Today, women and men make up the newsrooms of Canada. It is not unusual for there to be female editors, reporters, war correspondents and publishers but there was a time that was not the case. Go back over a century, and women in the newsroom was extremely rare but there was one woman who pushed against the male-dominated industry and made her mark in journalism.
Born Catherine Ferguson in May 1856 in Ireland to a middle-class farmer and his wife. Catherine would attend Loretta Abbey for her schooling, followed by finishing school in Belgium. Her parents were highly supportive of her creative mind, and her father would indulge her love of books, while her mother, a blind woman, taught her to play several musical instruments. While both parents were very supportive, it was her uncle Thomas Burke, a priest and orator, who would teach her social tolerance, which she would carry with her for the rest of her life and career.
Coleman would marry Thomas Willis, an elderly man when she was still below the age of 20, and the couple would have one child who died young, followed soon after by Willis. The marriage was not a happy one and she received no money following her husband’s death.
In 1884, at the age of 28, she moved to Canada and began working as a secretary before marrying her boss Edward Watkins. The couple would have two children together.
In 1889, Watkins died and Coleman began to clean houses to support herself and her children, while also writing articles for magazines such as Toronto’s Saturday Night.
In 1890, Coleman began to begin working as a journalist in Toronto, with a column called Kit of the Mail. This made her the first female journalist in Canada to have her own section of a newspaper. Hired by the Toronto Mail, her seven-column page ran throughout the 1890s and into the 1900s. Called Women’s Kingdom, it came out once a week and she soon rebelled against her editors who wanted her to write only about housekeeping, advice and fashion. Her wit and disdain for such topics was evident in one column in which she said, “the new hats are weird but we say that every spring and still wear them.”
In 1892, she would write, “I think it is paying us women a poor compliment to imagine we cannot take an interest in the highest and very deepest challenges of the day.”
She began to write about business, politics, religion and science, correctly determining that women would want to read about those topics. Her column quickly became incredibly popular and even Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier was a reader. As time went on, her topics would turn to the epidemic of domestic violence against women and the poor working conditions many women dealt with. Her column was syndicated across Canada and she would continue to work for the Toronto Mail until 1911.
She firmly believed that women should be able to work if they wanted to and be paid equally to men. This was a close issue to her heart since in Toronto, a male journalist was paid $35 to $50 a week, while Coleman, who arguably had one of the most popular columns in all of Canada, was paid only $20, forcing her to clean houses on the side to supplement her income.
Coleman also advocated for better working conditions for girls and women, including better pay, fair treatment and proper breaks. In one column highlighting the terrible conditions that factory girls worked in, Coleman said, “A slight lame girl in a shabby black gown was toiling wearily up the long staircase after her day’s work was done. Her face was pallid with that grey look upon it that comes from confinement, want of proper rest and lack of bathing. As she limped past on her way to her room in the roof, one could see what a frail, delicate little creature she was.”
Disguising herself as a man or poor woman, she would travel to London, California, Ireland and the West Indies to see the issues that were impacting women.
One of her most popular features was “Advice for the Lovelorn”, but Coleman herself was cynical of love itself because of her parents marrying her off to an old man when she was still a teenager.
In 1895, the Mail, which was more progressive, merged with the Empire, which was more conservative. The new management wanted Coleman to write about recipes and what they saw as “women’s topics”, to which she refused but she comprised by no longer writing dispatches from the road but not writing any fashion pages, citing that it was “none of her concern” She would also state, “I detest fashion and I think it is paying us women a poor compliment to imagine we cannot take an interest in the highest and the very deepest questions of the day.”
Soon enough, the newspaper was flooded with letters from readers saying they wanted Coleman to write about what she was writing about previously, not making her section more like other women’s sections in other newspapers.
During her time with the Toronto Mail, she also interviewed celebrated French actress Sarah Bernhardt, covered the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the Mid-Winter Fair in San Francisco in 1894 and Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in London in 1897.
At the Jubilee, she reported on the pomp and pageantry and the queen and military ceremonies. At one point, she rode in a carriage with Prime Minister Laurier and one month later, Laurier invited Coleman to come with him and his wife to watch the Prince of Wales present medals to colonial troops.
Her reputation grew quickly and an in a reference to her work in America, she was called brilliant. It was also believed at the time that no journalist, male or female, had as much of a direct influence on the prestige or circulation of a North American newspaper.
In 1898, the Spanish-American War broke out and Coleman volunteered to go to Cuba to cover the battle. The Toronto Mail agreed and she was sent over, receiving the first war correspondent accreditation for a women in history. In the war, she was authorized to follow American troops but other correspondents and authorities in the military were against her going and forced her to stay in Florida. She would persist though, arriving in Cuba in July, just before the war ended. She would provide an account of the aftermath of the war, and the casualties in the war, helping her become famous across the continent. On her way back to Canada, she spoke at the International Press Union of Women Journalists in Washington, D.C.
Following the war, she adopted an anti-war stance because of what she had seen during her correspondence in Cuba.
Soon after getting back to Canada, she would marry Theobald Coleman and move to Copper Cliff, Ontario where her husband was a doctor for the copper company there.
In 1904, Coleman worked to fight against the discrimination of women in journalism by establishing the Canadian Women’s Press Club and was the first president of the organization.
After leaving the Mail, she would syndicate her column herself, charging $5 per article to newspapers, making her much more money than she ever made at the Mail and Empire. Due to her mistreatment at the hands of management of that paper, she refused to allow her column to be printed in that paper. This also made her the first syndicated Canadian columnist.
While she did not support the women’s suffrage movement herself, she did show support in one column, stating, “I shall welcome it for women, for I believe it to be the best thing in the end for them and the race, but I am not a Suffragist, or rather worker in the cause. I most thoroughly admire the Canadian woman who are earnest in the movement but it does not attract me personally. A small matter, my friend, and one wholly personal.”
Coleman would sadly die of pneumonia in 1915, at the age of only 59. Today, she is a member of the Canadian News Hall of Fame.
Information courtesy of Wikipedia, Canadian Encyclopedia, CBC, Roberson Review of Journalism, the Torontoist,