Meet me in St. Louis — the train ride that changed the face of Canadian journalism

French translation of Women’s Press Club biography released last week

“Sitting in George Ham’s office in June of 1904, Margaret Graham tried to convince the railway man that women merited equal treatment. She told Ham that, contrary to what he might think, women journalists did attract a large readership and that the CPR would benefit from taking press women to the World’s Fair.”

In The Sweet Sixteen: The Journey That Inspired the Canadian Women’s Press Club, author and Concordia journalism professor Linda Kay delves into the pivotal moment just over 110 years ago when, on this train ride to the St. Louis World Fair, 16 female journalists banded together to form the Canadian Women’s Press Club.

Last Tuesday, Kay celebrated the newly released French translation of her oeuvre, Elles étaient seize, with an intimate launch party at Concordia and a talk mediated by Francine Pelletier, prominent journalist and co-founder of the feminist newspaper La Vie en Rose.

The biography centres on the lives and careers of the 16 women—eight anglophones and eight francophones—who blazed a trail for female journalists and writers in this country.

“They completely defied the stereotype of the Victorian woman,” Kay said. According to her, six of the women were unmarried, some divorced, and some had illegitimate children and conducted torrid love affairs, all while embodying the modern prototype of ambitious, career-driven women.

In 1980, Kay was the first female sportswriter at The Chicago Tribune. “I thought I’d reinvented the wheel,” she said. “But then [after coming to Montreal], I found out that the first woman to work full time in Canada for a newspaper was in 1886. We had no idea, we really thought we were in the vanguard, we were the pioneers.”

Kay’s research into the Women’s Press Club began when she attended the 100th anniversary celebration of the club. That night, the members—who were in their 80s and 90s—announced that, with no influx of younger journalists, they would no longer be able to continue the club.

Today, the legacy of the Women’s Press Club has all but disappeared from history—that is, until Kay’s book hit the shelves.

“In their day, many of them were stars because literacy at that time in Canada was becoming almost universal, so they had readership,” said Kay.

They were prolific figures, paramount in promoting higher education standards for women and captivating female audiences with their works, yet they were limited.

“Women were not allowed to have the big assignments of the day, they covered the women’s events, the women’s page, they wrote the women’s page on Saturdays in the paper,” said Kay. “They were very talented writers but they didn’t cover the events that the men were covering.”

That is, until the World’s Fair: “One of the women said she’s going to try to get the railroad, which always took the men to these events free of charge, to try to get take the women,” said Kay.“The gentleman who was in charge of publicity at the time at first was like ‘well where are you going to find enough women to make it worth my while to do this’ and she said ‘there’s a woman working for every newspaper in Canada and we’ll find enough’.”

He challenged her to find 12 such women journalists and, if she did, he would take them all there himself on the premier-class train.

As history goes, she found 16.

Elles étaient seize hit shelves on March 3. The book is now available in both languages wherever books are sold.

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