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Three of the women who graduated from University College in 1885, members of the first graduating class that included women: from left to right, Margaret Langley, May Bell Bald, and Ella Gardiner. Two daughters of the Globe publisher George Brown, Margaret and Catherine, also graduated in 1885, but their pictures were not included in the composite.
Image courtesy Great Past, University of Toronto

Fairly Determined

Members of the so-called gentler sex were banned from attending classes until 1884. But once women set foot in the classroom, there was no stopping them

If women had a place at U of T during its first 40 years, it was somewhere on its dusky perimeters. The newly created university served as a bright light for the men of Canada West, but – as at most educational institutes of the day – women remained eclipsed in its shadows.

While King’s College (the precursor to U of T) began welcoming gentlemen scholars in 1843, its doors remained firmly shut to females until the fall of 1884. In the meantime, women had to be content with a series of feeble inroads: in 1877, they were permitted to write admissions exams to U of T, but, paradoxically, could not attend lectures. They were also welcome to write end-of-year exams – if they could afford the costly private tutors necessary to prepare themselves for the tests. And in 1881, they began competing for scholarships, although the award money had to be directed to private tutors.

By 1884, the quiet demand for women’s admission to U of T had swelled to a clamour. The president at the time, Daniel Wilson, was averse to coeducation, and instead rallied publicly for a separate women’s college in the tradition of Oxford and Harvard (although he did not try to launch such an institute). But on March 5, 1884, a provision was passed by the Ontario legislative assembly to admit women to U of T. The first three entered on Oct. 6, 1884; eight more soon joined them. The 11 female students had no access to a reading room, a residence or library catalogues; there wasn’t even a women’s washroom on campus. Nonetheless, they soon emerged from the shadows at U of T to kindle their own unwavering lights.

First Woman to Attend a Lecture
The first woman to attend a University of Toronto lecture was invited not on the basis of her academic skills, but her height. Catherine Brown was the youngest daughter of George Brown, founder of The Globe newspaper and a prominent politician. Her well-to-do family was close to U of T president Daniel Wilson, and as a young girl Catherine had begged Wilson to allow her to attend his lectures. He flippantly answered that when she was as tall as he was, he would permit her to sit in. Wilson likely hadn’t counted on Catherine inheriting her father’s tall, lanky frame, but when she sprouted an inch above the president, he compromised: she and her older sister, Margaret, could listen to his anthropology lectures through the open door of his office next to the lecture room, where they would be concealed from the lascivious eyes of the young men.

The anthropology lectures were the only classes Catherine and Margaret ever attended. Even after women were welcomed at U of T in 1884, the sisters continued receiving private lessons in their father’s opulent mansion in midtown Toronto. Did they feel oppressed in their domestic surroundings and long for a return to the larger academic world just beyond the elegant walls? There are no records of their thoughts or feelings. Catherine and Margaret were among the first five women graduates in 1885, and both received bachelor of arts degrees in modern languages. Afterward, they returned with their family to their homeland of Scotland, eventually marrying and having children.


Fighter for Women’s Admission to U of T

Described in a 1915 newspaper article as “a young woman of delicate frame and modest mien, and quite the antithesis of militant womanhood,” Eliza Balmer was actually an intrepid leader in the fight for women’s admission to U of T. One of the first females to attend classes in 1884, Balmer won several scholarships and graduated with a BA in modern languages and philosophy in 1886.

In 1883, Balmer petitioned the university to allow women to attend lectures and rallied 11 other women to do the same. (They campaigned with a series of politely worded letters and were rejected with equally courteous refusals.) That same year, through an intermediary, Balmer asked philosophy professor George Paxton Young for permission to attend his lectures. Young replied that he would accept her, and the university president “would have the onus of ordering her out.” Although the account is probably spurious, legend has it that Balmer did attend the classes – and was greeted with boos from a small number of males, cheers from the majority.

In 1891 Balmer became one of the first female teachers at Harbord Collegiate in Toronto, as well as the head of its department of modern languages. However, in her later years she suffered from what were thought to be nervous breakdowns and died of pellagra in her late 40s.

First Woman Lawyer

When Clara Martin was a law student living in a Toronto boarding house, a young male resident denounced her as a “very odd sort of woman.” His observation seemed to rest on her penchant for riding a bicycle – eyebrow-raising behaviour for a well-bred lady in the late 1800s. This wasn’t her first, or last, act of social impropriety, however. Martin – who graduated with a math degree in 1890 and a bachelor of civil law degree in 1897 from Trinity College, and an LLB in 1899 from U of T – succeeded in becoming the first woman lawyer in the British Empire. Her road was often a difficult, lonely one. “I was looked upon as an interloper, if not a curiosity,” said Martin of her articling days at a Toronto law firm. “The clerks avoided me and made it as unpleasant for me as they possibly could.”

Martin was also the first female student at Osgoode Hall Law School. In 1891, the Law Society of Upper Canada had informed her that admission to Osgoode was restricted to “persons” – and under the British North America Act, women did not qualify as such. With the help of Oliver Mowat, premier and attorney-general of Ontario, Martin galvanized the legislature into passing an 1892 act granting women access to the law school. She entered Osgoode the following year and was called to the Bar of Ontario in February 1897.

