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Stop #2 - Women’s College Hospital and Dr. Emily Stowe Way

Macdonald and Women

Map for location 2.
Women's College Hospital
Women's College Hospital

At this stop on the tour we consider two things: Macdonald’s rapport with women as individuals and, more broadly, Macdonald and the issue of women’s rights.

Macdonald’s first marriage was on September 1, 1843 to Isabella Clark, his cousin. She was very sick for most of their marriage and died right after Christmas, 1857 in Kingston. They had two sons. The first, John Jr., died just after his first birthday. The second, Hugh John, lived a good long life. He practiced law, moved to Manitoba, and - like his father - was elected to the House of Commons in the election of 1891. Nine years later he was elected Premier of Manitoba, but only served for ten months.

Susan Agnes Bernard
Susan Agnes Bernard (Sir John's second wife) Credit: Library and Archives Canada

Ten years after Isabella died Macdonald married Susan Agnes Bernard, a woman he had actually met a decade earlier as she was the sister of his longtime aide, Hewitt Bernard. Agnes was born in Jamaica but raised in London and that is where the couple married on February 16, 1867, when Macdonald was negotiating final Confederation arrangements with the British government. He was 52 years old; she was 31.

Together, they had one child, Margaret Mary. She was born in February 1869, with hydrocephalus (a.k.a. - ‘water on the brain’). This condition, which today is treatable in most cases, is characterized by an abnormal amount of cerebrospinal fluid that accumulates in the cavities of the brain. This may cause increased pressure inside the skull, progressive enlargement of the head, convulsions, tunnel vision, and mental disability.

After Macdonald died in 1891, Agnes sold the Macdonald home in Ottawa (known as Earnscliffe) and auctioned off the family’s possessions. She left Canada in 1896 and returned to England with her daughter. Agnes died in 1920 at age 82 and, unfortunately, destroyed Macdonald’s letters to her and hers to him. Little Mary, who was never expected to live long given her disabilities, managed to thrive. She died in England in 1933 at age 64.

It was noted earlier that Macdonald started his career opposed to any extensions of the right to vote. Yet 30 years later, his thinking had changed.

Emily Stowe
Emily Stowe. Credit: Archives of Ontario

This tour stop introduces an eminent contemporary of Macdonald’s - Dr. Emily Stowe. Stowe was Canada’s first female doctor and the mother of the suffragette movement in Canada. She was born in Norwich Township, Oxford County, Ontario in 1831. In 1854, she graduated from the Toronto Normal School and became a public school principal in Brantford. She was married in 1856, had three children, and then decided she wanted to go to medical school.

At that time no medical school in Canada would admit a woman, so she attended the New York Medical College for Women. After receiving her medical degree in 1867, Stowe returned to open a practice in Toronto. Since women were not allowed to study medicine in Canada at that time, she had to operate her practice without a license.

In 1877 she founded the Toronto Women's Literary Guild, a suffragist organization, and campaigned for professional, educational and occupational opportunities for women. In 1883 Dr. Stowe spearheaded the drive to found Woman's Medical College in Toronto, which eventually became Women’s College Hospital.

In March of 1883 Stowe and her colleagues sent the following communication to the City Council of Toronto: 

A few days later, in the Council Chamber of the City Hall of Toronto, the first women's suffrage organization in Canada was inaugurated - the "Toronto Women's Suffrage Club."

It is not clear if Macdonald ever met Dr. Stowe, but they lived in Toronto at the same time and travelled in similar circles. More than that, Macdonald was a political friend of Stowe’s. He tabled a bill in 1885 to extend the right to vote to most males over the age of 21 and, at the same time, that women should have the right to vote - a radical thought at the time. Macdonald also wanted to give Canada’s indigenous people the right to vote.

Macdonald knew his ideas were not shared. He said to the House of Commons, “A majority of this House are opposed to female suffrage. I had hoped that Canada would have the honour of first placing a woman in a position where she is certain, eventually, after centuries of oppression, to obtain the right to vote. It is merely a question of time all over the civilized world.”

Toronto Women's Literary Article

His speech was revealing of his sensitivity to women’s issues and how he saw Canada, but it did not convince the House of Commons. It would take another 30 years before women had the right to vote in federal elections in Canada.

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