberdeen was elected President of the National Council of Women of Canada. She accepted the position on the condition that the women of Canada allowed her to be considered an adopted Canadian.
After this inaugural conference, major cities in Canada began forming local councils of women’s organizations and associations. Organizations that had both male and female members could also join if the women of those organizations put forward a woman representative to participate in council meetings. Toronto was the first city to establish a local council in early November 1893 with 24 federated societies or associations. This was followed by Hamilton and Montreal later that same month with 25 and 32 member organizations, respectively. Ottawa followed in mid-January 1894 with 27 member organizations. These included: the Children’s Hospital, the Protestant Home for the Aged, the Home for Friendless Women, the Protestant Orphan’s Home, St. Patrick’s Asylum, the Ottawa Humane Society, the Women’s Enfranchisement Association, the Women Christian Temperance Union, and the Ladies’ Auxiliaries of many Protestant churches. There were few Catholic organizations as the Roman Catholic Church had not yet given its blessing to the new Women’s Council. The cost to affiliate with the Ottawa local council was $2.
Lady Ritchie, born Grace Vernon Nicholson, was elected the first President of the Ottawa chapter. She was the wife of Sir William Johnstone Ritchie, who at the time was Canada’s Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Lady Ritchie had for many years been the president of the Humane Society. She was also the Vice-President of the National Council of Women of Canada. Other vice-presidents, all women with high-powered connections, included Mrs R.W. Scott (Mary Ann Heron), wife of Mr. Richard W. Scott (later Sir), Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Madame Taschereau (Marie-Antoinette Harwood), the wife of Supreme Court Justice Henri-Elzéar Taschereau (later Sir), Mrs Erskine Bronson (Ella Webster), the wife of Erskine Henry Bronson, the businessman and philanthropist, and Mrs Gwynne, the wife of another Supreme Court Justice, John Wellington Gwynne.
The first Convention of the National Council of Women of Canada took place in Ottawa over a two-day period beginning 11 April 1894 under the direction of Lady Aberdeen. The afternoon prior to the meeting, the Executive Committee of the Council met at Rideau Hall, the home of the Governor General, to finalize last-minute arrangements for the Convention. Around a large table set in the middle of the room sat the presidents of the various local councils and representatives of nationally-organized associations affiliated to the National Council. Lady Aberdeen chaired the meeting. It was described as a very business-like affair with full regard given to Parliamentary rules. It was also described as “very womanly” as “the meeting did not adjourn without the inevitable cup of tea.” After the meeting, blotters and pens were removed and the table was reset for an Executive Council dinner hosted by Lord and Lady Aberdeen.
The Convention officially began the next morning at 10 a.m. in the convocation hall of the Normal School at Elgin and Lisgar Streets. (Today, this Gothic-revival building erected in 1874 forms part of the Ottawa City Hall.) The hall was decorated with flags and bunting with flower arrangements in the windows and on the platform. For the first session, roughly 120 women were present from all the principal cities of Canada. Lady Aberdeen presided over the proceedings. She began the meeting with a silent prayer after noting that the women present represented “different creeds, different churches, different races (i.e. English and French), have different views but are all children of the same Father.”
In her opening address, Lady Aberdeen provided a traditional assessment of woman’s place in society. She described the movement as “mothering.” While not everybody had children, all women were called upon to “mother” in some way, she said. As well, it was the responsibility of women to be the “true homemaker”—“her husband’s companion, her children’s guide” who “should always understand the changes that take place in the everyday world.” She hoped that the Council would be able “to forge a grand band of union between the members as homemakers and home builders.” Later in the conference, she noted that some thought that the Woman’s Council was only a cover for a campaign for women’s rights. She assured people that the women’s movement was “not seeking to agitate for rights or to glorify their own sex at the expense of the other.” Women’s duties rather than women’s rights were their watchwords. Such duties were to the poor, to the fallen and to the ill. Moreover, as well as finding cures, it was important to get to the root causes of the evils.
Lady Aberdeen’s description of women in their traditional roles as nurturers and caregivers may have in part been directed at disarming potential critics rather than being indicative of her own beliefs. Her position as the Governor General’s wife also limited her to what she could say or do. When approached by women’s suffrage supporters for her support, she refused to comment noting that the subject was politically too controversial.
