The Women of Confederation

Canadian women from 1865-1900

Category: Political wives

Diplomatic Lady

“She was a shy woman.”
Harold Nicholson about Lady Dufferin

In July 1872, a new wind began to blow in Ottawa that swept though all of Canada – which had grown to span the continent from coast to coast – and that emanated from Rideau Hall. Between 1867 and 1872, during the tenures of governors general Lords Monck and Lisgar, official Ottawa had been quite informal, according to contemporary sources (though Agnes Macdonald had found Lady Lisgar a bit chintzy). All that changed when the Dufferins arrived, who brought to Canada a grand social energy that bestowed a sparkle on the rough new Dominion it had not had before.

As the new governor general’s consort, Lady Dufferin – Hariot Georgina Rowan Hamilton – was not ‘Canadian’ but a diplomat’s wife, yet her interest and influence in Canada make her a Woman of Confederation. (Canadian citizenship, in any case, did not exist then; ‘Canadians,’ like the Dufferins, were British subject.)

Dufferin Source: New York City Public Library.

Falling in Love with Ottawa

Lady Dufferin, born in 1843 in a Norman castle in Northern Ireland and nurtured in grand estates, found that rough little Ottawa, and Canada, “agreed with her” (S. Gwyn, Private Capital 163). Following his stint in Ottawa, Lord Dufferin, with Hariot by his side, went on to a splendid career, serving as ambassador to St. Petersburg, Constantinople, Rome, and Paris, and as viceroy in India, the jewel in the imperial crown, yet of all these postings, it was Canada that captured Lady Dufferin’s heart.

Her stay in Ottawa started ominously. After landing in Quebec, and immediately being “charmed” by the city and everything else she saw en route to the capital (Dufferin 3), she found that the “first sight of Rideau Hall did lower our spirits.” The access road to the building was “rough and ugly” and the house itself “at the land’s end” and without a view (4). Not twelve hours later, however, Lady Dufferin had already cheered up: “I dare say that in winter this place looks lovely! Our house is, they say, very warm and comfortable, and the Houses of Parliament which, after all, I do see from my windows are very beautiful … so why did I grumble? We have driven in state through the town, and have visited the Government buildings. I was delighted with the Senate, and with the Library, a large, circular room. When the House is sitting I may come and listen to debates” (4).

Political Observer

And that is exactly what she did. Like Agnes Macdonald before her, Lady Dufferin was a regular visitor to the Ladies’ Gallery in the House, actively following Canadian politics and staying, if necessary, into the early hours of the morning. She gained a reputation for animatedly reporting the proceedings to her husband (who by law was prevented from attending the debates to ensure his non-partisanship), and even acting out the speeches and gestures of individual speakers.

DufferinsLord and Lady Dufferin.

She immersed herself in Canadian life, doing charitable work and organizing amateur theatre – she herself was an enthusiastic actress – that had a “galvanic effect” on Ottawa and “spread through the town like a wild-fire” (S. Gwyn, Private Capital 174). She also threw more parties and travelled further and wider in Canada than any woman in her position had done before, ever “impatient to see more of the country and the people” (8-9). She was the first Governor General’s consort to accompany her husband on his tours.

Travel, Travel, and More Travel

Looking back to the 1870s from our current perspective, one has to admire the stamina needed to undertake all those voyages at a time when travel was anything but fast and easy. In 1872, Lady Dufferin visited Quebec and Tadoussac (where the Dufferins chose to build a summer house) as well as Toronto and Hamilton. In 1873, while pregnant with their sixth child, she went to Montreal as well as, after the birth of a daughter in May, to the Maritimes, celebrating in Charlottetown Prince Edward Island’s entry into Confederation.

In 1874, while Lady Dufferin was pregnant again (with their seventh and last child), she toured Ontario, delighting in rustic accommodations and tents “spread with fir-boughs, which are laid down most carefully and scientifically by the men, and make a most delightful carpet and spring mattress” (168). In 1876, the Dufferins went to British Columbia, having to rely on American rail lines (Canada’s Pacific Railway was far from completed), and in 1877 they toured Manitoba, also accessible only by American rail (and boat). Before departing Canada in 1878, they squeezed in a trip to the Eastern Townships. Just about everywhere she went, Lady Dufferin enjoyed the beautiful scenery and pleasant, friendly people. The very air she found “delicious,” feeling overall “so well and cheerful!” (12).

