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culture

Historicist: The Battle of the Belles

The 1966 East York municipal election saw two female incumbents, Beth Nealson and True Davidson, run for mayor.

Beth Nealson and True Davidson  The Toronto Star, October 11, 1966

Beth Nealson and True Davidson. The Toronto Star, October 11, 1966.

Always good for a colourful quote, East York Reeve True Davidson didn’t disappoint when the province announced in January 1966 that it would merge her township with the Town of Leaside, which was headed by Mayor Beth Nealson. “I think the real reason the Government decided to amalgamate our two municipalities,” Davidson observed, “is that the men didn’t want so many women around in politics and decided to get rid of one lady mayor.” The ensuing contest between the two female incumbents that December was, as the Star termed it, “a bombastic, free-wheeling affair.”

Following the Second World War, women ran for municipal office across what became Metropolitan Toronto in increasing numbers. None held the highest office in their municipalities until the 1953 elections, when Marie Curtis became reeve of Long Branch and Dorothy Hague won the same office in Swansea. Local media periodically addressed the growing number of women entering the fray, even if those articles bore titles like the Globe and Mail’s contribution to the 1962 campaign, “Women: The Reluctant Politicians.”

“The question that perplexes the handful of women on municipal governments in Metropolitan Toronto most,” reporter Margaret Cragg observed, “is not concerned with high finance or interpretation of legal matters but why more women are not in politics. The experience is exhilarating, they agree, and the opportunities for intelligent women capable of working hard are almost unlimited.”

Among those who admitted enjoying that exhilarating feeling in 1962 was Leaside councillor Beth Nealson, who became the town’s first female mayor that year. Urged to enter politics by colleagues in the local branch of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, Nealson won a seat on the Leaside Board of Education in 1951. Seven years later, she was elected to town council. At first it appeared she lost her 1962 mayoral campaign to Lloyd Dickinson by 14 votes, but a recount gave her a five-vote victory (Dickinson immediately declared he was done with politics, complaining he’d sacrificed up to $25,000 a year from his plastics business. His vow was short-lived, as he lost a 1964 rematch). Nealson, a.k.a. “Mrs. Leaside,” claimed she faced little discrimination in office: “With some of my colleagues there was never any difference,” she told the Star in 1964. “With others, everything was fine as soon as they got to know me and I established a reputation.”

Source: the Globe and Mail, December 28, 1962

Source: the Globe and Mail, December 28, 1962.

In neighbouring East York, True Davidson’s political career stretched back to activism within the CCF (the forerunner of the NDP) during the 1930s. After opening a private kindergarten, parents suggested she run for the township’s board of education in 1948 to campaign for similar publicly funded services. Within a year of her election, six kindergarten classes were launched in East York schools. She became the board’s first female chair in 1952. When she ran for council in 1958, Davidson believed the township required a master plan for its zoning bylaws. “East York should have planned development such as they have in European cities,” she observed. “We are small, compact and cohesive, and we could do a planning job that could be the envy of Canada.”

After her election as reeve in 1960, Davidson developed a reputation for sound bites. She wasn’t afraid to brutally criticize her colleagues. As one victim of her tongue, councillor Richard Horkins, noted, words poured out of Davidson “as hard as cannonballs. She always came right to the crunch point.” While many of her peers fought with Davidson, they respected her dedication to details and her intelligence.

At a speech she gave to the Association of Ontario Mayors and Reeves in 1962, Davidson, mixing quotations, humour, and her flair for poetry (she published a volume of work in her younger days), urged municipal politicians to use their oaths of office as positive motivation. One section of her speech remains relevant for current Toronto politics:

Perhaps we seek popularity, yield to flattery, hunger for power, bask in public notice and acclaim, or are blinded by our own self-importance . . . Some of us can be cowed by threats . . .Some of us are influenced by racial or religious predispositions . . . All of these constitute conflict of interest which can never be reached by the long arm and probing finger of the law. Only we can spot them, and at that only if we scrutinize our own conduct as severely as we scrutinize the government . . . Insofar as our ideals are high, we lift our municipalities with us. If they are low, we drag them down.

Both Davidson and Nealson fought against amalgamation plans proposed for Metro Toronto during the mid-1960s. Initially, a Royal Commission report issued by H. Carl Goldenberg recommended that Metro’s 13 municipalities shrink to four (Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough, and Toronto). Davidson lobbied hard to preserve East York, to the extent of quoting Jane Jacobs on how smaller entities could better fight City Hall. When the province released its final plan in January 1966, it included an enlarged East York as one of the five suburban boroughs alongside the City of Toronto.

Metropolitan Toronto Council, 1965. Beth Nealson is third from left in the second row; True Davidson is second from right in the back row. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 283.

Despite Davidson’s prediction that she and Nealson would smoothly integrate Leaside into East York before the new borough’s official birth on New Year’s Day 1967, there were a few bumps. “Women are the peace makers of the world,” Davidson told the Star. “If there is any trouble in my council I always apologize.” One sticking point that Nealson won was how councillors would be elected—Davidson wanted them voted at large, while Nealson preferred a ward system.

For several months, it was unknown if the two officials would face off to become the borough’s mayor. When amalgamation was announced, Davidson hinted at a gentleman’s agreement where she would be chief executive, while Nealson would run for council and sit as a representative on Metro Council. This played into one of Davidson’s weaknesses, which her biographer Eleanor Darke defined as a growing sense that “she began to care too much about remaining mayor.”

