Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Adopting traditionally male roles during the war, women learn to shoot, Long Branch camp, 1915. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 981.
At the turn of the twentieth century, a number of prominent women in temperance unions, religious associations, and welfare societies realized that a way to achieve their objectives in reforming society and achieving equality of status was to seek their right to cast a ballot on election day. Through the tireless efforts of suffragettes, and the impact of the First World War, during which women assumed a range of traditionally male roles in factories, offices, and on sales floors, the women’s movement achieved a measure of success by the war’s close. Ontario women became entitled to vote in provincial elections on April 2, 1917—and entitled to run for office on April 24, 1919.
The next question for organizations like the National Women’s Council of Canada—which represented middle-class efforts at reform—was to determine what impact women’s suffrage would have on the political system. The National Equal Franchise Union tried to convince the NCWC to establish a Women’s Party. But, after some debate and the realization that all political parties were eager to woo the new block of female voters, the NCWC opted to remain non-partisan. The Council released a Women’s Platform in 1917 outlining, for all parties to address, some issues of primary importance to women, such as mothers allowances and marriage reform, as well as the Council’s female perspective on issues of broader importance to all Canadians, including immigration, medical inspections at schools, and vocational education. A large portion of the 1917 platform promoted educating the newly enfranchised and encouraged “the candidature of persons of high character.”
For Toronto women, the first opportunity to stand for public office came that December with the annual municipal elections. Mrs. Constance Eaton Hamilton, who had been associated with the NCWC as chair of its agricultural committee, stood as an aldermanic candidate in Toronto’s Ward Three. Miss Clara Brett Martin, one of the only women practising law in the city, ran for alderman in Ward Two. Municipal election campaigns, which ran briefly from a mid-December nomination meeting until ballot-casting on January 1, were mostly undramatic in those days. But the press took even less interest in the pioneer politicians than one might’ve expected for their historic campaigns. The most substantial coverage came the day after their nomination, when a Star reporter asked Martin: “Will you prefer to be called Alderman or Alderlady?'”
Globe article from December 24, 1919.
At a public meeting held at Winchester Hall on December 22, 1919, two women candidates for alderman were included among all the other publicly announced nominations for elected municipal offices for the first time. It ought to have been a historic occasion. But so few actual voters showed up to the meeting that the returning officer dispensed with any and all speeches. After being nominated by the the Board of Education’s Dr. John Noble, there was no opportunity for Martin to speak to kick off her unsuccessful bid for alderman. Nor was there for Hamilton after being nominated by Florence Huestis, the adopted scion of the socially prestigious Gooderham clan, an advocate for public health initiatives, and a leader in the women’s movement. As soon as all the nominations were made, the assembly was quickly dismissed.
Having served as president of the Equal Franchise League as well as the National Suffrage Organization, Hamilton was a leader of the women’s movement in Toronto. Her lack of a formal occupation, however, led to the Star referring to her as “lady”—or “married woman” the following year—in that paper’s annual listing of all the candidates. And her all-too-brief entry in the newspaper article, listing only her name, occupation, and address, did little to illustrate her credentials as a candidate or her personal achievements.
Born in Yorkshire, England, in 1862, Hamilton was educated by private tutors and musically trained in Germany before immigrating to Vancouver with her parents in 1887. There, she met Lachlan Alexander Hamilton.
A much older man, he had surveyed much of Vancouver for the Dominion’s Office of the Surveyor-General and had served on that community’s first municipal council, according to The Canadian Men and Women of the Time (William Briggs, 1912). The couple married in 1888 before moving to Winnipeg, where he became assistant lands commissioner for the CPR.
Constance Hamilton took an interest in the reception of new immigrants and their integration into Canadian society. Partnering that purpose with her musical training, she founded the Women’s Musical Club.
After relocating to Toronto at the turn of the century, the classically trained pianist maintained her interests in both high culture—with her establishment of the Bach Society—and the plight of immigrants as the chair of the Toronto branch of the National Refugee Committee. Her husband’s retirement afforded the couple the opportunity to travel the world, while she also remained active with the YWCA and Big Sister Association, and as a social advocate and suffragette with the NCWC.
After an uneventful campaign in late 1919, Hamilton was elected on January 1, 1920. She became the first woman in Ontario to hold elected office at either the municipal, provincial, or federal level. The Globe acknowledged the accomplishment, but took little interest. “The most interesting feature of the results,” the newspaper reported the following day, “is the election of Mrs. Constance E. Hamilton in Ward Three. Mrs. Hamilton is the first woman chosen as a member of the City Council, and her supporters feel confident that she will prove an earnest and useful civic representative.” No photographer was on hand to record Hamilton being sworn in or taking her seat in the council chamber on January 12.
