The Remarkable Woman We Should Know

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.”

For Men: Ten Things I Know About Women

As one of four boys, I grew up in a male world. I lived with more young men in university before marrying the girl that had left me gobsmacked in high school and with whom I remain hopelessly in love. Then came a daughter, a granddaughter, and then another granddaughter. My world is now female. So as a refugee from the Planet Testosterone, I humbly offer to men willing to pause and consider, all I have come to know for sure about women:

  1. Shut Up: When a woman is relating a problem, she does not want you to present a solution. The chances are good, very good in fact; that she already knows what she will do but only needs to solidify it in her mind by talking it out so shut up and listen. This seems to begin when women are about age 5.
  2. Speak Up: It may seem contradictory, but while shutting up, make affirming sounds. Men don’t naturally use them and don’t need them with each other but women do. Saying “ah” “oh” “mm” or any in a range of affirming sounds will do. Skip the affirming sound and be accused of not listening, even if, perchance, you actually are.
  3. Drop the Toilet Seat: Pity the man who forgets this rule. Enough said.
  4. Use Your Words: The average woman has 30% more Foxp2 protein in her brain than the average man. This protein feeds the brain’s language center. It results in women speaking about 20,000 words a day, or 13,000 more than men. So in the evening, men need to dig deep, even when they have probably already used up all their words.
  5. You Will Never Understand Shoes: Most women love shoes. Most women love shoe shopping. Most women love having more shoes than they can ever wear. You will never understand it. Never. Don’t try.
  6. There are Blue Jobs: Even Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem would stand aside to let a man do certain tasks. The jobs often involve garbage, grass, mice, bats, and dead things the cat dragged home.
  7. Men Are Wrong: In a time of conflict men should begin with, “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” The chances are that he was, even if it sometimes takes tears or years to realize it. If a man is standing alone in a forest, he would still be wrong.
  8. Women are Magical: Consider growing a human being inside of you. Consider the act of giving birth. Consider feeding another human being from the milk your body produces. Now think of anything a man can do and whether it compares to anything remotely as mystical or breathtakingly wonderful.
  9. Women Are Beautiful: Women – all women – are works of art. Men’s lumpy, hairy, smelly bodies are utilitarian locomotion devices to be endured, covered, and forgotten. Get over yourselves because women already have.
  10. Women are Smarter: The human brain is split into two hemispheres with each side responsible for particular functions. Women’s brains have far more neural pathways between the right and left sides. This fact allows for far more connections between logic and emotion and present and past and to read faces and situations infinitely quicker and far more accurately than men. Go to a party with a woman and she will have everyone figured out and the dynamic of the room nailed while you’re still looking for the bar.

Living in my women’s world has made me a better man. I applaud that women now lead 22 countries. Perhaps if more women were in positions of political, economic, and social power we would have a better world. Scratch the word perhaps – that’s another thing I know for sure. Then again, I’m a man, so I’m probably wrong.

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The author, happy in his women’s world, being directed as to what to do next.

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Heroes Flawed and Fake

Dear Canada,

She stands alone in her Grand Prė garden. With a look of sad longing, Evangeline gazes over her shoulder toward heaven. She has her back to the church, the Church that turned its back on her. The tragic news arrived on her wedding day and tore her from her one true love. Her people were victims of a war that saw you become British, and her people uprooted because they were French. Their homes and villages were burned.

The deported Acadians fluttered as maple keys, some lighting as far away as Louisiana. It’s why New Orleans has Cajun music and a French Quarter. Evangeline devoted the rest of her life to searching for her beloved Gabriel, finding him years later, and only in time to have him die in her arms. Today, hundreds of years later, there stands Evangeline in her national park – a UNESCO World Heritage site, no less – a vision in bronze. She is a symbol of loss and for all that’s unfair. She expresses the power of love amid the hatred of war.

Evangeline_Grand_Pre

Meanwhile, over in Prince Edward Island, a long line is snaking its way from a rambling white farmhouse with stunning green gables. It’s Anne’s house. We know Anne Shirley through books, movies, and TV. She’s loved around the world and, since being placed on their school curriculum in the 1950s, a Japanese icon. Anne is what many of us first learn about us. She is honest, loyal, feisty, fun-loving and adventurous, with unbreakable bonds to the land and people she loves.

