Kate Aitken: 'Busiest Woman in the World'
(CBC Still Photo Collection/Gilbert A. Milne)
For busy housewives in postwar Canada, Kate Aitken's singsong voice was a welcome diversion from their everyday duties. Three days a week, Mrs. A and a rotating cast of male sidekicks shared advice on cooking, child care and fashion and offered a perspective on the broader world of women and politics.
Aitken was born Katherine Scott in Beeton, Ont., in 1891. Her parents ran the town's general store, and young Kate and her six siblings also worked there.
At 16, Aitken took a teaching course and became a teacher in one-room schools in Ontario and Saskatchewan. In 1914 she married Henry Aitken, an accountant. The couple lived briefly in Minnesota before moving back to Ontario and having two daughters, Mary and Anne.
A lucky accident got Aitken into radio. In 1934 she was conducting a cooking school in the Maritimes when a local commentator broke her leg. The station manager asked Aitken to step in, and a career was born.
Aitken's CBC program was sponsored by Ogilvie Flour Mills. Rather than breaking up the show with ads, Aitken wrote them herself so that Ogilvie's products were incorporated into the discussion. This was known in radio as an integrated commercial.
Listen to an example of integrated commercials:
Only eight Kate Aitken programs from 1948 to 1950 survive, but they allow a glimpse into an era when "women's programming" was its own category at CBC and the ads were just part of the conversation.
CFRB radio in Toronto was Kate Aitken's first steady broadcast job, starting in 1934. CJAD in Montreal picked up her syndicated show later, and her CBC program ran Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays starting in 1948.
After being on air on CBC for just over a month, listeners were already flooding her show with queries on everyday life. Questions explored on some of her early programs, included: How do I emigrate after marrying an American? Can I make money by selling homemade candy? Is it OK to sign a cheque in pencil? Do I need a lawyer to write a will? How big is a pullet egg? How do I shampoo an invalid's hair?Hear Aitken answer listeners' questions:
Aitken was required to submit a script to CBC in advance of her broadcasts.
In her book Making Your Living is Fun
, Mrs. A shared a story about broadcast standards at the CBC. She planned to caution homemakers not to put excess rat poison in the garbage, but to flush it down the toilet. After the censor received her script, she received a stern warning to change her wording: "On CBC we do not flush toilets!"
Aitken met many remarkable people over her career. In 1927, as a representative at an international wheat conference, she met Italy's Benito Mussolini and managed to sell him an order for Canadian wheat. On a mission to England the same year, Aitken met the young Duke and Duchess of York and their then 18-month-old daughter, Elizabeth (who later became the Princess Elizabeth and eventually Queen).
In 1949, Aitken took an 18-day trip around the world. Mrs. A told listeners she was talking the trip because she was determined to know more about the women of the world and how they face its problems.Hear her talk about her trip:
A 1950 article about Aitken for Maclean's magazine was titled "The Busiest Woman in the World." It described Aitken's relentless pace: she was women's editor of the Montreal Weekly Standard, director of women's activities for the Canadian National Exhibition, broadcaster of two different radio shows, a food consultant and cookbook author. She also gave about 150 speeches and travelled 240,000 kilometres yearly.
Aitken had a staff of 21 secretaries to answer the 5,000 letters she received every week.
In 1950, an estimated 32 per cent of Canadians listening to the radio were tuned into Aitken when she was on the air. Despite a daily audience of 1.5 million, Aitken retired from broadcasting in 1957. She published her childhood memoirs, Never a Day So Bright, the same year. In 1959 she was appointed to the CBC Board of Directors, where she remained for three years.
Aitken died in December 1971.
Posted on Oct 5, 2011 6:00:00 AM