One of the thoughts that inspired this series about Canadian women is the reflection that the average Canadian woman born in say the last fifty years rarely thinks of or appreciates how much her lot in life, her status as a woman has changed in the very recent past. True we still have much to accomplish before we will achieve complete equality, however, I doubt that any young woman who graduated from a Canadian high school last month worried that the institutions of further education she had applied to would dismiss her application on the grounds that she is a female. Picture a country where women like the inspiring Dr. Roberta Bondar would have been denied the right to higher education, because she is a woman! How many women today give thought to the fact that their great-grandmothers, and many of their grandmothers, lived in a country that did not allow them to own property in their own right? Consider that the privilege of voting has not yet been enjoyed by Canadian women for a whole hundred years.
“Women got the federal vote in three stages: the Military Voters Act of 1917 allowed nurses and women in the armed services to vote; the Wartime Election Act extended the vote to women who had husbands, sons or fathers serving overseas; and all women over 21 were allowed to vote as of January 1, 1919.Provincially, women were given the vote in 1916 in the four western provinces, in 1917 in Ontario, in 1918 in Nova Scotia, in 1919 in New Brunswick, in 1922 in Prince Edward Island, and in 1940 in Quebec.” (Source: Canada A Country by Consent: World War I: Women Get the Vote 1916-1919 ) (It should be mentioned this right did not extend to Native men or women, it was not until several years later that Any Native person in Canada had the right to vote federally or provincially.)
It may sound long but in reality one hundred years, ten decades, is not a great span of time. We have made major advances in the rights of women in these ninety-seven years, however, we did so by building on the strong foundation that the passion and achievements of the women who came first laid for us. Those women who devoted substantial portions of their lives to this struggle for equality, at a time when there must have been moments of despair in which it seemed no progress would ever be made. There are women today who continue to be inspirations, heroines and champions, and they too are leaving their mark on this ongoing struggle. We owe All of these women, past and present, and those who will step forward in coming years, our respect, admiration and gratitude.
So today we turn back the pages of our country’s history and profile a woman who is remarkable not only for all she advocated for and accomplished, but for simply being willing to voice her objections to the norm, to speak up against the inequality she saw around her. Thanks to that willingness Not to conform, not to passively accept the status quo, she played an instrumental role in shaping the way in which the women of Canada are treated to this day!
Dr. Emily Stowe!
“As educated citizens, as moral and loving women, [we] desire to be placed in a position to impress directly our thought upon our nation and time.” — Dr. Emily Stowe
“My career has been one of struggle, attended by that sort of persecution which falls to the lot of everyone who pioneers a new movement or steps out of line with established custom.” — Dr. Emily Stowe
Emily Howard Jennings was born May 1st 1831 in Upper Canada (now the province of Ontario) to Hannah Howard and Solomon Jennings.
Fortunately for Emily (and the women of Canada) Hannah Howard was a Quaker and raised her six daughters in that faith and its liberal beliefs in education. Hannah had attended a school in Providence Rhode Island and was distressed at the inadequacies of the local educational facilities. She therefore educated her daughters at home and evidently was very successful in her efforts.
At the age of fifteen Emily began teaching at a school in a nearby town. After seven years she first applied to Victoria College where she was refused on the grounds of being a woman, then applied to The Normal School For Upper Canada located in Toronto.
Here her application was accepted and in November of 1853 she began her formal education. She graduated with first class honours in 1854. She then applied for and obtained the position of principal in a public school in Brantford Ontario, thereby becoming Canada’s first female public school principal!
In the next decade she met and married her husband, John Fiuscia Michael Howard Stowe, retired (as was then mandatory) and moved to Mount Pleasant where John was a successful carpenter and carriage maker. Three children were born to the couple, and all appeared to be set for a fairly typical life of that era.
In 1865 John Stowe became ill with tuberculosis which reanimated Emily’s early interest in medicine.
There is some evidence that Hannah Howard was a healer and possibly a midwife. Apparently a family friend may have also taught Emily herbalism and homeopathy in the 1840s. She wished to add to this early store of knowledge and after a failed attempt to support her family by a return to teaching (by then John had been moved to a sanatorium) Emily turned her formidable attention to furthering her medical education.
