STIRRING THE SAGAS: WHAT CANADIAN CONNECTIONS DO
by Irene Baros-Johnson
Address delivered at the Annual Meeting luncheon of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Heritage Society, Sunday, 23 June 2002 in Quebec City, at the 41st General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Irene Baros-Johnson is a graduate of Drew Theological School. A West Bequest grant funded travel and research.
At one time, nearly every person travelling in North America went to see Niagara Falls and wrote about their impressions. Some early religious education lessons happened there, too. In a coach that was straw-coloured on the outside and brilliant blue inside, four-year-old Julia Ward from New York City went on several journeys to the famous falls, in the hope that the trip would restore her mother’s health. Once the little girl asked the doctor accompanying them, “Who made that great hole where the water came down?” He said, “The great Maker of All!” and she was puzzled. His explanation wasn’t at all clarifying for still she felt mystified, but she was full of the feeling that somehow she should have known. Foreign travellers also took ‘the grand tour’ when they reached this continent and Harriet Martineau visited Niagara Falls twice in the mid-1830s. It took a number of days to reach it and then it seems that you stayed for awhile – to be immersed in the sound and the experience, to see oneself differently through pursuing every view. It was a pilgrimage.
To avoid diluting the experience, Martineau established a rule of silence about it for twenty-four hours. Most striking was “the slowness with which the shaded green waters rolled over the brink.” She thought “This majestic oozing…no longer look[s] like water.” After seeing a rainbow on the American side, Martineau met an elderly man who “quietly observed that he was ashamed to think there had been wars near such a place, and that he hoped the English and the Americans were grown wiser now, and would not think of fighting any more…” and she mused: “This came in echo of my thought. I had been secretly wishing that all the enemies in the world could be brought together on this rock; they could not but love as brethren.”
I’ve talked about Niagara Falls because it is part of our shared border and our shared national experience. Now I want to mention some of the ways two Canadian Unitarian women have related to that border. I will speak of doctor and activist Emily Stowe of Ontario and writer and editor Margret Benedictsson of Manitoba. In their stories, I find that research requires an appreciation of crucial national differences.
Becoming interested in Emily Howard Jennings Stowe three years ago, I found that I was having to think about much more than her becoming Canada’s first woman doctor and the initiator of the Canadian woman’s rights movement. Instead, her story was a microcosm of early Canada’s history. It reached from the farming life of pioneer times to the urbanized development of Toronto. Also far reaching in her sources and influence, the later immigrant Margret Benedictsson expressed an undervalued cosmopolitanism. But study of these women required several shifts from how I usually thought and regarded material.
There are peripheral differences and there are the crucial ones. What seems obvious may not be as much of an issue as what is assumed. Beyond parliamentary forms that seem so different, I found that the rights that women asked for, and the grounds and attitudes of denial, were all too familiar. Proceeding, I will focus on four areas – the historic, the ecclesiastical, the societal, and the multicultural.
1) Historically, there are alternative perspectives about conflicts that count.
Emily Stowe’s background was Quaker. Exploring Stowe’s family background I found that avoiding war, even on religious grounds during the years of the American Revolution was not easy. Even being a “neutral” Quakers might mean life-threatening hostility. There was confiscation of lands and other property by American revolutionaries to contain and punish any sign or possibility of loyalism. Unfortunate incidents were perpetrated arbitrarily and unjustly by both sides. Distress brought by the War of Independence changed the direction of lives and so is remembered and taught. I know since this is what my son learns in school.
I also encountered the War of 1812 in a new way. Canadian books about the conflict speak of an INVASION during which defenders lost lives. Titles of books highlight the word and reality of invasion. Harriet Martineau visited the monument commemorating Sir Isaac Brock, west of Niagara Falls. A brand of chocolate candies carries the name of Laura Secord, remembered widely as a heroine since she walked twenty miles to warn the British of an impending American attack on the Niagara Peninsula. The burning of Washington, D.C. is spoken of as a retaliation for the torching of Toronto, then the much smaller town of “muddy” York.
I also became aware of the Fenian raids, invasions of Canadian border towns by Irishmen just released from fighting the American Civil War. Faced by these conflicts, I was connected to new realities. I realized that there were many feelings about what loyalty and liberty meant and that there were differing national perspectives of events and outcomes.
2) Ecclesiastically, there are distinctly British North American evolutions of religion.