The Joys of Winter

Even Ottawa’s cold climate, though warranting several entries in Lady Dufferin’s journal and thus apparently a matter of some concern, did not really put her off. On one occasion she wrote, “the thermometer was 10 below zero, but the day was bright, and we did not feel the cold at all” (49). One simply “wraps oneself up like a mummy,” she declared, “and drapes one’s face in an indispensable and most becoming cloud [a long wool scarf draped round and round], and thus defies the weather” (127). Her winter-hardiness alone should make us conclude that “Lady Dufferin is one of us” (Fowler 218).

Dufferin_cloud Lady Dufferin wearing a ‘cloud.’

In later life, she suffered a series of heavy blows. Her eldest son was killed in the Boer War, another in WWI, and her third son died in an accident in 1930; her husband died in 1902, having lost his entire fortune. She lived until 1936.

A Sense of Duty

The woman that emerges from Lady Dufferin’s Canadian Journal, though, is one that impresses through its enthusiasm, optimism, sheer physical health and vigor, vivacity, and the ability to have fun. That she was prepared to be such a public persona (not just accompanying her husband but occasionally also filling in for him) is all the more remarkable as she was, at heart, private. The mark she left on Canada – through involvement in politics, federal-provincial relations, social and creative activities – is a measure, therefore, not just of her lively interest in the Dominion, but also of her sense of responsibility and duty.

 

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Works Cited

Dufferin and Ava, The Marchioness of. My Canadian Journal. London: John Murray, 1891.

Fowler, Marian. The Embroidered Tent: Five Gentlewomen in Early Canada. Toronto: Anansi, 1982.

Gwyn, Sandra. The Private Capital: Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier. Toronto: Harper and Collins, 1984. Print.

First Wife

“I do so like to identify myself with all my Husband’s pursuits & occupations.”
Agnes Macdonald, Diary

Agnes.

Agnes the good, the care-taker, the preserver of him who was the hero, the arranger of domestic order and calm, the sayer of prayers. Agnes of God.

Agnes the shrew, the nay-sayer, the destroyer of all fun, the abstainer from booze (though he liked it), the enforcer of rules. Agnes the moralizer. Agnes of sourness and boredom.

Who was She?

Historians and biographers have long tried to figure out Agnes Macdonald, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s wife (and the new Canadian Dominion’s first ‘first lady’), ascribing to her a curious split – or double – personality: one, the vivacious, attentive, caring wife; the other, the humourless battle-axe inclined to stern judgments. That inability to pin Agnes down – and the consensus about her perceived multiple personality disorder – say as much about the apparent unease that has met political wives, and perhaps particularly prime ministers’ wives, in the nation’s mind, as they do about the complex character of Agnes.

Imacon Color Scanner Source: Library and Archives Canada.

Agnes Macdonald, Political Wife

A recent biography of Sir John A. credits Agnes – if perhaps somewhat grudgingly and born out of the trend to acknowledge more women in historical texts – as “a Mother of Confederation” (R. Gwyn 18). The label appears to be ‘official’ recognition of the person and role of the politician’s wife. Agnes is portrayed as always attentive to her husband’s needs and, through her care, even as having extended his life by the decade and a half he needed “to give the country a spine” (26). Even so, the split-personality view of Agnes (with all its unsympathetic characterizations) is perpetuated yet again.

Agnes certainly was closest to the centre of the whirlwind that was post-Confederation Canada. She was, after all, married to John A., but she owed her (perhaps privileged) position as much to her intimate relationship with the nation builder himself as to her own intelligence, interest in politics, and attraction to power.

During both of Macdonald’s tenures as premier, Agnes regularly attended sessions in the House of Commons. Seated in the Ladies’ Gallery, she was able to observe the proceedings (as well as to be observed in her attendances; there could be no question that she kept herself informed!). She even communicated messages and the political mood among the ladies present to her husband using the sign language they both had learned (Newman 10).

As early as July 5, 1867, just days after Confederation, Agnes noted with wry humour in her diary, “Here – in this house – the atmosphere is so awfully political that sometimes I think the very flies hold Parliament on the kitchen tablecloths.” The comment isn’t just amusing. It also exposes as well as destabilizes the strict division between public and private space (that applied particularly to women), highlighting Agnes’s astute awareness of her ‘place.’ More so, in politicizing the kitchen, the very centre of domesticity, Agnes defines her domestic situation as “an active site of political negotiation and influence” (Sutherland, “Peace, Order” 108).

