“History is a conversation and sometimes a shouting match between present and past,
though often the voices we most want to hear are barely audible.”
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich


Canada’s story, at its beginning, comes into sharper, deeper, more colourful focus when the female perspective – the view of the mothers and daughters of Confederation – is added to it.

Canada’s first First Lady

For instance, while many Canadians may be familiar with their intellectually driven and hard-drinking first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, who features so prominently at the centre of the Fathers of Confederation, they may not know much, if anything at all, about his wife. And yet, the PM with the over-abundant hairstyle was a newlywed when he signed the document of Confederation, and yes, he may well have been in love.

So why not explore the story of the woman who was the object of the PM’s affection, namely his wife (of just mere months, in July 1867), Jamaican-born Agnes, who was tall, dark, and exotic? Agnes was a remarkable figure in Canadian history and “remains by far the most complex, most gifted, and, ultimately, the most tragic of all Canadian prime-ministerial wives” (S. Gwyn, The Private Capital, 190). (The Macdonalds’ only daughter, Mary, was born severely disabled, a circumstance that understandably would have been a source of great unhappiness to Agnes.)

Agnes(Library and Archives Canada.)

And why not focus also on Hortense Cartier, the wife of George-Étienne Cartier (John A. Macdonald’s Quebec ally and lieutenant)? She came from a prominent Montreal family, but, unlike Agnes, had a dreary relationship with her husband. And focus also on Luce Cuvillier, Cartier’s mistress and Hortense’s cousin, who wore long pants and smoked cigars. These women enjoyed proximity to power, the ability to whisper in their husbands’ (or lover’s) ears, and prominent and influential social positions.

So, bring in the women

Why not include, in other words, the stories of the women – the mothers and daughters of Confederation? Why not tell the stories of the women for whom a confederated Canada – stretching from coast to coast to coast – became a reality during their lives? And the stories of the women who were born during the last few decades of the 19th century and who were as young and coltish and eager to count as the country in which they grew up?

Women like Harriet Brooks, born in Exeter (Ontario) in 1876, who graduated from McGill to work with famed scientist Ernest Rutherford. Brooks was Canada’s first female nuclear physicist.

And like Clara Brett Martin, born in Toronto circa 1874, who took advantage of the 1892 Ontario Act to Provide for the Admission of Women to the Study and Practice of Law. Although questions about women’s ability to reason logically were not eliminated by the Act (McLaren et al., eds., Essays in the History of Canadian Law, Vol. 6, 511), Martin, having enlisted the help of prominent women of the time (including Lady Aberdeen, the wife of then Governor General Lord Aberdeen), in 1897 became the first licensed female lawyer in the British empire.

Women also like Sara Jeannette Duncan, born in Brantford (Ontario) in 1861. Duncan became one of a vigorous troupe of female journalists of the 1880s and 1890s (and later a novelist) who wrote women’s pages and society pages and who were what today we would call enviably connected. Duncan, as the first woman to express her support for suffrage in print, “made herself the bright and insouciant voice of the New Woman in Canada” (Fiamengo, The Woman’s Page 60). These women were able to harness the energy generated by and invested into the new Dominion.

Women on Wheels

The New Woman, coincidentally, was new when Canada was also new, and she helped shape the fledgling nation. She enjoyed greater freedom, more mobility, and less restraint to domesticity than her mother’s and grandmother’s generations. This change was particularly prominent in the New Woman’s increased presence in the public sphere (exemplified by Brooks, Martin, and Duncan, among others), and few implements signaled and symbolized this liberation more than the bicycle.


If the bicycle craze reached its peak in the late 19th century, some decades earlier, before Confederation, the mere idea of women on wheels would have been entirely preposterous. In particular, as a British colony, Canada was profoundly influenced by its monarch, and – well, the image of Queen Victoria on a bicycle is not one that readily springs to mind. That said, Confederation gave Canada the beginnings of a separate identity, and young Canada’s new women, like their American sisters, “wanted all the advantages of their brothers, asked for education, suffrage, and careers […] and freewheeled along a path that led to the twentieth century” (Marks, Bicycles, Bangs, and Bloomers 1-2).

Conservative values

As distinct a presence, however, as the New Woman was just a few decades after Canada’s Confederation, and as much as she helped usher Canada into the 20th century and beyond, the nation continued also to be shaped by women like the aging Agnes Macdonald, who were opposed to many of the ideas – like women’s suffrage – that circulated at the time. Agnes (below with her daughter Mary in a wheelchair), after John A.’s death, understandably appeared much more like the widowed and withdrawn Queen Victoria than like a woman eager to experience a new country and world.

Agnes_widow(Library and Archives Canada.)

The women of Confederation, then, were not all bright young things. And just like Confederation itself, as an ideological force, was “conservative, idealist, imperialist and nationalist” (McLeod), so many women were happy to cling to the values upheld by that Victorian classic, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, which instructed women to be, first and foremost, “perfectly conversant with all […] arts of making and keeping a comfortable home” (Fairfax ed., Mrs Beeton’s Household Book 7).


The emerging nation, consequently, was subject to, and ground for, women’s desires, hopes, dreams, abilities, and limitations of many, and often conflicting, kinds.

So who really were the women of Confederation? What motivated and energized, or disappointed and constrained them? What were the material things that made up their lives? What were the technological innovations that changed daily lives and routines? What were the ideas that inspired them, and the movements they resisted? The literature they read? The art they admired? The recipes they cooked and the housekeeping they practiced? Above all, how did their presence in 1867 and the decades thereafter help bring about the nation whose birthday we will celebrate soon?

These are the questions I will be exploring in my blog, with the help of regular (I hope) guest bloggers. My topic is deliberately broad, limited mainly by the timeframe – roughly from the mid 1860s to the turn of the century – to enable me to address as many facets as possible of the female dimension of the Confederation period and the decades that followed it.

Canada 150

Canada’s 150th birthday should indeed be an opportunity, as the parliamentary report stresses, to celebrate the events and people who “have shaped our history and contributed to our national identity.” That’s precisely what I am proposing to do in this blog, focusing on the female component in the shaping and contributing. Because the women were there. We just have to look at them. (In all fairness to the government’s plan, one milestone enroute to 2017 is the centennial of women’s suffrage in 2016.)

So, come visit. Often.



Sources and further reading

“Road to 2017.” Government of Canada. http://canada150.gc.ca/eng/1344275520795/1344275731901, accessed August 14, 2014.

Fairfax, Kay, ed., Mrs Beeton’s Household Book: An entertaining glimpse of upstairs & downstairs life in the Victorian home. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007.

Fiamengo, Janice. The Woman’s Page: Journalism and Rhetoric in Early Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

Gwyn, Sandra. The Private Capital: Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier. Toronto: Harper & Collins, 1989.

Marks, Patricia. Bicycles, Bangs, and Bloomers: The New Woman in the Popular Press. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1990.

McLaren, John, Hamar Foster, and David H. Flaherty. Essays in the History of Canadian Law, Vol. 6. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

McLeod, Les. “Canadian Post-Romanticism: the Context of Late Nineteenth-Century Canadian Poetry.” Canadian Poetry http://www.uwo.ca/english/canadianpoetry/cpjrn/vol14/mcleod.htm, accessed August 14, 2014.