Tuesday, March 8, 2016

For International Women's Day: Five Fascinating Stories from the History of Toronto

Today is International Women's Day, which we've been celebrating since 1910, back in the days when not only were Canadian women not allowed to vote, our country didn't even consider them to be persons. The event has its own fascinating history, which you can learn more about on Wikipedia here — while my friend Rebekah Hakkenberg shared her own thoughts about the occasion on this day six years ago, and shared some great photos from the history of feminism, too.

I thought I'd mark this year's Women's Day by searching through the archives of this blog, looking for the most interesting stories about women from history of Toronto. It's been a valuable experience — and an important reminder: that I need to always strive to a better job of telling stories that are about people who aren't the old white dudes who have dominated so much of the storytelling about the history of our city.

Below, you'll find five of my favourites. From Elizabeth Simcoe and the founding of our city, to the blood-soaked nurses who saved lives during the First World War, to the death of the notorious anarchist who they called "the most dangerous woman in the world."

Elizabeth Simcoe's 1794 Nightmare — The Story Behind One of Toronto's First Recorded Dreams
Toronto was founded in a troubled time. It was the summer of 1793 when the first British soldiers showed up to clear the forest and make way for our brand new town. Just ten years earlier, some of those same men had been fighting in the American Revolution. Their commander, John Graves Simcoe, was a hero of that bloody war; no stranger to danger and death.... While Simcoe set to work planning his new capital, Elizabeth was charged with the task of bringing aristocratic British culture to this remote outpost tucked between the primordial Canadian forest and the vast waters of Lake Ontario. As the fledgling town began to take shape and the families of other government officials arrived, Elizabeth Simcoe was at the centre of social life in the new settlement... [continue reading this post] 

Two Toronto Nurses & One of the Most Terrible Nights of the First World War
One dark night in the summer of 1918, the HMHS Llandovery Castle was steaming through the waters of the North Atlantic. She was far off the southern tip of Ireland, nearly two hundred kilometers from the nearest land. It was a calm night, with a light breeze and a clear sky. The ship had been built in Glasgow and was named after a castle in Wales, but now she was a Canadian vessel. Since the world had been plunged into the bloodiest war it had ever seen, the steamship had been turned into a floating hospital. She was returning from Halifax, where she had just dropped off hundreds of wounded Canadian soldiers. On board were the ship's crew and her medical personnel — including fourteen nurses. They were just a few of more than two thousand Canadian women who volunteered to serve overseas as "Nursing Sisters," healing wounds and saving lives and comforting those who couldn't be saved. As the ship sliced through the water, big red crosses shone out from either side of the hull, bright beacons in the dark. The trip was almost over. Soon, they'd be in Liverpool.

But then, without warning, the calm of the night was shattered by a terrible explosion... [continue reading this post]

Mary Pickford's Nightmare Honeymoon
It was 1920. Mary Pickford was the most famous woman in the world. She'd been born in Toronto in the late 1800s: on University Avenue — where Sick Kids is now — and made her stage debut as a young girl at the prestigious Princess Theatre on King Street. Her early days here launched a career that took her all the way to Broadway and then to Hollywood where she became one the greatest silent film stars of all-time. She was at the height of her career in those early days of cinema when the movies were redefining what it meant to be famous. Her golden curls became a global icon. One columnist went so far as to call her "the most famous woman who has ever lived".

Now, Pickford had fallen in love with another one of the most famous movie stars ever: Douglas Fairbanks Jr. They were married in a small, private ceremony outside Los Angeles. Their honeymoon would take them to England and to Europe. And it would be unlike anything the world had ever seen... [continue reading this post]

One Last Victory for the Most Dangerous Woman in the World
The Most Dangerous Woman in the World was playing a quiet game of cards. It was a snowy Toronto evening in the winter of 1940, that first terrible winter of the Second World War. She was staying with friends at their home on Vaughan Road, waiting for a meeting to begin. That's when she slumped over in her chair. It was a stroke. One of the greatest orators of the twentieth century couldn't speak a word. 

This wasn't the end most people would have expected for Emma Goldman. For decades now, she'd been the most notorious anarchist on earth. Her ideas made nations tremble: thoughts about freedom and free speech and free love; about feminism and marriage and birth control; about violence and pacifism and war. She'd been thrown out of the United States for those ideas, forced to flee Soviet Russia, driven out of Latvia, Sweden, Germany... [continue reading this post]

Frances Loring and her life-long partner, Florence Wyle, had come to Toronto in the early 1900s. They'd both been born in the United States and shared a studio in Greenwich Village. They were at home in that neighbourhood's bohemian atmosphere, getting to know their artist neighbours like Georgia O'Keeffe and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. But their parents didn't approve. One day in 1913, Loring's father shut down the studio and offered to move the pair to Toronto. He would be able to keep an eye on them here — and hoped our city's conservative values might rub off on them. Instead, it was the other way around... [continue reading this post]

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