Here in Canada, October is Women’s History Month. I’d like to celebrate by sharing the story of a woman journalist who, in the late 1800s, embarked on a career in journalism and gave a voice to women’s issues. She proved to Canadians that women’s interests reached beyond the kitchen and childrearing.
Kit Coleman (1856-1915) emigrated to Toronto in 1884. Born in Castleblakeney, County Galway, to a well-read father and a mother with a deep appreciation of music, her interest in social activism was stoked by her intellectual uncle who was a liberal priest and strong orator. To support herself and two children, Kit began writing for Toronto’s Saturday Night and was ultimately hired by the Toronto Mail newspaper, (later renamed The Mail and Empire). She was assigned to a column named Women’s Kingdom and instructed to share recipes, social happenings, love advice, plus beauty and fashion tips. Kit’s response to these restrictive topics was to lace her articles with satirical humour and a refreshing bluntness that readers loved.
Women’s Kingdom grew in popularity and soon Kit had license to tackle her assorted interests—politics, religious matters, marriage and the “new” woman. Even Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier was among her faithful readers. In 1892, Kit wrote, “I think it is paying women columnists a poor compliment to imagine we cannot take an interest in the highest and very deepest challenges of the day.” The newspaper began sending her to interview personalities like revered French actress, Sarah Bernhardt. Kit travelled beyond Toronto to cover events such as the The World’s Fair in Chicago, 1893; and Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in London, England, 1897.
Kit wrote passionately about women’s issues like equal pay, safe working conditions and the consequences of poverty. She earned half of what her male counterparts were paid and supplemented her income by cleaning houses. She often disguised herself as a male or a poor woman during investigative reporting. On one assignment, she walked the streets of London England to follow the foot steps of Charles Dickens. She also reported on unfair treatment of people in the work place.
The Mail and Empire sent Kit to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War of 1898. In spite of instructions to cover light “women’s” topics and the attempts of male correspondents and military administrators to leave her behind in Florida, she wrangled her way to the battle front. Kit became the world’s first accredited woman war correspondent. Daily, she sent home news bulletins encompassing events and her reactions to them. Her interview with the American military uncovered information about a secret arms shipment to Cuban rebels. Before returning to Canada, she was invited to address the International Press Union of Women Journalists in Washington. In 1904, she became the first president of the Canadian Women’s Press Club of which she was a founder. Three years earlier, the Canadian census showed, that out of population of 5 million, there were only 50 female journalists.
After years of conflict with The Mail and Empire over editorial control and pay inequities, Kit Coleman quit the newspaper. Their refusal to give her a raise was the final straw. She began writing Kit’s Column and went on to become Canada’s first syndicated columnist, earning far more than she ever had as a newspaper employee. Her articles were published coast to coast—but she refused to publish in The Mail and Empire.
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