Over the two-day convention, papers were presented and discussed covering three broad topics—co-operation in the workplace, women’s clubs and their advantages, and the relation of parents and children and their responsibilities—with three to four papers presented in each section. When the presenter on “co-operation of working women for protective purposes” was unable to speak, Lady Aberdeen stepped in and took her place. Lady Aberdeen spoke of women employed in Toronto factories and workshops earning as little as $2-3 per week, with the women’s pay docked for the slightest excuse. She also spoke about the impact of women who worked for pocket money on the wages of those who worked for a living. When buying cheap items in a bargain store, she thought that the purchaser needed to reflect upon the lives of those women who made those goods. Lady Aberdeen opined that a union was necessary—a radical position for somebody in her position at this time.
Also discussed was the issue of domestic service. While not a subject that resonates today, it was a major topic back in the late nineteenth century. Papers were provided from the mistress’s point of view, the servant’s point of view, and on possible solutions. While the report on the discussion was very limited, it would appear at issue was the difference between a mistress’s expectations and a servant’s rights. One suggestion to improve the lot of servants was for families to be content with cold dinners on Sundays.
The Ottawa author and poet Annie Howell Fréchette spoke on raising difficult children. In a very well received lecture, she told the audience that “no child should be asked to submit to a rule that will not permit the search-light of wisdom and right.” She added that “the rod of correction cannot be the diving road that searches the pure waters in the child’s soul.” In other words, corporal punishment doesn’t work—a very modern concept, and one that did not jibe with the biblically-derived proverb of “spare the rod, spoil the child” that many took literally at the time.
At the conclusion of the first day’s business, the Aberdeens hosted a huge reception for delegates and guests at Rideau Hall, opening up the entire ground floor of their home. More than one thousand people showed up despite a conflicting ball being held on the same night at the Russell House Hotel for the wives of members of parliament and senators. Many people attended both functions. Lady Aberdeen wore black with diamonds as she was in mourning for the death of her father the previous month. In the ballroom, amateur musicians and vocalists played and sang. Refreshments were served in the winter tennis court under a red and white marquee that was lowered from the roof.
The highlight of the second day’s afternoon session, which was open to the public, both men and women, was the appearance of Lord Aberdeen, the Governor General, and Sir John Thompson, the Prime Minister. Lord Aberdeen heartedly endorsed the formation of the National Council of Women of Canada, saying that it would promote “greater unity of heart, sympathy, and purpose among the women workers of all sections and classes of the people.” He also thought that it was no longer “a strange or fantastic thing that a body of ladies should be gathered together with the serious and definite purpose of promoting the public welfare.” Lord Aberdeen became the Council’s first patron, donating $100.
Sir John Thompson seconded the motion and congratulated himself that the National Council had been established during his premiership. He promised that “the sympathy of Parliament would be extended to the movement in any practical form.” This, of course, did not extend so far as supporting women’s suffrage.
At its first Convention, the National Council of Women of Canada approved a number of resolutions. It urged provincial governments to appoint women inspectors for factories and workshops that employed women. Another resolution advised provincial departments of education to supply schools with an improved history of Canada, with decent maps, that skillfully blended the “whole record of ‘Indian Romance,’ ‘French Chivalry,’ and British Endeavour.’” Governments were also called upon to use international arbitration to settle international disputes peacefully. As well, the National Council asked local councils to co-operate with the Children’s Aid Society to try to secure separate prisons and trials for young offenders, especially first-time offenders.
Following the conclusion of the Convention, a number of affiliated associations held their own meetings at the Normal School. These included the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association, the Dominion Girls’ Friendly Society, the Montreal Hebrew Sewing Society, the Montreal Ladies Morning Musical, the King’s Daughters, and the Temperance Workers of Hamilton.
From this auspicious beginning, the National Council of Women of Canada grew and prospered. During the late 1890s, it was active in bringing free public libraries to Canadian cities, including Ottawa in 1906. It was also active in the development of the Victorian Order of Nurses formed in 1897 with Lady Aberdeen as its first president. In the early twentieth century, it came more involved in the women’s suffrage movement. The National Council also supported the “famous five” Alberta women, all of who were Council members, in their fight in 1930 for women to become eligible persons to sit in the Senate of Canada. Other work over the years included efforts related to public health, equal pay for equal value, rights of children, and consumer protection. These and other initiatives have improved the lives of countless Canadians.
The Council’s work continues today educating the public and working with governments on a host of issues including human rights, reproductive technologies, violence against women, development assistance and disarmament.
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