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Manitoba History: Margaret McWilliams and Her Social Gospel: The Formation of an Interwar Feminist

by Mary Kinnear
St. John’s College, University of Manitoba

Number 22, Autumn 1991

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In 1930 Margaret McWilliams went to Geneva as a Canadian government delegate to an International Labour Organization conference. She arranged to meet her niece Helen for “three or four weeks in which to knock around” Europe. Helen later particularly remembered their time together in England. They had an invitation to a Buckingham Palace garden party. “She was like a ship in full sail cutting thru the crowd,” wrote Helen. [1] The picture of the fifty-five year old McWilliams as a ship in full sail captures her strength and confidence as a “public woman” knowing exactly where to go.

Margaret McWilliams
Source: University Women's Club Collection, Archives of Manitoba

At the beginning of the Depression McWilliams still had much of her career before her: a book of social and economic reform, If I Were King of Canada, published in 1931; four consecutive terms, 1933-40, as a Winnipeg alderman, during which she chaired the important Health and Unemployment Relief committees; appointment as chair of the subcommittee on the postwar problems of women for the federal government’s committee on reconstruction in 1943; the revitalization and presidency of the Manitoba Historical Society in the 1940s; a book on the Canadian political system, This New Canada, published in 1948; and the last twelve years of her life as partner to her Lieutenant-Governor husband in Government House. Yet at the time of the Buckingham Palace garden party McWilliams already had twenty years of public life to her credit.

She had arrived in Winnipeg at the age of thirty-five in 1910. A charter member of the Winnipeg University Women’s Club, she was founder and first president of the Canadian Federation of University Women and first vice-president of the International Federation of University Women. She served as president of the local Council of Women and of the Women’s Canadian Club. She produced a book of women’s history, Women of Red River, in 1923, wrote a book of her impressions of Russia in 1927 and a history of Manitoba in 1928. Throughout the twenties she sat on boards concerning social welfare, and was the only woman Council member of the University of Manitoba. The current events classes she instituted on a regular basis from October to April provided informed commentary on public affairs for Winnipeg women.

Such a career in public service was chosen by few women in that first post-suffrage generation. “Choice” in this context implies desire, qualifications, and opportunity. The three rarely coincided. Formally, women’s opportunity was expanded by the provincial and dominion suffrage legislation of 1916, 1917 and 1918, which augmented the existing possibilities of work in women’s voluntary organizations devoted to social and economic reform. But opportunity was also connected to certain personal advantages. McWilliams had no children, so was not diverted by the responsibilities or pleasures of motherhood. She had a compatible and agreeable husband, close friends and an economically comfortable, if not particularly prosperous, living. And she also had an inspiration directly related to her qualifications, for it was fostered by her education at high school and then at the University of Toronto in the 1890s. This education gave her a foundation of idealism and skills which sustained her in the public service of her life.

Here I would like to explore the particular ideals which propelled McWilliams to a life of public service and maintained her therein until her death at the age of seventy seven. She never wrote a considered memoir, but her writings, speeches and behaviour provide many clues to her inspiration, a social gospel of Protestant Christianity mixed with the civic idealism of British philosopher T. H. Green. This amalgam originated in a formal education at the University of Toronto. It was reinforced by a continuing religious faith and developed by experience in activist women’s groups. In many areas I think her major ideas were formed by the mid-1920s, but not until later was her political and religious outlook made manifest.

First, I want to explore McWilliams’ own expression of the ideas she thought were important. She occasionally used current commonplaces of religious terminology to communicate. Her language could reflect a Christian ethic of service to one’s neighbours, in order to promote what she sometimes expressed as the ideals of Jesus. This she connected with nation-building. “By an ... ardent pursuit of the great ethical ideals of Jesus our country might be-come a great moral force” she wrote in 1920. [2] She believed in working towards an ideal society here on earth. Twenty-five years later she used a more apocalyptic evocation with a feminist overtone when she spoke to the local Council of Women at the end of the war. “Realising that we stand as equals, let us accept our responsibilities, re-new our spirits, renew our vows to God, and trust in His divine Will.” [3] This involved no passive pietism, but on the contrary, action. Accepting the “one clear way of life taught by Jesus” meant that “we must work unceasingly, patiently and tolerantly to remove want and disease and, above all, fear from our people” she wrote in Saturday Night in 1947. [4] The “great enterprise” was to make Canada Christian, she said in 1950. [5]

