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.”

A Woman’s Power

Movie lines sometimes contain more truth than a philosophy tome. Consider my favourite line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. A mother is patiently explaining to her adult daughter that Dad is indeed the head of the family. However, she adds, “I am the neck.” I love that. I might add that women are also often the glue.

I learned this truth by unconsciously absorbing my paternal grandmother’s lessons. She was the eldest of three strong sisters, the second generation of Ukrainian immigrants escaping turn of the century pre-revolutionary violence. Her mother provided Ukrainian language lessons to other immigrant kids in Hamilton’s hardscrabble east end. One day, the skinny 15 year-old was bored and waiting for her Mom to finish when a shy pupil not much older than her approached. He whispered that she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, and that someday he would like to marry her. That was my grandfather. They were married for 63 years.

Her father was one of the first men hired at Hamilton, Ontario’s brand new Dominion Foundry and Steel (Dofasco). He arranged a job for his son-in-law where he worked for 42 years. Later, the Second World War saw North American women doing what many women and most men said could not be done; they fought the war on factory floors. My grandmother worked 8-hour shifts in heavy overalls and beneath a thick kerchief. She lifted, turned, and processed steel sheets. She was, in the vernacular of the day, Rosie the Riveter.

An old Dofasco newsletter shows her and other women smiling broadly and doing their bit with a patriotic passion and rugged determination to make a deeper point. There was celebration when the guns fell silent and the afternoon shift was let out early. Amid the cheers, all the women were given small paper packets containing a tiny bonus and a pink slip. She told me how that she would have liked to have kept working and, like many others, felt used and cheated.

Women Are Glue

(The three sisters and their parents, my grandmother is standing on right)

When her mother was failing, my grandmother made a promise. She would keep the family together and carry on the tradition of the large gatherings like those at the old Port Dover farm. The basement of her modest Burlington home was refashioned into a party room. Every big occasion, and certainly every Christmas, the room sang with my large and loud extended Ukrainian family. My grandmother met everyone at the door with a smile, kiss, and hug. She was a big woman and when you got hugged, you stayed hugged.

Long tables sagged under more food than even our army of a family could consume and then everything was packed away for my cousin’s band and the dancing. The adults got to drink a little too much and the kids got to stay up past bedtime as the old stories and jokes were told through Export A smoke, smiles, and laughter.

The last time I saw her was in a hospital bed. As I was saying goodbye she put her hands on my cheeks and squeezed them together and pulled me close as if I was a six-year-old again. Perhaps, in her eyes, I was. She said, “I hope you know how much I love you.” I said, “I do. And I hope you know how much I love you.” They were our last words.

She told the doctor that she wanted to go home and he said only when she could walk the hallway and was completely off morphine. He didn’t know her very well. She did both the next day. She arrived home and within 45 minutes she was gone. This last act said everything you need to know about her strength.

That Christmas, there was no party. Everyone was too sad. She wasn’t there to push us through our grief. There was never another party. First the extended family and then some even closer drifted further. The glue was gone.

No family is perfect. Scratch the surface of any family and amongst the litter of love and happy days glowing like Facebook postings, you’ll find scars and unhealed wounds. Despite this fact, family, no matter how defined, constructed, or shifting, is sanctuary. Family is what reminds us of who we are when we sink too low or fly too high. Family is what affords us the courage to carry on when we’d rather quit and the reason and confidence to venture forth in the first place.

Every family has one person that acts as glue and holds it all together when so much seems determined to tear it asunder. Because most men, like me, are dullards about such things and too often too self-absorbed, the job usually falls to women. They are the miraculous caregivers who become the bond between people and generations. They love without judgement. Their lives and the values that guide them become their silent advice. They kiss your cheek or kick your ass or just sit and listen, and then listen some more.

They are the women who only those with enough love can see for who they truly are. Bless these women. They, like my grandmother, are the angels among us now and forever.

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