The story of Kathleen Blake Coleman, pioneering female journalist and war correspondent.
This post originally appeared on November 23, 2013.
Regular readers of the “Woman’s Kingdom” page in the Saturday edition of the Mail noticed something new in the October 26, 1889, paper. Amid the usual excerpts from other publications, a new column appeared. Little did they know that the author of “Kit’s Gossip” would become a weekend staple for the next two decades, providing Toronto’s first strong female journalistic voice.
Portions of that debut column resemble a social media feed, especially the “Chit-Chat” section. Kit complains about women who think opera should be sung in English, block her view with their bonnets in churches and theatres, and speak stridently when unwelcome guests visit. She also transcribes a conversation overheard on the streetcar. Her feisty tone quickly won readers, and was soon employed for weightier matters than the fashion and toiletry tips she offered that day.
According to the fictional biography she employed during the early years of her column, Kit was the descendant of a deposed Irish king (she wasn’t) who shared her home with her trusted friend Theodocia (who existed only as a literary device). The reality for Kit’s creator, Kathleen Blake Coleman, was far more complicated. Sorting out Coleman’s background has challenged biographers. An intensely private person, she urged her readers to burn their diaries and letters to avoid post-mortem scrutiny. She left few papers apart from correspondence with Sir Wilfrid Laurier, some family letters, stories inspired by her childhood, and an unpublished novel. She fictionalized much of her background, claiming to be a relative of a prominent Galway family, and shaved eight years off her age upon arriving in Canada.
She was born Catherine Ferguson at Castleblakeney, Ireland, in 1856. Her major influence was her uncle Thomas Burke, a liberal priest who encouraged her tolerance of others. She changed her first name to Kathleen shortly before an arranged marriage to a man 40 years her senior. When he died, his family disinherited the young widow. Immigrating to Toronto in 1884, Kathleen soon married Edward J. Watkins. Beyond being a poor breadwinner, Watkins was an alcoholic philanderer who may have had another wife in England. After a period in Winnipeg, the couple split, leaving Kathleen a single mother with two children. Watkins left his mark in the doomed marriages, affairs, and alcoholics that appeared in his ex-wife’s fiction.
To support her family, Kathleen fell upon her love of writing. In 1889, she submitted material to the Mail, who assigned her to edit their weekly “Woman’s Kingdom” page. Kathleen chose an occupation that, for women, barely ranked above prostitution and barroom dancing on the social scale. The few women journalists of the late Victorian era received pieces men preferred not to touch: obituaries and society events.
Kathleen, as Kit, shaped “Woman’s Kingdom” into one of the Mail’s most popular features. Amid the usual domestic and beauty hints, Kit discussed fine literature, politics, religion, and science. “I simply detest fashion,” she noted in an 1892 column, “and I think it is paying us women a poor compliment to imagine we cannot take an interest in the highest and the very deepest questions of the day.” While her editors allowed her to tackle weighty topics, they occasionally sent reminder notes to write about traditional female concerns if she ignored them for several weeks.
Kit published responses to readers’ letters, offering responses that were part “Dear Abby,” part Toronto Sun comment section. She observed that most of the missives she received concerned “politics, polemics, physiology, and pimples.” Whether engaged in sarcastic debate or dispensing compassionate, sentimental advice, Kit employed a personal voice which stood apart from the impartial tone slowly creeping into newspapers. In an 1893 column, she observed that:
They tell you that to be a journalist you must never let your heart run away with you. What a foolish saying! You must bury yourself and your troubles and joys and pipe up to amuse the people! Nonsense. The editorial “we” is about played out.
Her commentary, combined with an androgynous pen name and descriptions of her horse-riding ability, made readers wonder if “Kit” was a man. As one reader put it, “you ape the affectations of a woman, I must say, extremely well, but your virile thoughts break out sometimes and betray that you are a lord of creation.” Kit encouraged the guessing game, as it helped protect her privacy. She refused to offer readers her home address, and never met any in person unless she sensed they were contemplating suicide.