The question of religious identity is so different here. Early arrivals were the French Huguenots and the Roman Catholics who proselytized amongst those already here. In British North America, Congregationalism did not evolve into Unitarianism; and few Universalist churches were founded here. Universalism moved north from New England into the rural areas of eastern Canada. Halifax was the only urban Universalist church. Montreal and Toronto Unitarians were initially English and Irish, with few Americans. Instead, there was the established church (often very High Church indeed, so that many call themselves Anglo-Catholics) and there were the “dissenters,” such as Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and Quakers. In Upper Canada, many Quaker dissenters were Loyalist emigrants from the United States. Yet the Yearly Meeting was in New York and they still considered the “mother church” to be in England. So ties remained strong. It was not unusual for Canadian youth to travel to Quaker boarding school in the Northeastern U.S. I find these connections undervalued in reading Canadian history.
Now if Quakers are “dissenters” and “recent arrivals,” they might well be regarded as suspect. Why, they may have imbibed outrageous ideas of liberty living in those United States. Whether it was from their religious roots, from the self-sufficiency of the colonial experience, or from proximity to revolutionary ideas, it turns out that these newcomers to Canada were not necessarily compliant and respectful of authority. Like many other settlers, they were uppity. As Mary Beacock Fryer and others have pointed out, to some degree, Quakers with an extended sense of rights participated in the short-lived Rebellion of 1837, indicating that local rule benefitted too few. Further, Quakerism was changing. Rather than serving only communities of believers, The Society of Friends was in the throes of associating with “others” in order to accomplish social objectives like abolition.
Unitarians here have been dissenters related to the British Empire, as well as to the U.S. From what I have said, it can be inferred that Unitarians in Canada sometimes suffered from being outside of the mainstream.
3) Societally, there are conservative expectations and contexts of women’s activism.
It was four decades after the Grimke sister spoke in the Northeastern United States on abolition and women’s rights before feminist agitation was started here by Emily Stowe, under the guise of a literary club. Then, it is significant that Stowe’s daughter had obtained all the schooling then allowed a female regardless of intelligence and ambitions. With formation of the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association, effective action was stymied by its trying to work too cooperatively with men. More direct action occurred with the later Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association, which Stowe served as president.
Stowe communicated the story of feminist origins propagated by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, as has been pointed out by Angela Davis. It features the Quaker abolitionist minister Lucretia Mott in London and then Seneca Falls. Stowe took a story of events that happened in faraway London and New York state to indicate the sense of conflict she experienced while promoting women’s rights in Toronto, Canada – to widen the vote and gain entry to university and the professions. Here as elsewhere prohibition was an important woman’s suffrage ally, allowing discussion of abuse and needed reforms.
4) Muliculturally here, the comparison is made and just as often contested, that while the United States is a melting pot, Canada is a mosaic.
However in Canada, there is a tendency to overvalue the importance of contributions of British origin. Thus far, I’ve seen this in three instances of dismissal: there is denial of the role of abolitionism, of the influence of Icelandic Unitarians, and of the importance of any U.S. influences.
a) First, though abolition does not have as far-reaching and constant an impact as in Great Britain and the United States, it is more important than generally credited as poet, writer and professor George Elliott Clarke states. It provides important frameworks for new articulations of what I call “liberty languaging.” As elsewhere, abolition society literature must have been read by women who thought, “This describes my situation, too.” George Brown of the Globe newspaper was a founder of the abolition society and printed news stories about it. Exposure to fugitive slaves settlers given relief by Caroline Dall, the Unitarian minister’s wife in Toronto, as well as to veteran abolitionists in New York seems to have had an impact on Stowe’s perceptions. Both Emily Stowe and her daughter, Dr. Augusta Stowe-Gullen, mention or quote long-time abolition activists William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips as well as abolition-rooted suffragists.
b) Secondly, in Selkirk and Winnipeg, Manitoba, Margret Benedictsson edited the magazine Freya, full of suffrage advocacy with news of Toronto events and the views of U.S. activists, including Lucy Stone. Influenced by the prohibition and suffrage movements in Iceland, Benedictsson travelled and spoke to women of Icelandic origins throughout northern North Dakota, her own province and Saskatchewan. Shortly after, Manitoba was the first province to pass equal suffrage laws, yet Benedictsson’s influence is pigeon-holed as too limited and merely ethnic. Funds have not been secured to preserve and fully translate her work so that it may be evaluated and appreciated. This seems not only narrowly ethnocentric but classist, with a tinge of religious discrimination.
c) Connectively, some women who are change agents can also be recognized as cosmopolitan when a reluctance to fully credit sources of inspiration from the United States is overcome. Last but not least, Emily Stowe went to medical school in New York City, probably for two years from the fall of 1865 to the spring of 1867. Now picture this: She is going to a school run by Dr. Clemence Lozier. The school was chartered with the help of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. During this time, Stanton is the first woman to candidate for Congressional office. Lozier is a supporter of Susan B. Anthony, whom Stowe meets at the doctor’s house.
