Here’s a quiz, so put on your thinking caps. Name 5 Canadian women whose achievements rank them as heroes and trailblazers, worthy of national recognition. It shouldn’t be hard. Canada’s women are a luminous group.
Painter Emily Carr? Laura Secord, the War of 1812-14 saviour? Agnes Macphail, first woman elected to Canada’s Parliament? Suffragette Nellie McClung or Emily Stowe, Canada’s first female medical doctor? In recent times Canada’s first female astronaut Roberta Bondar? Michaelle Jean, former Governor General? Some might nominate writers Margaret Laurence and Margaret Atwood.
Now that wasn’t hard, was it?
But it seems that Parks Canada, the government bureaucracy that oversees Canada’s National Historic Sites is firmly behind the barn door when it comes to honouring our female achievers. They number only 3 in Ontario: Mohawk poetess Pauline Johnson; domestic crusader Adelaide Hoodless and Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery.
Pauline Johnson and Chiefswood
West wind, blow from your prairie nest,
Blow from the mountains, blow from the west
The sail is idle, the sailor too;
O wind of the west, we wait for you!
“The Song my Paddle Sings” by Pauline Johnson
On a crisp Ontario winter day, your intrepid explorers are seen heading towards Brantford and Chiefswood, the childhood home of Canadian poetess Pauline Johnson.
Now you remember Pauline. You were introduced to her in a high school English class. An intriguing figure–a Canadian Indian princess who wrote poetry and gave “recitations.”
But much more lay behind the surface of Pauline than her striking good looks and romantic verse.
For here was a single woman, of First Nation blood, without fortune, making her way in a man’s world. And doing it with style and a hefty dose of chutzpah!
Born in 1861, Emily Pauline Johnson was the child of a mixed marriage. Her English mother had married Mohawk Chief of the Confederacy Council, George Henry Martin Johnson. Chief Johnson was aboriginal “royalty,” having descended from the legendary Hiawatha.
Pauline was educated at home in the English tradition. As a young woman, she devoured the poetry of the Romantic poets: Keats, Byron and Shelley. She wrote poetry too and published her first work in the journal Gems of Poetry while still in her teens.
Much to her parents’ chagrin, the theatre called Pauline, and she began appearing in amateur productions. In time she made her mark in the literary world, giving literary recitations of her own verse.
But this was a young woman savvy beyond her years. She took to giving her recitations as Tekahionwake, her Mohawk name. Decked out in buckskin and feathers and reciting her “Indian” poetry, she had crowds on their feet.
Soon Pauline was in demand across Canada, the United States and Great Britain. She was a celebrity and enjoyed the status that this gave her. Sadly, ill health curtailed Pauline Johnson’s career and she retired to Vancouver in 1909. She died of breast cancer in that city in 1913.
Pauline Johnson is regarded by some as the woman who opened the door for female writers in Canada. Other critics have dismissed her reputation as one based more on “showmanship.”
In 1992 Chiefswood was designated a National Historic Site. Set on a hill overlooking the Grand River the property is well worth a visit. If only to see the photographs displayed of the Mohawk Princess in full regalia.
Adelaide Hoodless and her Homestead
We’re remaining in Brant County to meet our second Ontario woman who has been honoured with a National Historic Site. She’s Adelaide Hoodless, celebrated around the world as the founder of the Women’s Institute movement.
What most do not know about the indomitable “Addie” is that she was also the driving force behind the founding of the MacDonald Institute at the University of Guelph, the YWCA, and The Victorian Order of Nurses (VON).
She too was responsible for Domestic Science (Home Economics) finding its way into Ontario school curriculum,
Adelaide Hunter, born in 1858 was one of 12 children. Four months before Addie’s birth, her father passed away, leaving her mother to raise the large Hunter brood and tend to the family farm.
With minimal secondary education, Addie escaped poverty by marrying businessman John Hoodless of Hamilton. And she moved up in the world. Were it not for a family tragedy, Addie Hoodless may have spent her days at tea parties and church socials.