Some readers may have questioned her commitment to the growing women’s rights movement. Part of the problem was the conservative tilt of the Mail, whose editors used her to lure in female readers by promoting traditional feminine ideals. She was reluctant to rock the boat too much, as the rough patches of her life made financial security a constant worry. She believed that women could never be true friends with each other—as one column put it, “was there ever a friendship between two women that did not mean a plot against a third?”
Kit was slow to warm to suffrage, criticizing militants. In 1890, she urged readers not to “lose sight of the exquisite home virtues, the self-sacrifice, gentleness and wonderful moral courage which is as far above the physical attribute as the stars are above the earth.” Her views evolved, and were aided by her peers in the Canadian Women’s Press Club (she was the organization’s first president when it formed in 1904). Not until March 1910 did Kit endorse the suffrage movement in print, even if she didn’t want to participate:
I shall welcome it for women, for I believe it to be the best thing in the end for them and the race, but I am not a Suffragist, or rather worker in the cause. I most thoroughly admire the Canadian women who are earnest in the movement but it does not attract me personally—a small matter, my friend, and one wholly personal.
She was vocal about pay equity. “Women should be paid accordingly,” she observed in 1891, “and honoured, too, if she can help in ever so small a way the partner she has chosen for life, or keep herself independently, earning sufficient to place her above the temptations offered her by men.” Accounts vary as to whether she earned the same rate as her male colleagues at the Mail, or received less. One exception to her stance on pay was domestic servitude, where she argued room and board provided by their employers offered better circumstances than working in factories for higher pay.
Kit’s dedication to her craft manifested itself in her physical appearance. While she might have espoused high fashion in the “Woman’s Kingdom,” she tended to wear her office clothes around power brokers. She ignored the ink stains on her hands and kept her hair up for easy maintenance. She also bore a strong resemblance to red-haired French actress Sarah Bernhardt. When the two met in Montreal in 1898, the Divine Sarah exclaimed, “My God, we are like sisters!”
As Nellie Bly gained attention for her investigative reporting and globe-trotting, the Mail allowed Kit to entice readers with her exploits around the world. Beginning in 1892, Kit frequently visited the seedier parts of cities such as London and San Francisco. She was usually disguised as a man or a working-class woman during her investigations into troubling social conditions. Especially during her London journeys, a Dickensian tone crept into her writing. This annoyed some readers, which led her to insert descriptions of meals she ate when she wasn’t undercover. Beyond the gritty material, Kit wrote literate depictions of her journeys that, as Eva-Marie Kröller noted in her book Canadian Travellers in Europe 1851-1900, created “an exhilarating sense of space, movement, and anticipation.”
Her travels were temporarily curtailed when the Mail merged with the Empire in 1895. Budget restraints limited her journeys to nearby destinations. She battled with the new paper’s management, avoiding any involvement with a new fashion page and the “For and About Women” column (which she saw as “none of her concern”). Tales of foreign adventure were replaced by stories about her children.
Kit returned to the road in 1897, when she was dispatched to London to cover Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. She spent portions of the trip with one of her column’s biggest fans, Prime Minister Laurier. Despite his political affiliation with the Liberal party, Kit admired the PM as “a person of spotless honesty…so utterly charming you can’t help liking him, although some of his policies are quite senseless.” She compiled a book of experiences in London, which didn’t set the bestseller chart on fire. Its failure fed into her occasional bouts of depression, spurred by a fear she was destined not to be a great literary figure, but a lowly woman’s page editor.
When the Spanish-American War broke out in early 1898, Kit lobbied to cover the battles in Cuba. She became one of the first accredited female war correspondents, though doing so was not easy. Male colleagues blocked her wherever possible. Charles H. Hand, a writer for the London Daily Mail, wondered “what kind of a newspaper proprietor was it, who would send a tenderly-nurtured lady around amidst the hardships, the bullets, the yellow-fever germs of a Cuban war?” Answer: a newspaper that could exploit Kit’s novelty value. Despite being stuck in Tampa, Florida, for weeks, she earned some respect for scooping stories such as secret arms shipments to Cuban rebels.
