Helen Gregory MacGill was born in Hamilton, to a prosperous family, in 1864. Her mother, Emma, was suffragist who told her daughter that a woman’s role as a mother affords her a right and responsibility to seek gender equality in order to contribute to society’s improvement. This social feminist idea informed MacGill’s life.
At age 19, took her dream of becoming a concert pianist to Toronto. She became the first woman to graduate from the University of Toronto’s Trinity College and the British Empire’s first woman to earn a degree in music. She went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts and, in 1890, a Master of Arts degree.
Upon graduation, she was contracted by the American Cosmopolitan and Atlantic Monthly magazines to cover the opening of the first Japanese legislature under its new Meiji Constitution. MacGill met with family friend, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, who provided her with letters of introduction for her Japan trip and asked her to write of her observations of the Canadian west.
In what is now Manitoba, MacGill met a rancher named Lee Flesher. A week later they were married. MacGill continued her trek and discovered she had become pregnant. Despite feeling ill nearly every day, she pressed on and composed a number of articles about the Canadian west. While enduring a violent storm on the ship across the Pacific she broke her leg but nonetheless completed her tour of Japan and submitted articles about the legislative opening and the country’s unique culture.
When Flesher’s ranch failed, the family moved to San Francisco where he studied medicine. MacGill’s mother Emma left her husband at home to help her daughter with the children. MacGill published articles with a number of newspapers and magazines and, with Emma, purchased and wrote for two newspapers: Society and The Searchlight. Both women advocated greater rights for women at a time when women could not inherit money, hold public office, serve on juries, or vote.
When Flesher graduated and was offered a job with the Mayo Clinic, the family moved to Minnesota. MacGill published more articles newspapers and magazines and she and her mother joined a number of reform and women’s suffrage organizations. In 1901, Flesher died.
Carrying on as a single mother of two sons, MacGill became the Exchange Editor of the St. Paul Globe. A series of letters exchanged with university friend, Jim MacGill, led to a romance and the two were married in 1902. They purchased a home in West Vancouver where two daughters were born.
MacGill continued to write articles and also joined a number of clubs and organizations. She served as president of the Women’s University Club of British Columbia and chaired its Committee for Better Laws for Women and Children in British Columbia. In 1912, she self-published a book entitled Daughters, Wives, and Mothers in British Columbia – Some Laws Affecting Them, then later celebrated progress with eight revisions. In her writing and community work, MacGill rejected radical feminism and sought to bring about change from within the established system. In advocating legal reform and greater concern for women, children, and the poor, she honed her skills as a community organizer and a persuasive public speaker.
MacGill was a founding member of the Vancouver Women’s Press Club in 1909. As a branch of the Canadian Women’s Press Club, it promoted the hiring of more women journalists while providing classes to help women improve their skills and a network of support to sustain them in the face of resistance to their growing influence. MacGill also founded the Vancouver Music Society that provided another vehicle for discussions of social issues. In 1913, MacGill helped bring together twelve women’s organizations to purchase a large Thurlow Street building. Designated the Vancouver Women’s Building, it was the first of its kind in Canada; providing office and meeting space for women’s groups and a dime-a-day childcare. MacGill taught classes there in writing, public speaking, and how to conduct and effectively participate in meetings.
MacGill’s widening circle of friends included painter Emily Carr, who provided young Elsie with art lessons. Another was feminist and social advocate Nelly McClung.
Women’s tireless efforts to win the right to vote led to one province after another granting that right. MacGill was at the forefront of the fight in British Columbia which granted women the right to vote in 1917. The action allowed women not only to vote but also to run for and be appointed to public office.
In July 1917, British Columbia celebrated its first female judge when the 53-year-old MacGill was appointed Judge of the Juvenile Court of Vancouver. On the bench, MacGill balanced the welfare of the child with the safety of society. She acted upon her belief that most children who commit crimes are from homes where love is absent or the child is neglected or mistreated. She advocated probation rather than incarceration for most children convicted of crimes. She worked with the Children’s Aid Society and other groups to create accommodations, school and work placements, and counselling support. MacGill said that after a year of support and regular school attendance, along with educating parents, 95% of children she saw in court were leading productive lives. Her efforts led to a revision of peoples’ perception of the purpose of the juvenile court along with its procedures and institutions. She served as a juvenile court judge from 1917 to 1929 – when a new government appointed a replacement – and then again from 1934 to 1945.
Throughout those years MacGill continued her reform efforts with membership in a great many groups. Among them was Vancouver Mother’s Pension Board, the Mayor’s Unemployment Committee, the Provincial Board of Industrial Relations, Advisory Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, the Minimum Wage Board, the International Juvenile Court Judges Association, and the Welfare Subcommittee of the United Nations. In 1938, MacGill became the first woman to receive an honourary Doctor of Laws from the University of British Columbia.
In 1945, at age 81, Helen Gregory MacGill retired. Remarkably, after 23 years on the bench, not one of her decisions was reversed in appeal. Two years later, while visiting her daughter Helen in Chicago, she died. Her daughter Elsie became the world’s first female aeronautical engineer and aircraft designer. She cited her mother as her greatest mentor and influence. Elsie wrote that she was constantly moved by her mother’s, “passionate, yet objective sympathy for the hurt, the helpless, and the exploited.”