Cover Story

The First Fight for Suffrage  by RenĂ©e Bondy
The First Fight for Suffrage

Emily Howard Jennings Stowe, remembered mainly as a tireless advocate for women’s suffrage and education, was also the first woman to have a medical practice in Canada. After her initial request to attend classes in chemistry and physiology at the University of Toronto in 1865 was denied,

Stowe wrote an objection letter to the vice-president of the university stating that “These university doors will open some day to women.”

His reply? “The doors of the University are not open to women and I trust they never will be.” Of course, Stowe was correct in her prediction that women would one day be afforded the same opportunities as men to pursue higher education and enter the profession of their choice.

Born in 1831 in Norwich, Upper Canada (now Ontario), Stowe was one of six daughters born to Solomon Jennings and Hannah Howard. Her resolute commitment to women’s equality stemmed from her Quaker upbringing. She was taught at home by her mother, who, in the Quaker tradition of female education, had attended boarding school in the U.S.

At age 15, Stowe became a teacher at a one-room schoolhouse, fitting work for single women of the era. After several years, she completed official teaching certification at the newly founded Provincial Normal School in Toronto. Stowe would go on to become the first woman principal of a school in Upper Canada.

As was the practice of the day, Stowe resigned from teaching when she married. However, she returned to work when her husband, John recuperate in a sanatorium. Teaching provided meagre recompense to women—less than half the salary paid to male teachers—and so, moved by both economic need and personal interest, Stowe decided to become a physician.

In the mid-19th century, it was considered by many to be unsuitable for women to study and treat the human body. An editorial in a Canadian medical journal of the day expressed the views of male physicians when it stated: “As wives and mothers, sisters and dainty little housekeepers we have the utmost love and respect for them; but we do not think the profession of medicine, as a rule, a fi t place for them.” Not only was rigorous academic study deemed beyond women’s capability, but the practice of medicine involved a public role for women, which challenged the notion of separate spheres for the sexes by taking women away from the home and from their roles as wives and mothers.

Denied entry to the University of Toronto Medical School in 1865, Stowe was accepted at the New York Medical School for women. The couple’s three children went to live with Stowe’s sister, and Stowe graduated in 1867.

Influenced by American suffragists active at this time, including Susan B. Anthony, Stowe returned to Canada with more than her medical degree. She also brought home a resolve to advocate for women’s enfranchisement.

A practising physician in Toronto, albeit without a licence for more than a decade, since female medical school graduates were denied licenses by the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons, Stowe took up the cause of women’s access to universities and, to this end, founded the Toronto Women’s Literary Club.

The preamble of the club stated its intellectual and reform objectives: “Whereas a few ladies in the City of Toronto, having felt the need of something to keep alive their interest in mental growth and development . . . they have, this third day of November, 1877, banded themselves together to form an association for intellectual culture, where they can secure a free interchange of thought and feeling that pertains to woman’s higher education, including her moral and physical welfare.”

Stowe and other members of the society offered lectures and rallied like-minded women to the causes of women’s education and suffrage. In 1882, the Toronto Women’s Literary Club renamed itself the Toronto Women’s Suffrage Club. It was later renamed the Canadian Suffrage Association, at a time when the campaign for women’s voting rights was active in every province and territory in the country.

Stowe’s influence as a nineteenth-century Canadian feminist and reformer is unparalleled. Not only is she acknowledged for her firsts—first woman principal, fi rst practising female doctor and first president of the Canadian Suffrage Association—but she is also remembered as a tenacious and strategic leader. The ability of Stowe and other suffragists to see the relationship between the right to education and the right to suffrage helped to advance women’s rights.

Two decades after Stowe’s unsuccessful attempt to attend classes at the University of Toronto, women were finally admitted to medical schools in Ontario. Fittingly, the first Canadian woman to be trained as a physician in Canada was Stowe’s daughter, Augusta Stowe- Gullen, who graduated from the Toronto School of Medicine in 1883.  Although Stowe did not live to see Canadian women’s enfranchisement, she played a vital role in its achievement. 

Renée Bondy  teaches in the women's studies program at the University of Windsor.