Manitoba History: Winnipeg Women Journalists Have Always Led the Way

by Shirley Muir and Penni Mitchell
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 70, Fall 2012

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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There were no press clubs for women in Canada at the beginning of the 20th century, but Winnipeg women journalists played an important role in changing that, and at the same time, played a key role on the national stage in advancing women’s issues.

In November 1993, a handful of older women dressed in turn-of-the-century period costumes walked into Winnipeg’s vintage Fort Garry Hotel. They were the last of the Ontario members of the former Canadian Women’s Press Club. They had come to join over 100 delegates at the national Women in the Media Conference sponsored by the Canadian Association of Journalists, with the conference logo featuring Cora Hind, one of CWPC’s founding members from almost a century earlier.

The CWPC representatives in their long dresses at the CAJ conference would be a constant visual reminder that women journalists of the 1990s were working in newsrooms thanks to the doors the CWPC had forced open. Sadly, many of the younger journalists present were still struggling to find their place in newsrooms across Canada. While they had gained access to entry-level jobs, they had still not found equality in newsroom management nor in management salaries. And that’s what had brought them together in Winnipeg, 87 years after the first annual meeting of the Canadian Women’s Press Club.

In 1906, 44 founding members of the CWPC had gathered in Winnipeg, two years after the organization was founded in 1904. The group’s first national president Kathleen Blake “Kit” Coleman, of the Toronto Globe, presided over the meeting.

In 1912, the Winnipeg Women’s Press Club had comfortable quarters in the Industrial Bureau at Main and Water streets. There, reporters and women’s rights advocates like Cora Hind, Lillian Beynon, Nellie McClung, and Hattie Walker met to organize tea and strategy.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg Womens Press Club Collection

The early Winnipeg journalists, who would become core members of the national Women’s Press Club, founded their Winnipeg Branch a year later in 1907. Its members included: Cora Hind, agriculture editor of the Manitoba Free Press, who was known internationally for her accurate prediction of prairie wheat crop yields; writer sisters Francis Beynon and Lillian Beynon who would later become central figures in Wendy Lill’s 1980s play Fighting Days; Kate Simpson Hayes, women’s editor at the Manitoba Free Press; and Nellie McClung, who would help lead the charge for the vote for women in Manitoba in 1916.

With that bench strength it wasn’t surprising that the CWCP activities remained based in the West for ten of the first 14 years, although many other cities had active branches, including Regina, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto. Later there were branches from Vancouver to Halifax.

The idea for the Canadian Women’s Press Club came after women writers demanded (and received) access the free railway passes being offered by the CPR to male journalists covering the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. After buttonholing CPR publicist George Ham, 16 lady journalists (or presswomen, as they preferred to be called) travelled to the fair and, on their return, decided to form a professional association. After all, presswomen were barred from joining the all-male Canadian Press Club. Ham, a patron of the group, would continue to see that the women had free train travel to their conferences for the next several years.

The Canadian Women’s Press Club was more than a professional club for women, however. It was also an early front for social, legal and political reform activity surrounding women’s rights and plight.

In Manitoba, Lillian Beynon Thomas, a columnist for the Weekly Free Press in Winnipeg, told stories about abandoned wives and destitute widows who needed laws to give them the right to family property following death or divorce. She advocated for suffrage and other social reforms. Lillian Beynon Thomas went on to be an organizer of Women’s Institutes and was secretary of the local chapter of the University Women’s Club.

Francis Beynon took up journalism six years after her older sister. She was hired as editor of women’s pages of The Grain Growers’ Guide in 1912 after working in advertising at the T. Eaton Company. The Grain Growers’ Guide helped galvanize women in rural communities to take up political causes, including homestead and dower rights. Although the concept of dower rights—a guarantee of a wife’s minimum inheritance in a husband’s estate—dates back to ancient Babylon and is mentioned in the Magna Carta, dower rights were nonetheless abolished in 1886 for women settlers in the West who had established and built farms alongside their husbands.

In her columns, Beynon encouraged women to extend their empathy to others less fortunate. She wrote in a 1913 editorial that “We have too long been contented with the kind of motherhood that can look out of the window and see little children toiling incredible hours in factories and canning sheds over the way… and say calmly, ‘Thank God, it isn’t my children.’”

According to Linda Kay, author of The Sweet Sixteen: The Journey that Inspired the Canadian Women’s Press Club, “They were very influential, prime ministers came to speak at their annual meeting, and they were a force.”

By the 1920s, the Canadian Women’s Press Club had more than 400 members. Membership peaked in the early 1970s at 700 members. At the club’s 1971 general meeting in Toronto, it was decided to change the name to the Media Club of Canada. The Media Club celebrated its 90th birthday in Halifax in 1994 and lasted until the early 2000s.

The Canadian Women’s Press Club gathered in Winnipeg for its first national meeting in 1906.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg Womens Press Club Collection

Page revised: 27 November 2017