Canadian delegates to the Paris Conference of the International Federation of University Women, 1921. Margaret McWilliams is seated at centre.
Source: University Women's Club of Winnipeg, Archives of Manitoba

Major instruments in this task were university graduates. In 1922 to an audience of international university women, McWilliams noted that she “had seen now so many signs of a world in which service to one’s fellows was to be the mark of life and growth.” She “had regained confidence in her vision that humanity was entering on a period that would be remembered as one of the great times in the history of the world, when the university men and women, standing on the threshold of a new world, had their great opportunity to take their own world and lift it up to this other level.” [6]

McWilliams’ conviction was paraphrased in 1923. “The gift of a university education carries with it an obligation, to make return of service. Canadian democracy is committed in its very foundation to education, and this great experiment in human values demands ... the intelligent support of those who have enjoyed its benefits.” [7] Her insistence that university women should repay society through public service became a regular theme of her speech. Remarking in 1950 on the membership of the Canadian Federation of University Women, she noted with satisfaction that “almost half were giving their return to the state through leadership in voluntary organisations.” [8]

The dimensions of her Christian democracy can be glimpsed in the blueprint for social and economic reform she wrote with her husband. If I Were King of Canada was published in 1931 and stands as the monument to the McWilliamses’ notions of how society should be organized. The pseudonym they chose was Oliver Stowell, which carried echoes not only of her own maiden name, Stovel, but also of the Protestant republican Oliver Cromwell. The McWilliamses advocated state intervention, government planning, some nationalization of resources and manufacturing and a simplification of the existing federal system of government. They also stressed the moral agency of the individual.

Education was crucial in the new society. “We should desire for Canada an aristocracy, not of birth or of wealth, but of brains.” Social services should be more plentiful, and centralized. The state organization of medical services was necessary, and there should be pensions for re-tired people. Constitutional reform was needed. “As for the Senate, it might as well be abolished at once.” Higher posts in government should be allocated not to party servers, but to experts. People weak in moral fibre must be protected from their base desires. Gambling should be “rationalized,” drinking liquor would be discouraged, and financial speculation should be regulated.

The McWilliamses’ vision acknowledged the tension between freedom and control. They wanted freedom in thought, enquiry and criticism and a modified freedom in world trade. At the same time they wished the state to centralize and control the development of communities, industries, and social services on a much wider and deeper scale than any western nation of the time. They had seen communism in action in Russia, in 1926, and regretted what they considered to be an erosion of the moral responsibility of the individual. Yet they did not trust the Canadian individual to withstand “the fever called get-rich quick.” They had no conception of the financial costs of increased social services and centralized state management of resources. [9]

This blueprint showed an attachment to intellectual freedom which kept the McWilliamses from totalitarianism. Its predilection for efficient planning and centralized management alienated them from the classical liberalism of John Stuart Mill. Its distaste for drinking and gambling led them to deplore an unrestricted personal liberty. If I Were King of Canada was the bloom of people who had taken to heart the philosophy of their youth, as taught in the University of Toronto and Queen’s, institutions which formed a generation of “regenerators,” “social uplifters,” propagators of the “social gospel.” [10]

In the early 1880s the University of Toronto had opened its doors to women. They were permitted to compete for scholarships and by 1884 were attending classes at University College. In 1894 when Margaret Stovel entered the university, 19 women graduated from University College along with 139 men. The women were not unreservedly welcome. Charles W. Gordon, also known as the novelist Ralph Connor, who was to be the McWilliamses’ minister at the Presbyterian St. Stephen’s Broadway church in Winnipeg, confessed to a “secret feeling ... that something of the lofty splendour of university life had departed with the advent of women ... there remained an indefinable regret at the passing of a certain virility from university life at the coming of ‘the skirts’.” [11]

The honours course in political science in 1894 was designed to train applied social scientists, literate in economics, constitutional and economic history, modern history, public finance, political philosophy, jurisprudence and law. Margaret Stovel’s interest in all these subjects remained with her for the rest of her life. During her four years at University College, she and her fellow students, including Roland McWilliams and the future prime minister Mackenzie King, studied the political economy of Adam Smith, Malthus and Ricardo, and the political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau, Burke, the utilitarians and Thomas Hill Green.