Agnes_reading Source: Library and Archives Canada.

In addition to her function in the politics of Canada – and her influence through her role as John A.’s confidante in the “political experience” of marriage (Rose 7) – Agnes also actively built the nation through her involvement in the church and in charitable organizations, such as the Ottawa Orphans’ Home. This engagement, providing examples of female participation in the public sphere, contributed to the production of civic society in the new Dominion.

Perhaps Agnes provokes a certain amount of hostility in commentators because as a woman who was highly intelligent, intellectually curious, serious-minded, and at times rather stern, she does not conform to traditional ideas of femininity. And perhaps political wives, unless they are more or less invisible, are bound to be controversial because of their closeness to power.

An Itinerant Life

Curiously, despite the uncertainties of political life, the 24 years of Agnes’s marriage to John A. were perhaps the most sedentary and stable in her life. Born Susan Agnes Bernard in 1836 to plantation owner parents in Jamaica, she experienced a series of upheavals before coming to Canada with her mother in 1854: her father’s death in 1850; farewells to two brothers whom she would never see again; a move to Britain; a further uprooting in the move to Canada. In Canada, Agnes and her mother lived with Agnes’s lawyer brother, Hewitt, who had become Macdonald’s private secretary. The job involved moving repeatedly while the government alternated locations between Toronto, Quebec City, and finally Ottawa (in 1865 – Agnes and her mother were not attracted to Ottawa; they chose to go to England instead).

Following a whirlwind romance in late 1866 to early 1867, the spinster – Agnes was thirty at the time – and the widower – Macdonald had been married before, to Isabella Clark, who had died in 1857 – were married. They had one daughter, Mary, who was born disabled and who required special care throughout her life. After Sir John A.’s death in 1891, Agnes and Mary went to live in Europe, where “they were wanderers and would continue to be such for the rest of Agnes’ life” (Reynolds 150). Agnes died in England in 1920.

Agnes_Mary Agnes and baby Mary, June 1869. Source: Library and Archives Canada.

Love and Grief

In all her undertakings, Agnes was, first, John A.’s wife. She was not just interested in her “husband’s pursuits & occupations,” as she says in her diary (July 7, 1867), and not just attentive to his wellbeing, but also “head over heels in love with her brilliant husband” (S. Gwyn 192). Seen through her eyes, the intellectually edgy prime minister emerges “laughing like a schoolboy with his hands in his pockets, and his head thrown back” (July 7, 1867) or enjoying a quiet evening reading on the sofa, while Agnes rests her head on his shoulder (November 17, 1867).

How painful would it be for her to find that her contribution to Canada’s story has gone “largely unrecognized” (Sutherland, “‘Good Housekeeping’” 36). And how much more painful to find that history assesses her marriage as one of “convenience,” and John A.’s feelings for her as ones of “respect” and “loyalty” but “never stronger than these” (R. Gwyn 17, 25-26)?

It is equally possible that the easy affection Agnes and John A. shared early in their marriage was ground down by the tragedy of having a severely disabled child, as well as turned into a perhaps more profound but also more burdensome kind of love by the strain and effort invested by both, in different ways, into building a nation.

 

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Sources and further reading

Gwyn, Richard. Nation Maker Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times, Volume II: 1867-1891, Toronto: Vintage Canada Editions, 2011.

Gwyn, Sandra. The Private Capital: Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier. Toronto: Harper and Collins, 1984. Print.

Macdonald, Agnes. Diary, 1867-75; 1883. LAC. Macdonald Papers, MG26A, Vol. 559A.

Newman, Lena. The John A. Macdonald Album. Plattsburg: Tundra, 1974.

Reynolds, Louise. Agnes: The Biography of Lady Macdonald. Ottawa: Carleton UP, 1990. Print.

Rose, Phyllis. Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. New York: Random House, 1983.

Sutherland, Robin. “‘Good Housekeeping’: Agnes Macdonald Writes About Home and Parliament in Nineteenth-Century Canada.” Studies in Canadian Literature 29.1 (Spring 2004): 35-49. Print.

—. “Peace, Order, and ‘Good Housekeeping’: Feminine Authority and Influence in Lady Agnes Macdonald’s Canada.” Diss. University of New Brunswick, 2009.

Zeller Thomas, Christa. “Proximity to Power: Relationality in Agnes Macdonald’s Diary.” Conference paper, 7th IABA: Life Writing and Intimate Publics, Brighton, UK, 2010.