Thank you, Emily Stowe
The story of Emily Stowe is one that captures the struggle for women’s rights in Canada.
The first white woman to practice medicine without a license in Canada is probably more widely known for her advocacy for women’s rights and access to education for women than she may be for her medical achievements. Her accomplishment in obtaining a medical education cleared a path for other women to follow.
Emily Stowe was the founder of the Toronto Women’s Literary Club, a nom de plume, if you will, for the meetings of the nascent Canadian feminist movement, which became, seven years later in 1883, the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association and then the Dominion Women's Enfranchisement Association. She was a leading figure in the Canadian suffrage movement and advocated tirelessly for women's rights throughout her life.
Stowe was raised with the Quaker principles of gender equality and the pursuit of knowledge. Although born in Canada, in Norwich Township in 1831, she was sent to a co-educational Quaker school in Rhode Island before moving back to Canada and taking a teaching position, at the age of 15, in a small school in Norwich. Refused entry to the University of Toronto because of her gender, she continued to teach until she was able to attend the Normal School in 1854, graduating with a First Class Teacher’s Certificate and an appointment as principal at a public school in Brantford – a first for women educators in Canada. By this point, Emily Stowe was 23.
Emily married John Stowe, and had three children. Early in her marriage, her husband developed tuberculosis. This influenced her decision to enter medicine and why she had to keep teaching to support her family and studies. But where would she study? In Canada, women were woefully behind their European and American counterparts in access to higher education, let alone to a medical education. The first woman to graduate a Canadian university was Grace Annie Lockhart who graduated in 1875 from Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick; the first woman to graduate from medical school was Augusta Stowe-Gullen, Emily’s daughter, who graduated from Victoria College in 1883. In contrast, American Elizabeth Blackwell, graduated from the Geneva Medical College in 1849; and the British physician Elizabeth Garrett Anderson obtained her license through the Society of Apothecaries in 1865 after cobbling together a education outside of being admitted to a medical school.
Emily also attended the Geneva Medical College in New York City and returned to Canada in 1867, fully qualified and ready to set up a practice in Toronto. It was here she hit a snag, again, due to being a woman. In 1869, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario was recognized as the regulatory body for licensing physicians in Ontario. Foreign-trained physicians were to attend a session of lectures at a recognized Ontario medical school and sit an examination. The catch was, of course, that no women were allowed into Ontario medical schools. Well, what’s a girl to do? Practice anyway. And advocate for change.
Emily continued to apply to, and get rejected by, the University of Toronto until 1870 when two women, Emily and Jennie Trout, were admitted to, and graduated from, the Toronto School of Medicine.
With one hurdle to licensing down, the remaining barrier was the examination, which Emily refused to sit, and with good reason. Her encounters with the “medical men” were not positive; she fought for access for over a decade and she was a successful thorn in their side, spurring the profession to admit women against its will. Would it be a hostile affair? More than likely. Emily finally obtained her license in 1880, thirteen years after opening her practice. But because of this delay, her achievement as the first woman to practice medicine in Canada is qualified - without a license. The first licensed women physician in Canada was Dr. Jennie Kidd Trout, Emily’s classmate at the University of Toronto and a co-founder of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada.
Emily was also instrumental in founding the Women’s Medical College in Toronto in 1883, where Dr. Augusta Stowe-Gullen was appointed the first female staff member. It was subsequently closed in 1906, after training more than a hundred women physicians. The times, they were a-changing; women were finally allowed to enter the University of Toronto.
Outside of medical education, Emily made her mark in suffragist circles, leading the public discussion on rights for women, equal wages and access to education and occupations. Famously, she was a member of the Mock Parliament, in 1896 playing the role of the Attorney General. The Mock Parliament was performed several times over the years leading up to suffrage, with Nellie McClung performing in probably the more famous rendition in 1914.
Despite her advanced feminist views, Emily Stowe was a woman of her time, a complex human, as we all are, and subject to the class biases that delineated Canadian society. This was evident in her testimony before the courts in 1879 when she was charged with administering an abortifacient to a domestic servant who showed up on her doorstep looking for help. Her behaviour in the matter, from her own testimony, is not in keeping with her advocacy in promoting women’s rights. Her response to Sarah Ann Lovell was to pacify her with a sugar remedy while she contacted her employer to recommend she be fired: “I advised her to inform Mrs. Lovell (Sarah’s mother) of her daughter’s condition, and get the girl off of her (Mrs. Avis’s) hands”. (1) The history of abortion access is rife with race, class and ethnic discrimination. Abortion remains a controversial topic for society today; in the late 19th century, it was a crime. There would be a limit to how far Dr. Stowe would flout the law for women’s rights.
Emily Stowe died in 1903 just before non-aboriginal Canadian women received the right to vote in beginning in 2016. It would be 44 years before aboriginal women were welcomed at the polls in 1960. During her life, Emily Stowe broke down barriers and forged a path for women medical students to follow. Her vision of the “day…when these doors [at the University of Toronto] will swing wide open to every female who chooses to apply” (2) has come to pass. Women reached parity in medical school in 1995, almost a century after they were first admitted.
Thank you Dr. Emily Stowe for your dedication and commitment to medical education for women.
And….. Congratulations on being named to the Canadian Hall of Fame, a distinction well-earned and long delayed.
1. Constance Backhouse, “The Celebrated Abortion Trial of Dr. Emily Stowe, Toronto, 1879”, Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, 1991, Vol. 8, pp. 159-87.
2. Carlotta Hacker, The Indomitable Lady Doctors, Clarke, Irwin & Company Ltd, Toronto/Vancouver, 1974