McWilliams gave no explicit account of her intellectual development, but there seems little doubt that one guiding light for her own ideas and behaviour was the philosophy of T. H. Green. He was a British philosopher suspicious of John Stuart Mill’s individualism and “hedonistic theory.” He thought Mill’s understanding of freedom was too negative. Green considered that the state should provide positive opportunities for citizens to know themselves and do good for society. In his 1882 Prolegomena to Ethics, Green described a civic idealism in which “the life of citizenship is a mode of divine service”: the life most worth living was that “which finds its nurture and its sphere of realization in that supreme institution, the organized State.” Although he agreed with Mill that the state should not unduly restrict the individual, he nevertheless believed that the state should legislate, for example, the control of drinking, “in order that [citizens] may become more free to exercise the faculties and improve the talents which God has given them.” [12] Green’s ideas were part of the air Margaret Stovel breathed in Toronto in the 1890s.

They also formed the minds of two of the most influential Canadian intellectuals of the time. John Watson, professor of philosophy at Queen’s University from 1872 to 1922, wrote in “the most revealing and suggestive statement made by a Canadian philosopher in the nineteenth century” that “the individual man ... must learn that, to set aside his individual inclinations and make himself an organ of the community is to be moral and the only way to be moral.” [13] George Grant, Principal of Queen’s, preached a social ethic, saying that practical preaching “aims at establishing the Kingdom of God on earth” in a “gospel of active social service.” Education was to produce a citizen who, in Watson’s words, would “seek his freedom where alone it can be found — in the subordination of his own will to the good of others.” The community had pre-eminence over the individual, whose service could be performed “in ascending forms: from the level of the church, the civil service, or the empire.” The civic idealism of T. H. Green, partly through the books, teaching and lectures of Watson and Grant, informed the next generation of clergymen, civil servants and teachers. [14] Green’s ideas also found a disciple in Margaret McWilliams.

Neither Green’s nor McWilliams’ civic idealism could be considered secular. Both were integrated with faith. McWilliams was brought up by family members belonging to several Protestant denominations. Her maternal grandmother was Presbyterian. Margaret’s parents became Plymouth Brethren, but they were both dead by the time she was ten. When Margaret married, from her maternal uncle’s house in Minneapolis, the ceremony was conducted by a Congregationalist minister. During their seven years in Peterborough the McWilliamses attended a Presbyterian church and on arrival in Winnipeg joined the congregation of St. Stephen’s Broadway, also Presbyterian. [15]

At St. Stephen’s Margaret McWilliams took her share of female hospitality chores, organizing teas and receptions, but she preferred to be active on behalf of temperance and public welfare work rather than in the traditional female group of the Women’s Missionary Society. Indeed, her cousin Helen Monk remembered that Margaret was rather sneering of such work until her visit to China in 1932. At that time she met many missionaries and was impressed by the extensive health and educational networks they had put in place. Helen Monk said that once Margaret returned to Canada she treated W.M.S. work with increased respect. [16]

Margaret McWilliams’ attitude towards religion in her early life is not known, but someone who worked closely with her in the 1940s said, “her background was protestant, not Anglican, and ... she had been brought up to believe that one should do good in this world.” [17] McWilliams’ adult references in public to religion were at first evangelical but rare, until the second World War when they became quite frequent.

Her relative reserve about religion had been undermined in 1937 when General Evangeline Booth of the Salvation Army visited Winnipeg. McWilliams shared the platform with the Lieutenant-Governor, the Attorney General, the President and Chancellor of the University, and a Senator. She seconded the vote of thanks from an audience of 4,000, “spellbound by magnificent imagery, spiritual fire, and brilliant oratory.” The Booth visit convinced McWilliams that she should declare her religious beliefs publicly. “It is only by example and testimony,” she said, “that others can be truly helped.” From then on, her invocation of Christianity became more insistent. [18]

After her death, her widower Roland wrote that “Margaret and I shared deep religious convictions, even though not always orthodox. We had supreme confidence in a future life, the character of which will depend upon the life lived in this existence.” [19] In life, Margaret McWilliams’s social gospel provoked no crisis of conscience to propel her away from organized religion. [20] She experienced no obvious conflict between her religion and her civic idealism.

McWilliams was inspired by people as well as ideas. As a young girl, Margaret had the benefit of acquaintance with some independent minded women who could serve as role models. She attended Harbord Collegiate Institute, a new high school in Toronto, between 1892 and 1894. There she “came under one of the formative influences of her life in the personality and teaching of Miss Gertrude Lawler.” [21] Lawler, a single professional woman, taught English and was also a judge for the Girls’ Debating Society. At school, Margaret Stovel was one of seven students to gain first-class honours in the Senior Leaving Examination and she was also active in school societies. She was an associate editor of the Harboard Collegiate Review, treasurer of the Literary Society and in her last year, president of the Girls’ Debating Society.