In 1865 she applied to the Toronto School Of Medicine. The vice-president of the University of Toronto told her: “The doors of the University are not open to women and I trust they never will be.”
Emily’s undaunted reply?
“Then I will make it the business of my life to see that they will be opened, that women will have the same opportunities as men.”
And she was as good as her word.
Emily went to New York where she attended The New York Medical College For Women.
“She studied under Dr. Clemence Lozier, a former teacher who had obtained the charter for her medical school with the aid of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Since New York’s Bellevue Hospital welcomed the help of women medical students during the Civil War, Stowe was allowed, despite male medical student displeasure, to participate in its clinics and learn dissection.”
After graduating in 1867 Dr. Stowe returned to Toronto and began practicing, making her Canada’s first practicing doctor. However, during the 1860s there were some changes made in the laws governing the practice of medicine in Canada and it soon became a requirement for a physician who had been trained abroad to attend classes and pass exams set by a Canadian medical school in order to obtain a now necessary medical license. Thanks to admirable persistence on the part of the two women (and one imagines a long and unpleasant series of negotiations) , arrangements were made for Emily Stowe and Jenny Trout to attend classes at The Toronto School Of Medicine.
The two women persisted in doing so in spite of the efforts of students and faculty to intimidate and discourage them. For reasons that are unclear (although some have claimed it was a gesture of protest) Dr. Stowe refused to sit her final exams in spite of having completed the necessary course work. (Jenny Trout did sit them and thereby became Canada’s first licensed female doctor.)
When she first opened her practice Dr. Stowe successfully stimulated interest in woman’s health through public lectures, and by advertising in local newspapers her practice continued to grow. In 1880 without her having requested it she was finally granted a licence to practice medicine, “on the grounds that, counting her childhood homeopathic apprenticeship, she had been in medicine since before 1850“.
In 1879 Dr. Stowe used her influence on family friend Dr. Samuel Nelles, the principal of Victoria College to obtain admission for her daughter Augusta to the Toronto School Of Medicine. Four years later Augusta graduated, making her the first woman doctor to be trained in Canada.
“dis-enfranchisement always meant not only political degradation but social, moral and industrial degradation as well.” — Susan B. Anthony (Toronto City Hall 1889)
While Dr. Stowe studied in New York her interest in the suffrage movement was kindled. Upon returning to Canada she began expressing this interest, and in 1876 founded the Toronto Women’s Literary Club. In 1883 this group was reorganized and became the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association.
“Members prepared papers on women’s professional achievements, education, and the vote. The Literary Club campaigned successfully to improve women’s working conditions. Stowe lectured on “Women’s Sphere” and “Women in the Professions.” She said that a woman “ought to understand the laws governing her own being.” Because of pressure by the Literary Club, some higher education in Toronto was made available to women—though Stowe protested that the medical course first planned for women was substandard.”
Although an injury in the 1890s forced Dr. Stowe to retire from the practice of medicine she continued to support the causes of women until her death in 1903. Sadly it was another fourteen years before any Canadian woman had the right to vote, and another sixteen years before all Canadian women obtained that right.
Dr. Stowe was supported by and worked with many remarkable women when championing the cause of women’s rights, and we owe them all a debt of gratitude for the way in which they helped shape the country Canadian women currently have the privilege of living, working and voting in. Still, a very special vote of thanks should go to Dr. Emily Howard Stowe, for refusing to allow herself to be ruled by what was expected, and for the significant contribution she made in making these changes a reality!
We hope you have enjoyed meeting this magnificent woman from Canada’s past, and will again join us next Friday when we present our last profile in this series of memorable Canadian Women.
Resources for this article and Links of Interest:
- My thanks to the UU Dictionary of Biography for there article on Emily Stowe . It was an invaluable resource and the source of the quotes in this post.
- The ARCHIVED Dr. Emily Howard Stowe – Famous Canadian Physicians – Library and Archives Canada was also of great assistance.
- The article in Wikipedia was also of some help although it appears (from the other sources) to have gotten some of its facts wrong, and presents speculations as facts. Emily Stowe