The tourists tour with reverence. Grownups steal a moment to peer at the rolling Cavendish countryside out Anne’s bedroom window. It’s the view that inspired her thoughts, and that the ten-year old then understood with the certainty of a ten-year old’s truth. They treasure the moment. They are warmed by embers of memory sunk deep in their hearts but now flickering from down where a child’s dreams are kept safe from adulthood’s flimsy facade. Then, as is always the case with such things, everyone exits through the gift shop. Japanese parents buy Chinese trinkets to celebrate a Canadian girl. Smiling children emerge beneath straw skimmer hats with long red pigtails, just like Anne’s.

Anne of Green Gables1

Anne and Evangeline share a secret. They never existed. Evangeline was the protagonist in a Longfellow poem, written nearly a century after the Acadian diaspora. The lines are lyrical but many of its facts are wrong. Anne Shirley sprang from the imagination of Canadian novelist Lucy Maud Montgomery. Visiting Anne’s actual green-gabled house is akin to visiting Batman’s actual cave.

But these facts rob neither Evangeline nor Anne of their importance. That is the nature, gift, and mystery of heroes and icons.

Consider the very real Emily Murphy. She was enraged that women were regularly and nonchalantly denied justice within the bastion of our male-dominated society. From her home in Edmonton, she organized a movement that pressured the Alberta government to enact a law allowing women to inherit their husband’s estates. Then, upset that women were unfairly treated in the courts, she exerted pressure until earning an appointment as Canada’s first female police magistrate; the first, in fact, in the whole British Empire.

When told by an uppity male lawyer that her gender disqualified her from the bench, she and four friends, later dubbed the Famous Five, fought back. They fought rusty old beliefs disguised as facts, politicians with their eyes on polls and feet in clay, and, finally, they fought the courts all the way over the pond to Westminster. Their efforts led to women being declared Persons; no longer just the property of Dads then husbands, but Persons with rights equal to men. Women could now be judges and senators and, well, anything they wanted to be. It was a spectacular achievement. Murphy had demonstrated intelligence, determination, and a burning sense of what should be.

murphystatue

However, under the guise of Janey Canuck, Murphy also wrote magazine articles and a novel espousing beliefs that we now recognize as racist. She was clearly on both the right and wrong side of rights. Does the racist rant erase the feminist achievement and so should Murphy’s statue be taken from parliament hill?

The heroes we venerate are players in a grand story we tell to ourselves about ourselves. Their triumphs and characters represent the best of us for the rest of us and the complexity within all of us. They challenge us to look beyond ourselves to become our best possible selves. Flawed or even fake, they inspire us to improve ourselves, our families, communities and, ultimately, to be worthy of you.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

Don Quixote   by © Gordon Lightfoot

Through the woodland, through the valley
Comes a horseman wild and free
Tilting at the windmills passing
Who can the brave young horseman be
He is wild but he is mellow
He is strong but he is weak
He is cruel but he is gentle
He is wise but he is meek
Reaching for his saddlebag
He takes a battered book into his hand
Standing like a prophet bold
He shouts across the ocean to the shore
Till he can shout no more

I have come o’er moor and mountain
Like the hawk upon the wing
I was once a shining knight
Who was the guardian of a king
I have searched the whole world over
Looking for a place to sleep
I have seen the strong survive
And I have seen the lean grown weak

See the children of the earth
Who wake to find the table bare
See the gentry in the country
Riding off to take the air

Reaching for his saddlebag
He takes a rusty sword into his hand
Then striking up a knightly pose
He shouts across the ocean to the shore
Till he can shout no more

See the jailor with his key
Who locks away all trace of sin
See the judge upon the bench
Who tries the case as best he can
See the wise and wicked ones
Who feed upon life’s sacred fire
See the soldier with his gun
Who must be dead to be admired

See the man who tips the needle
See the man who buys and sells
See the man who puts the collar
On the ones who dare not tell
See the drunkard in the tavern
Stemming gold to make ends meet
See the youth in ghetto black
Condemned to life upon the street

Reaching for his saddlebag
He takes a tarnished cross into his hand
Then standing like a preacher now
He shouts across the ocean to the shore
Then in a blaze of tangled hooves
He gallops off across the dusty plain
In vain to search again
Where no one will hear
Through the woodland, through the valley
Comes a horseman wild and free
Tilting at the windmills passing
Who can the brave young horseman be
He is wild but he is mellow
He is strong but he is weak
He is cruel but he is gentle
He is wise but he is meek

 This is the second of a series of Letter to Canada, inspired by the songs of Gordon Lightfoot. If you like it, please share it on your social media of choice and see the first one, and more of my weekly columns, at johnboyko.c