a, Student Life

Women’s History Month


March is Women’s History Month both across the pond and south of the border, while International Women’s Day falls this Thursday worldwide. Canada’s own Women’s History Month is October, a month more frequently associated with essays and Halloween parties. And so, there’s no time like the present to remind ourselves of the important role that women have played in Montreal and McGill history. 

Women are easier to find in recorded history after the nineteenth century, counted at last amongst the movers and shakers thanks to the actions of the suffragettes and their sisters, who took to the political stage at home and abroad. Because of those women, we have more details of their lives, their thoughts, and their responses to contemporary challenges. 

Jeanne Mance

Women have been vital to Montreal’s success since its foundation. In 1641, Jeanne Mance (1606-1673) crossed the Atlantic into frigid New France, where she and Charles Lallemant founded the Ville-Marie mission, turning a small settlement into a colony. Just four years after arriving at the ends of the known earth, she founded the Hôtel-Dieu, North America’s second-oldest hospital after the Hôtel-Dieu de Quebec. 

Visit the Musée des Hospitalières de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal at 201 Pine Avenue West to learn more about Jeanne Mance, the early days of Montreal medical care, and the Hôtel-Dieu itself.

Marie-Josèphe Angélique

Montreal women broke the rules from the beginning. Take, for example, the Portugal-born Marie-Josèphe Angélique (1710-1734), a black slave with a white lover. She escaped domestic slavery and fled south, but was recaptured. Shortly after, her owner’s house caught fire (along with 46 nearby buildings), leading to her arrest and trial for arson. She was forced to confess under torture, and subsequently executed. Whether an innocent scapegoat singled out because of her rebellion in the face of oppression, or a woman who sought to make a statement with matches, Marie-Josèphe sent ripples through history. 

To learn more, check out ‘Torture and the Truth: Angelique and the Burning of Montreal’ at www.canadianmysteries.ca/sites/angelique/accueil/indexen/html/

Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie

Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie (1867-1945), the daughter of a lawyer, made good use of her father’s law books as she grew up. These books showed her how few legal rights were available to women in Quebec, setting her on a suffragette’s path. She eventually helped found the Montreal-based Fédération nationale St-Jean-Baptiste, Quebec’s premiere feminist foundation and a major force in coordinating and sustaining the women’s rights movement in Quebec. Fourteen years before her death, the Quebec Civil Code was changed to award married women more financial autonomy and self-determination. Just five years before her death, Quebec granted women suffrage—the last province to do so—as a direct result of protests which she organized and participated in. 

See the McCord Museum’s online thematic tour of Quebec feminism for more history and images of related artifacts, or visit the museum itself at 690 Sherbrooke St. West.

Carrie Derick

In a century where many women now hold high positions at McGill, it’s easy to forget that Canada first awarded a woman full professorship just 100 years ago. That woman was Carrie Derick (1862-1941), a distinguished alumnus of McGill who had graduated at the top of her natural science class, going on to serve the university as an instructor for 16 years before she was awarded the full title and esteem given to her male colleagues. She held the position of acting chairperson of McGill’s botany department for three years. She also won several prizes, including the J.C. Wilson Prize and the Logan Gold Medal in Natural Science. Her work on genetics became renowned in the scientific community, a testament to her expertise and perseverance despite social odds. 

On Oct.13, 2012, the Redpath Museum Auditorium will honor the centenary of Carrie Derick’s appointment, with a Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine Symposium. For more information, visit www.mcgill.ca/science/events/outreach/wisems/ 

Margaret Charlton

The organization of McGill’s medical library remained the purview of a medical faculty member for 72 years after its foundation. The library found its first trained librarian in Margaret Charlton (1858-1931), who came to McGill fresh from studying under the inventor of the Dewey decimal system, and was subsequently given the post of Assistant Librarian—a McGill first, and a position she would hold for almost 20 years. Her meeting with Dr. William Osler, the namesake of McGill’s medical history library, was the catalyst for the creation of the Association of Medical Librarians. 

You can visit her grave in Mount Royal Cemetery, on the north slope of Mount Royal.

Harriet Brooks

Our physics building may be named after Ernest Rutherford, but he held that his first graduate student, Harriet Brooks (1876-1933), was second only to Marie Curie in brilliance. Brooks was the first female nuclear physicist in Canada, as well as the first woman to receive a Master’s degree from McGill (doing so in 1901). The university mandate that required women to resign upon marriage cut her off from her career in physics, but not before she helped develop the foundations of nuclear science by performing experiments to discern the nature of radioactivity, and the structure of the atom. Her death was likely due to leukemia, as a consequence of her little-understood field of study. 

You can read more about her and her involvement with McGill history at blogs.mcgill.ca/science/2011/01/03/brooks-and-rutherford-emanate/ 


While these women are bold examples, the collective and individual voices of Montreal’s lower-class and working women, along with women of colour, are still being found and shared by historians and communities alike. Their critical response in epidemic responses, labour marches, local politics, the war effort, the development of human rights, and other moments in history should not be overlooked. Indeed, the great majority of women on Earth still suffer under conditions more similar to the past than the Western present, necessitating a response from the global community. This year’s International Women’s Day theme calls on us to ‘Empower Women—End Hunger and Poverty.’ Take inspiration from these figures of the past, and who knows? Perhaps you, or someone you know, will become another eminent name in local history by facing, head on, one of the 21st century’s biggest challenges. 

To find out more, visit www.un.org/womenwatch/feature/iwd/ 

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