Within her own family, Margaret had learned, by example and experience, responsibilities and benefits associated with independence. Daughter of a tailor who died when she was five and completely orphaned at the age of ten, she and her two younger brothers were raised separately by relatives. Her maternal grandmother had kept “the most fashionable dressmaking establishment in Toronto” after her husband had deserted her. For her last two years at university, in straitened financial circumstances, Margaret had one of her brothers to live with her, and was the boy’s legal guardian. [22]

In literature Margaret found sympathetic role models in the novels of George Eliot. As a student she once took part in a dramatic “representation of the women of George Eliot.” She declared that Eliot was “the very greatest English novelist.” [23] When in 1897 the governor-general’s wife, Lady Aberdeen, invited the University College Women’s Literary Society to attend a Historical Ball in costume, Margaret Stovel impersonated the protagonist Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch. [24] She retained this interest in Eliot after her marriage. One of the few surviving chronicles of her pre-Manitoba years in Peterborough is the program for the “Saturday Afternoon ‘Reading Circle’.” Each week a person talked on a topic concerning Eliot’s novels. McWilliams’ topic was “The Motive of the Story” in Silas Marner. [25]

Margaret McWilliams and husband Roland, the Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba, with the Duke of Kent, 1941.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

In student journalism, Margaret Stovel had further opportunity to practise the role of an independent woman, trained to assemble thoughts and data in coherent argument, a person who could speak out and express her opinions in an appealing and understandable style, and who sincerely believed in the mainstream ethical platitudes of the dominant intellectual culture. She was active in the Women’s Literary Society and she helped to found and served on the Board of the first University of Toronto student year book, Torontonensis. A contributor to the university student newspaper, the Varsity, in late 1897 she wrote a weekly column, “The College Girl,” under the penname “Carr.” [26] After graduation she went to work for five years as a journalist, first in Minneapolis, then in Detroit.

By the time Margaret Stovel married in 1903, her character and interests had been moulded by experience and education. Although she had had to learn some form of economic and emotional self-sufficiency, her intellectual mentors can hardly be described as feminist. Indeed, on arrival in Winnipeg seven years later, she was for a brief time apparently indifferent to explicitly feminist work. She was not an active suffragist, and later explained her inaction. “Things were prospering and there was plenty to occupy [women’s] minds and hands. They did not see the necessity for the suffrage — the world was theirs anyway.” [27] In all probability McWilliams sincerely believed that T. H. Green’s notions of civic idealism were as relevant for women graduates as well as for men. Yet in applying these ideals she soon learned that the world was not the same for female graduates as for male, and that the world did not belong to the former.

This lesson was learned particularly in the context of her work with the Canadian and International Federations of university women. At the founding meeting of the Canadian Federation, held in Winnipeg just after the General Strike of 1919, McWilliams had heard another founding member, Geneva Misener of Edmonton, make “a plea for larger professional life for women, bemoaning the fact that so few made the professions a life work but were willing to forego great opportunities for that of marriage when there should really be no necessity for so doing.” This notion, that “marriage and a profession may go hand in hand for a woman as for a man” was rarely put in practice. [28] Most women in the professions, indeed most women at the time who worked for pay at all, were single. McWilliams’ attendance at the International Federation meetings brought her the acquaintance of a wide variety of professional women, many of whom were married. These conferences also provided forums for the discussion of discrimination against women and served to raise her consciousness that the world was not theirs. [29]

Another lesson of the early 1920s was that women who wanted to teach in universities were not finding jobs commensurate with their qualifications. In 1923, when McWilliams was still president of the CFUW, the same Geneva Misener conducted a survey of women in the higher ranks of the teaching profession. To this end a questionnaire was addressed to university presidents. Question number 4 was “Why are there so few women in the higher academic or executive posts in secondary schools or on the staffs of the universities?” [30] Through her work in the federations McWilliams’s early optimism, based no doubt on her immense personal confidence as well as her ideals, tended to falter. Structural change was needed.

Her remedy was that women should enter the public life of politics precisely in order to fashion the world of the future in a way that would mobilize the passion and caring of women as well as men and that would permit a more integrated society. Much of her career was spent in delivering this message, both by example and exhortation. Her 1943 Report on the Postwar Problems of Women was unabashedly feminist in its calls for equality in the work place, for integration in the work force, and for widespread social security for women as individuals as well as in their capacity as mothers and homemakers, and, above all, in its insistence that each woman, married or single, should have the option of choosing whether or not to work in the labour force or in public life.