In May 1898, it appeared Kit might finally have secured passage to Cuba. She provided readers with details of her conversations with the United States’ Secretary of War Russell Alger:
“I don’t see how you can go,” said General Alger, looking at me kindly. “I hate awfully to have you go down into that frightful country. You cannot well go with the army. Why, the men may pitch the camp almost anywhere, in any kind of rough place, and there, where the heat is so great, they will be lounging about half-dressed. It would be no place at all for a lady. I really don’t think you should go.” When, however, I explained to the Secretary of War that I hoped to get attached to either a relief corps or missionary body, if such were proceeding to the front, his attitude changed. “Ah, that is better,” he said. “I will further you on your way as far in me lies, and I may tell you that if you get into any serious difficulties at any time and will wire the War Department we will try to make it all right for you.” This is a very special favour, since, I am informed, in no other army in the world is the same privilege accorded to a war correspondent, his last court of appeal being to the general commanding in the field.
But this didn’t help. The Mail and Empire prematurely reported on the front page that she would soon provide war sketches. But her passage was revoked. An attempt to head over on a medical vessel failed—reputedly, American Red Cross founder Clara Barton hated Kit on sight. The intrepid reporter moved to Key West, where she finally found a decrepit freighter willing to take her over. She arrived in Cuba after the main battles had ended, but salvaged the trip by reporting on the aftermath. She described Spanish soldiers in a field hospital as “living ghosts of men” with “eyes sunken far in their sockets burning like lamps on the edge of extinction.”
Kit was scarred by the war. She went in with a sense of adventure and was horrified by what she saw. She adopted an anti-war stance in the future, except when she obeyed the Mail and Empire’s editorial support of the Boer War. She contracted malaria and received no sympathy from the paper’s business office when she asked for financial aid upon her return.
During a stopover in Washington, D.C., on her way back from Cuba, she married Dr. Theobald Coleman. Her third marriage proved a successful one, even if her financial worries were not eased by her husband’s habit of treating poor patients for free. In 1899, the Colemans moved to the northern Ontario mining town of Copper Cliff. Their stay was short—the Colemans complained about the poor medical conditions the Canadian Copper Company offered its employees, while the town grimaced when Kit compared it to Siberia. Both sides were relieved when the Colemans moved to Hamilton as the 20th century dawned.
By 1910, relations between Kit and the Mail and Empire were frosty. That fall, editors dropped the correspondence section of “Woman’s Kingdom” so that she could write a short daily column. When management refused to raise her salary, she quit. The February 4, 1911, edition of “Woman’s Kingdom” gave no hint it was the last bearing Kit’s signature—the editor removed the goodbye she wrote.
Following a failed attempt to land at the Globe, Kit launched a syndicated column, charging interested papers five dollars per instalment. In Toronto, “Kit’s Column” ran in the Sunday World, as she refused to entertain any offers from her former employer. Despite pressure from editors not to do so, Coleman wrote about the First World War, which she viewed as a sign of Armageddon. She urged readers to be compassionate to those on both sides of the conflict, arguing that the lack of it amid wartime propaganda did no one any good.
After a bout of pneumonia, Kathleen Blake Coleman passed away in May 1915. Ted Ferguson, who compiled condensed versions of her columns for his book Kit Coleman: Queen of Hearts, summed up her writing talent:
By today’s standards, Kit’s writing was often overly dramatic, her theories too simplistic, her phraseology a trifle awkward. But she never bored her readers. Indeed, she believed that while integrity and accuracy were essential, a columnist also had to be outrageously opinionated and never, ever, become a dull, mild-mannered hack.
Additional material from Kit Coleman: Queen of Hearts by Ted Ferguson (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1978); Kit’s Kingdom: The Journalism of Kathleen Blake Coleman by Barbara M. Freeman (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1989); Canadian Travellers in Europe 1851-1900 by Eva-Marie Kröller (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987); the October 28, 1889, July 19, 1890, August 2, 1890, and September 17, 1892 editions of the Mail; and the May 21, 1898 and March 19, 1910 editions of the Mail and Empire.
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