But that is not all. The woman’s rights movement is going through a sea change during the time that Emily Stowe is in New York. Some women’s rights activists felt betrayed that they did not receive abolitionist support for obtaining the vote at the same time as male freed slaves. A petition of 300,000 signatures were delivered to Congress in support of women’s suffrage. The first Women’s Rights Convention held after the American Civil War was in the city on May 10, 1866. The National Equal Rights Society was formed there and then their anniversary meeting was held a year later. Whether attended in person, or learned of from reading minutes that were printed and widely distributed, these meetings had an impact which prompted Stowe to acknowledge the influence of its leaders, female and male, for decades.
Forgotten, too, in this neglect of Dr. Emily Stowe’s New York experience is the difficulty that female students had in receiving clinical practice at Bellevue Hospital. Several other women students of that time and place mention male student harassment. After a public meeting to decry this situation had ocurred, Stowe still cites skepticism. Ultimately, this informs us about the extent of Emily Stowe’s knowledge and the depth of her approach. It was a strategy of Stowe’s not to dwell on adverse trials, experienced twice herself and once by her daughter, in order to advance the cause.
Conclusion In celebrating our kindredhood, we have had a tendency as UUs (Unitarian Universalists) to blur our national differences. We might instead feel some alarm when we hear the well-meaning phrase, “But we are all alike.” The intention is good. However, pretending that there are no differences leads to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Understanding that there is an “other” prompts us to dig deeper, look far more intently, and enriches us all.
Appendix: Impatient to experience the civilities of Boston where she indeed experienced Theodore Parker praying to “Mother/Father God,” on her wedding trip the English artist Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon wanted to skip everything, except Niagara Falls, that her father recommended that she should see since her parents had once been to the area to see if they could live there.
On May 19th, 1858, the newly married couple went over to British soil, walking across the railway suspension bridge dressed in oilskins. Bodichon wrote, “The falls on this side are wider and you get a more extended view…”
The Bodichons experienced Victoria Day celebrated with greater intensity than it was in England. They found that on Sundays they were stranded as no boats or trains ran. In Toronto, they enjoyed a beautiful park in the rain and commented, before Central Park became a reality, “We have not seen a park in the United States to compare with this. I think the Americans hate trees.” They noted that there was less crime than in the United States. They enjoyed the sunset in Montreal and unsurpassed views on the way to Quebec. The leaves were not out and Barbara decried the icy wind.
Then at Quebec, they went on an excursion to the Montmorency Falls:
We drove through some dark avenues of spruce fir and stopped at a lodge and got out and walked through a wood, guided by a roar fiercer (though not so loud) as Niagara. We went down some deep wooden ladders and stood close to the top of this tremendous fall. The black water was changed into one vast seething mass of tumbling foam two hundred and fifty feet long, and down below roaring in a whirlpool three hundred feet deep.
She stood there with a sense of danger since, “Less than a year ago the suspension bridge,,,though quite new…went down with a great crash…” killing three.
We walked to the highest point which butted out above the St. Lawrence and had the finest view I have seen in America. The terrific falls of white foam against the black rocks and somber firs, with deep blue mountain tops beyond and then the grand St. Lawrence which we looked up. with Quebec – a city of silver spires and silver domes glittering in the sun, the old grey fortifications crowning the hills, and the beautiful distance of hills – made one of the most singular and beautiful pictures I ever in my life saw.
The rocks and trees around the falls are very wild and savage, quite different from those near Niagara. I like these falls much the best. I like the stern, gloomy country, the black river changing into a pale ghost as it leaps the precipice.
Bodichon concluded that Canada could “become a beloved place for the artist.”
Finally, she appreciated Canada for the opportunities to socialize that it afforded her radical new husband, a doctor from Breton who practiced in Algeria:
The Doctor has enjoyed this Canada week very much. He finds friends everywhere in Quebec. He made friends with all sorts, from the Governor down to the cooks (newly imported immigrants). Until you travel in America you can have no idea of the tyranny in Europe. There are hundreds of Frenchmen, thousands I may say, who have left France, though not transported, because they could not bear the suspicions and petty vexations their opinions against Louis Napoleon expose them to. To live in constant fear of being arrested is too terrible to be endured, and we have met many who have come here to breathe freely . . .
“You are right,” she wrote to her father, “it is a tyrant-ridden world.” It was an observation she had made before, while sketching through Europe with women friends.
Source: An American Diary 1857-8 by Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, edited by Joseph W. Reed, Jr. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972), shared with her friend Marie Evans, known as George Eliot.