The legacy she inherited from her education and circumstances allowed Margaret McWilliams to choose a life of public service. Christianity and civic idealism permeated her inspiration and propelled her towards feminist activity. To the end of her life she hoped that new generations of women would, like her, be mobilized by the same faith to do good.


This Research Note results from information acquired through research carried out for Margaret McWilliams: An Interwar Feminist, published in autumn, 1991 by McGill-Queen’s University Press. Research for the book was supported financially by the SSHRC, whose assistance is acknowledged gratefully by the author. This Research Note was the basis of a talk presented to a meeting of the Women and History Association of Manitoba in January, 1991.

1. Jack Stovel Papers (JSP), Helen Stovel Stearns to Elizabeth Stovel, 6 July 1975.

2. Western School Journal, 1919-1920, p. 179.

3. Provincial Archives of Manitoba (PAM), Local Council of Women, Annual General Meeting, 25 September 1945.

4. Saturday Night, 28 June 1947.

5. University of Toronto Archives (UTA), Margaret Stovel file, Clipping, September 1950.

6. National Archives of Canada (NAC), Canadian Federation of University Women (CFUW), International Federation of University Women Chronicle 1922, pp. 83-86.

7. Manitoba Free Press, 8 September 1923.

8. NAC, CFUW, History of the CFUW, 1919-1949, 1950, p. 5.

9. Oliver Stowell, If I Were King of Canada (Toronto: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1931).

10. See Richard Allen, The Social Passion: Religion and Social Reform in Canada,1914-28 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,1971); Ramsay Cook, The Regenerators: Social Criticism in Late Victorian English Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985); Brian J. Fraser, The Social Uplifters: Presbyterian Progressives and the Social Gospel in Canada, 1875-1915 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier Press, 1988); Brian McKillop, A Disciplined Intelligence: Critical Enquiry and Canadian Thought in the Victorian Era (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1979).

11. Charles W. Gordon, Postscript to Adventure: The Autobiography of Ralph Connor (New York: Farrar and Rinehart 1938), p. 40.

12. T. H. Green, Prolegomena to Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press (1882) 1906), pp. 458-70; Leslie Armour and Elizabeth Trott, The Faces of Reason: An Essay on Philosophy and Culture in English Canada, 1850-1950 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1981), pp. 216-22; John MacCunn, Six Radical Thinkers (London: Edward Arnold,1910), pp. 220, 243-44, 262; Harold Perkin, The Rise of professional Society: England since 1880 (London: Routledge, 1990), passim & pp. 124-27.

13. McKillop, A Disciplined Intelligence, p. 198.

14. Ibid., pp. 197, 206, 218, 224.

15. See Mary Kinnear, Margaret McWilliams: An Interwar Feminist (Montreal & Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991), chapter 2.

16. Ibid., chapters 2, 3, 4 and 6.

17. Interview with Mrs. W. L. Morton, 11 August 1989.

18. Winnipeg Tribune, 23 October 1937; Kathleen Strange, “Margaret McWilliams of Manitoba,” Canadian Home Journal, August 1951.

19. JSP, R. F. McWilliams to Russell Stovel, 6 May 1952.

20. For examples of conflict between religious faith and ideas of social reform, see Ramsay Cook, “Ambiguous Heritage: Wesley College and the Social Gospel Reconsidered,” Manitoba History, No. 19, Spring 1990, pp. 2-11.

21. Woman’s Supplement, Canadian Courier, 7 February 1914.

22. JSP, J. Hodder Stovel, Memoirs, unpublished typescript, pp. 15-30.

23. Varsity, 5 February, 11 November 1896.

24. UTA Sesame 1898, pp. 56-61.

25. Velma McWilliams Papers, in possession of Mrs. Velma McWilliams, niece through marriage of Margaret McWilliams. Program of the Saturday Afternoon Reading Circle, n.d. (c. 1907).

26. Varsity 21, 28 October, 4,11,18, 25 November, 2, 9, 16 December 1897.

27. Catherine Clerverdon, The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press (1950), 1974), p. 54.

28. NAC, CFUW, Minutes, 25 August 1920, 12; Minutes, 25-27 August 1926, p. 8.

29. NAC, CFUW, Minutes, 25-27 August 1926, p. 8.

30. University of Manitoba Archives, President’s Papers, Margaret McWilliams to James McLean, May-August 1923.

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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