Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.
On October 27, 1893, a group of ladies met in the Horticultural Pavilion in Allan Gardens. The approximately 1,500 women had gathered that fall day to fight back against what they saw as increasing political polarization and partisanship.
The meeting was led by Lady Ishbel Aberdeen, the wife of then-governor general John Campbell Hamilton-Gordon, the seventh Earl of Aberdeen. Lady Aberdeen was already the president of the International Council of Women (ICW)—a position she held for 36 years, until 1936—and the organization she helped create that day in Toronto would become the National Council of Women of Canada, a member of the ICW.
October is now Canada’s National Women’s History Month.
Lady Aberdeen formed the council with the support of suffragettes such as Dr. Ann Augusta Stowe-Gullen, the first woman to get a medical degree in Canada. She also worked with Adelaide Hoodless, a reformer who advocated for better education for mothers, a cause she took up after her infant son died. Hoodless joined organizations such as the YWCA and also became concerned about families living far from health care.
She met Lady Aberdeen through her work and helped her found the National Council and the Victorian Order of Nurses in 1897.
The council started in Toronto, although it’s now headquartered in Ottawa, and expanded across the country in those early years. The organization remained largely a white, Anglo group of women despite the expansion and its work to assist underprivileged and immigrant women.
The group also worked to have women appointed to boards and committees. The earliest win was in 1897, with women trustees appointed to a school board in New Westminster, B.C.
Despite support from suffragettes, the National Council (and the ICW) didn’t actively support the campaign for women’s right to vote as they were worried it was too divisive an issue in Canada.
The council eventually got on board and supported suffrage in 1910. By that time, the Women’s Literary Club in Toronto had been advocating for voting rights since 1877.
During World War I, up until 1921, the council published Women’s Century magazine, which supported the war, a popular conservative stance, but also supported women’s suffrage. The goal of the council was to be acceptable to all sides while advocating for women. As Canadian Encyclopedia puts it, about the group’s interwar period, “Its middle-class respectability still sometimes made it a favourite of governments.” However, at the beginning, the encyclopedia also notes that the political establishment mocked Lady Aberdeen’s efforts and didn’t take her seriously.
The council’s goal was to make a space for women to bring forward ideas to a broad group of peers, avoiding the polarization of men’s political groups. The council fostered many women, including the Famous Five, who brought the persons case to court. The council was also involved in the case and supported it.
According to Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, which has erected a plaque in honour of the council at Allan Gardens, it “lobbied for wide-ranging reforms that helped build this country’s social safety net,” and “women learned political skills and found a political voice through the NCWC. They made their presence felt, campaigning for legal equality between men and women, protection for children, and other programs of benefit to Canadian families.”
Today, the group’s mission is “To empower all women to work together towards improving the quality of life for women, families, and society through a forum of member organizations and individuals.”
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