In her political career, Hamilton advocated for: the appointment of a woman judge to preside over the Juvenile Court; for public ownership of the then-privatized transit system; improved police and library systems; and reforms in working conditions for domestic workers, including a ten-hour workday. One of her proposals, “stopping all traffic in Toronto for a half-hour each day so children could play in the street” didn’t get very far, a Star retrospective noted.
In the election the following year, Hattie D. Stevens and Ethel Small joined Hamilton as aldermanic candidates for Ward Six and Ward Four, respectively. There were also numerous women candidates candidates for the Board of Education, including educationalist Ada Mary Courtice and author Edith Lelean Groves among others.
Small, a well-known social service worker at the Juvenile Court, was elected. Active in Toronto affairs for about fifteen years, she had been president of the Big Sister Association. During the war, her work with the Women’s Branch of the Secours National earned her a medal from the French government. As president of the Social Service Club for six years, Small had devoted herself to the study of municipal problems. Her campaign advertisements emphasized that she not only understood the merits of “a constructive social welfare programme”—what might have been deemed the usual concerns of women candidates—but also that she understood the fundamental importance of “a sound and progressive business policy.”
Toronto Star article from December 29, 1922.
During her years in office, Small pushed for public ownership of transit and utilities, improved housing, development of supervised recreation programs for youth, and the standardization of city employee salaries as a check against patronage.
She served, for a time, as chairman of the city’s Board of Health, as well as a member of the Parks and Playgrounds Committee, the Board of Health, and the Juvenile Court Committee. She was also a member of the the board of the Children’s Aid Society, the Women’s College Hospital, the Industrial Refuge Board, and the Women’s Committee of the CNE.
The first woman elected to the House of Commons, Agnes Macphail, had to endure torrents of criticism about her sex, her religion, and her mannerisms from political ally and foe alike. She reported, as recalled by Alison Prentice et al. in Canadian Women: A History (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), being “miserable” and “intensely unhappy” during her first term in office.
Front page of the Toronto Star on December 22, 1921.
The newspaper record gives no indication of the treatment Hamilton and Small received from their fellow councillors, whether it was congenial or akin to that received by Macphail. What is certain is that these pioneers entered a nearly homogenous council chamber where twenty-six of the other twenty-nine councillors were white, of British descent, and Protestant.
Although her reasons for departure aren’t clear—perhaps a consequence of the lack of news coverage regarding these pioneering women—Hamilton did not seek re-election in 1922, after serving two terms. In the years to follow, she remained a vocal crusader for finding employment for immigrants and integrating them into Canadian society. Her achievements were celebrated in 1979 with the city’s creation of the Constance E. Hamilton Award, given annually to the person “whose actions have had a significant impact on securing equitable treatment for women in Toronto, either socially, economically or culturally.”
Small left council after the 1923 term. Again no reason was reported, but she continued her social work in Toronto and Orillia—where she and husband, Sidney, summered—long after she’d left active politics. In Toronto Since 1918 (James Lorimer & Company, 1985), James T. Lemon speculates that as the city entered an era of municipal penny-pinching in the name of efficiency and fiscal restraint, reformist and socially minded women like Hamilton and Small might have been discouraged from seeking office.
Whatever the reason, it took more than a decade before the third woman sat on city council when, in January 1936, Torontonians elected A.N. Plumptre, wife of the Reverend Canon Plumptre, a founder of the Girl Guide movement in 1912, a long-time activist with the Red Cross and the NCWC, and a multiple-term member of the school board. And it was another ten years before Mary Birchard became the fourth in 1946.
The 1920s were a difficult period for the women’s movement as a whole because, despite making significant gains towards equality of status, it became increasingly evident that there was no single version of femininity and no single set of common goals to achieve. Once largely cohesive, the movement fractured. Membership in organizations that reflected Anglo-Saxon, middle-class sensibilities, like the NCWC, stagnated because these groups did not appeal to women with career aspirations or those on Western Canadian farms. Such groups discovered—as did political parties who’d hoped women voters could be wooed as a single voting bloc—that women’s opinions, like society as a whole, divided along the fault lines of regional, class, ethnic, and religious difference.
Additional sources consulted: Wayne Roberts, “Six New Women: A Guide to the Mental Map of Women Reformers in Toronto,” in Atlantis Volume 3, Issue 1 (1977): 145-164; Pat Staton, Rose Fine-Meyer and Stephanie Kim Gibson, Unfolding Power (Green Dragon Press, 2004); Veronica Strong-Boag, The Parliament of Women: The National Council of Women of Canada: 1893-1929 (National Museum of Man, 1976)