Nealson ended the suspense when she launched her mayoral campaign on October 5, 1966. Municipal planning was the backbone of her platform, which seemed unavoidable after a recent fight over a $20-million apartment project on the boundary of East York and Leaside. Nearby residents fought the development on Mallory Crescent all the way to the Ontario Municipal Board, where the proposal was rejected. Nealson echoed ratepayer groups in vowing to “protect single-family home areas from undesirable intrusion by high density apartments.” Davidson’s support for the development led to complaints from Leaside residents that she was arrogant, ignored ratepayer groups, and wielded power with an iron fist. They also feared that amalgamation would raise taxes and weaken infrastructure services. A third mayoral candidate, East York councillor Royden Brigham, hoped to coalesce anti-Davidson votes.

The media played up the contrasts between the female front-runners. The Globe and Mail observed that Davidson “conducts herself with the decorum of an empress,” while Nealson “fosters somewhat of a little-girl-lost air but her opponents know her as an able and shrewd politician.” (Brigham, for the record, was “a bespectacled stick of dynamite with a delayed fuse.”) The Star compared their breakfast habits and fashion sense: Davidson’s love of fancy hats (“I never throw them away. I retrim them”) and Nealson’s preference for suits and two-piece dresses (“I’m just not comfortable in a one-piece dress at a meeting”).

The campaign saw Davidson tear into her opponents. Things were particularly heated during a debate at William Burgess Elementary School on November 28. Davidson called Nealson “a wishy-washy prissy little sweetheart” who was dominated by her department heads. As for Brigham, who was a lawyer, she beamed that the borough had a job ready for him: “[O]ur solicitor needs a junior to assist him.” When the audience thought both women were too harsh toward Brigham, who believed he had been “clawed,” he was given extra rebuttal time. “Well, he is a defenseless man,” Davidson noted sarcastically. “All men are, you know.”

The next evening, at East York Collegiate, Davidson told voters that Nealson would win if the election was a beauty contest. “If you want someone beautiful and elegant or glamorous,” she joked, “I’m not that.” Davidson was helped to the platform and cut short her speech when she ran short of breath. She spent the rest of the campaign in room 126 of Toronto East General Hospital. While reports indicated she was suffering from “strain and a virus infection,” at least one later account attributed her hospitalization to a heart attack. Whatever happened was serious enough to have her isolated in intensive care. Brigham curtailed his campaign, while Nealson pressed on. “The ratepayers fill the rooms to hear the candidates and to deny them this would be entirely unfair,” noted Nealson. “I won’t make any critical comments about True, but then I never have.” Nealson had her own health issues, as she spent six weeks on antibiotics to combat a bronchial infection, which sapped her energy at several debates.

Picture of True Davidson from the cover of her book The Golden Strings (Toronto: Griffin House, 1973)

Picture of True Davidson from the cover of her book The Golden Strings (Toronto: Griffin House, 1973).

Voters went to the polls on December 5. Davidson sat in her hospital room surrounded by bouquets of chrysanthemums, including one sent by Nealson. Doctors had ordered quiet rest for Davidson, and prevented her from following results on radio and television. Inevitably, the count trickled in to her. Having told voters “I have nothing to give you but love,” the electorate responded in kind. Though Davidson’s support of the Mallory Crescent project cost her in Leaside, she won by a 4,000-vote margin over Brigham. Nealson finished third, less than 200 votes behind Brigham.

The phone in Davidson’s room was hooked up to the loudspeaker system at East York’s municipal’s offices, where a crowd of 70 waited to hear her. “Do any of you people really know how deeply touched I am by all of this?” she noted. As photographers entered her hospital room, Davidson applied lipstick and put on a pair of earrings. “Don’t think that just because I’m sick and feeble you’re going to get over there and shoot me from my bad side,” she joked. “I look like a ghost.” Brigham and Nealson also participated in the hookup—Brigham observed “the race was not too bad for a defenseless male,” while Nealson offered her help in launching the new borough.

During her recovery, Davidson tried to ease fears among Leaside residents and ratepayer groups that they would be totally subjugated by East York (“we don’t have the same chicken-swallowing tendency Toronto has”). As municipal employees were reassigned with the merger, so was office furniture, as Davidson wound up with Nealson’s old desk. Davidson remained mayor until 1972, after which she pursued a PhD in literature and Canadian history at York University and wrote a column for the Toronto Sun. When she died in 1978, the Star remembered her as “flamboyant but never frivolous.”

As for Nealson, she worked in PR for Metro and as a publicity co-ordinator for the Toronto Citizens’ Centenary Committee. She testified in front of East York Council in 1976 on the decaying state of the Thorncliffe Park apartment building she resided in, and blamed the neighbourhood’s decline on municipal neglect, poorly maintained parks, vandalism, and absentee landlords. When she died in 1994, her daughter admitted that Nealson had faced a rough time from male colleagues during her time in office. The Star’s obituary referred to the 1966 election campaign as the “Battle of the Belles.”

Both women are honoured with streets named after them, while Davidson’s name was bestowed upon a seniors residence.

Asked in 1962 what qualities women needed to succeed in politics, Davidson offered the following advice:

Any quality that makes for success in the home or the world of business is useful in public life. There is no experience that is not of value. I think a woman should like people, be articulate, have a public conscience, common sense, courage to try things and to have had a share of both pain and pleasure, being neither too sheltered nor embittered.

Additional material from Call Me True by Eleanor Darke (Toronto: Natural Heritage, 1997); the November 29, 1962, December 28, 1962, January 11, 1966, October 12, 1966, November 29, 1966, November 30, 1966, December 2, 1966, December 6, 1966, and December 9, 1966 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the December 3, 1964, March 4, 1966, October 5, 1966, October 11, 1966, November 29, 1966, December 1, 1966, December 2, 1966, December 6, 1966, May 18, 1976, September 19, 1978, and January 15, 1994 editions of the Toronto Star.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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