After working as a law clerk at two Toronto firms, Martin opened her own private practice. In 1923, at the age of 49, she died of a heart attack. Recalling her difficult path, and the stoicism of her early student years, Martin once said, “Were it not that I set out to open the way to the bar for others of my sex, I would have given up the effort long ago.”

Mother-Daughter Duos
Jennie Stork Hill (BA 1890), one of the first female students admitted to U of T in 1884, attained an enviable set of goals for a turn-of-the-century woman: she became a published poet, a teacher and president of the Edmonton Council of Women. She also reportedly harboured a desire to be an architect, a dream that took root in her daughter, Esther Hill, who succeeded in becoming the first woman architect in Canada. As a young girl, Hill stumbled upon a book on English homes and dreamed of designing similar creations. But years later, when she sought career advice from the professor of architecture at the University of Alberta, he discouraged her from entering the trade – counsel the strong-minded teenager rejected. In 1920 Hill earned an architecture degree from U of T, then completed postgraduate work in town planning at the university. She worked as an architect in Edmonton and, over her lifetime, also served as a draftsperson, printer and master weaver.

In 1880, 16-year-old Helen Gregory – in long gloves and a bustled gown – was presented as a debutante in Toronto. Little did the city’s gentry suspect that the young socialite would soon become one of the first woman judges in Canada. A talented musician and one of the first two women to graduate from Trinity College, Gregory earned a bachelor of music degree in 1886, followed by a BA in 1889 and an MA in 1890.

Gregory served as judge of the Juvenile Court in British Columbia for 22 years, fighting to improve the legal status of women and children through marriage-act amendments and laws governing mothers’ allowances, old-age pensions and welfare. Before entering the Canadian courts, she was a newspaper correspondent, who once flew to Japan to report on its social conditions. She also published books, including News and the Human Interest Story.

Elsie Gregory MacGill was more mechanically minded than her mother, Helen. As a child she was a self-proclaimed “Miss Fix-It” who dreamed of becoming a radio engineer before turning her attention to aircraft design. The first Canadian woman to receive an electrical engineering degree (at U of T, in 1927), and a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering (at the University of Michigan, in 1929), MacGill designed, built and produced aircraft. The best-known planes that she worked on include the Hawker Hurricane fighters, used by the Royal Air Force in Britain during the Second World War, and the Helldiver fighters, commissioned for the United States Navy. In her late 30s, she opened her own aeronautical consulting firm.

Shortly after finishing her studies at the University of Michigan, doctors discovered that MacGill was suffering from polio and told her she would likely spend her life in a wheelchair. “I didn’t want to live, but I did,” she said. MacGill taught herself how to walk with canes – and, three years later, sold her wheelchair.

Like her mother, MacGill championed women’s rights, serving as a member of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. She also wrote a biography, My Mother, the Judge, tended her cherished rose garden and tolerated a media fascinated with her presence in a male-dominated field. (One Toronto Star headline from 1940 proclaimed, “She Talks Plane Design Like It Was [A] Recipe for Pie.”) “I didn’t think it was any more remarkable for a woman to be a judge than it is for me to be an engineer,” said MacGill in an interview shortly before her death at age 75. “What’s the big deal?” In 1983, she was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.

First Women Professors
During the First World War, Clara Benson unearthed an unlikely connection between food and explosives: their chemical properties, she found, could be analysed using the same methods. Comparing, say, a tomato and mortar powder was a novel idea, and munitions labs quickly adopted her tools for analysis.

Benson’s achievements in science harked back to the turn of the century: in 1903 she graduated with a PhD in physical chemistry, one of the first two women at U of T to receive a doctorate. But few research opportunities existed for women chemists, so Benson became a demonstrator in food chemistry at the School of Household Science. In principle, the program was not one she agreed with, but she quickly rose to the position of lecturer. In 1906, when the school was designated as a full-fledged faculty, Benson and principal Annie Laird became the university’s first associate professors.

Unlike Benson, Laird – a graduate in household science from Drexel Institute in Philadelphia – had always been a strong supporter of the course, and felt that it “should be regarded by the pupils and the general public not only as a school of cooking, but a combination between art and science.” Laird headed the Faculty of Household Science for 34 years, although she was never granted the title of dean; instead she was referred to as the faculty’s “director” or “secretary.”

Annie Laird and Clara Benson earned groundbreaking titles in 1920, however: they became the first female professors at the University of Toronto – 36 years after women were first admitted to U of T.

The author would like to acknowledge Anne Rochon Ford’s A Path Not Strewn with Roses as a helpful resource.

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  1. 2 Responses to “ Fairly Determined ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I was unhappy, however, not to see any mention of my great-aunt, Edith Curzon in this article. I feel that she qualified for mention. Edith Curzon’s mother, Sarah Anne Curzon, was a tireless campaigner for women’s admission to U of T.

    Peter Curzon
    BA 1954 TRIN, MA 1956

  3. Alan GM Burns says:

    Very interesting article! I discovered it while trying to find out how many women attended U of T in 1905. My grandmother was Lucy May Rankin, a U of T graduate. She married Charles Montgomery Teasdale, another graduate.