The couple’s youngest child, John died at 14 months of what was known in those days as “the summer complaint.” It was so-named as the warm months seemed to bring more deaths to infants. We recognize it today as the outcome of babies drinking unpasteurized milk that had not been stored at a safe, cool temperature.
Adelaide was horrified when she learned the cause her baby’s death. She blamed her own ignorance of proper food storage, and vowed to save other mothers from a similar tragedy.
Over the coming years, Addie became a tireless crusader for better education for women. She urged them to “demand a knowledge of their own body,” and to “seek a knowledge of their social environment.”
At a meeting of the Farmer’s Institute of Ontario where she’d been invited to speak, Addie urged farm women to educate themselves. Out of her talk, evolved the Women’s Institute. From one chapter, it grew to 500, in Canada within 10 years.
Adelaide also worked tirelessly to include the teaching of Domestic Science (Home Economics) in every school in Canada. She then took her message to the university level, convincing wealthy businessman Sir William MacDonald to put up money to assist in her cause.
The MacDonald Institute at the University of Guelph opened its doors to students in 1903. It offered courses in Nature Study, Manual Training, Domestic Science and Domestic Art.
Fittingly when death came to Adelaide Hoodless, in 1910, it was while she was delivering one of her impassioned speeches to women.
Her family home, the Adelaide Hunter Hoodless Homestead was designated as a National Historic Site in 1995 and is open to the public. The space also serves as the Headquarters of the Women’s Institute of Canada.
Today there are Women’s Institute chapters in over 70 countries, with more than 9 million members.
Lucy Maud Montgomery and the Leaskdale Manse
“I cannot remember the time when I was not writing, or when I did not mean to be an author.” Lucy Maud Montgomery
Art surely imitates life in the case of Lucy Maud Montgomery. Born in 1874, in Prince Edward Island, Maud became a virtual orphan when her mother Clara died of tuberculosis less than 2 years after her birth.
Distraught, Maud’s father John Montgomery gave custody of his daughter to his in-laws, and moved to western Canada. Maud was raised by grandparents whose rules were rigid, whose love was restrained.
Not surprisingly she retreated into the world of books. They eased her profound loneliness.
By Maud’s teens she’d begun writing poetry and imagined herself a writer. But practicality won out. After high school, she achieved her teacher’s certification. Evenings were when joy visited young Maud. She routinely took pen to hand and wrote well into the night, primarily short stories and poems.
Maud’s life changed dramatically with the publication of her full-length book, Anne of Green Gables. Its success allowed her to leave teaching, an occupation she had not enjoyed.
Maud arrived in Ontario in 1911 as a preacher’s wife. She’d married Ewan MacDonald, a Presbyterian clergyman who’d been posted to the little hamlet of Leaskdale, in York County, Ontario. The little village was understandably “agog” with the arrival of such celebrity!
It wasn’t long before trouble was brewing in the MacDonald home. Ewan was given to “religious melancholia” (depression) which at times incapacitated him. The birth of the couple’s two sons, Chester and Stuart did little to ease Maud’s concerns about her increasingly distraught spouse.
Only Maud’s writing brought her fulfillment. Lucy Maud Montgomery completed half of her writing output, feet up, notebook and pen in hand on the sofa in the manse parlour.
To the delight of Maud scholars, she was also a faithful journal- writer, filling 10 volumes of her thoughts, fears and observations. These diaries reveal that Maud also suffered from periodic bouts of depression.
Maud and Ewan retired to Toronto in 1935. That year she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and was decorated by King George.
Lucy Maud Montgomery’s final years remained heart-wrenching ones, as both she and Ewan continued to struggle with mental illness. On April 24, 1942, she passed away, at age 67.
In recent years, her family have indicated that death came (voluntarily) from an overdose of sleeping “draught.”
The Lucy Maud Montgomery National Historic Site, her former Leaskdale home welcomes over 5000 visitors each year. The church where Ewan preached is also on their agenda. Visitors are sure to sit in the pew that was occupied by the preacher’s wife every Sunday for over 15 years.
Fascinating, capable Canadian women who transformed the society in which they lived and worked.
But only 3 National Historic Sites in Ontario to honour them? This is surely wrong.