The story of the Canadian Women's Press Club

First aired on All in a Weekend (23/06/12)

Before women could vote in Canada, or were even considered "persons" under the law, there was the Canadian Women's Press Club. It was created by a group of female journalists who were sent to cover the World's Fair in St. Louis, in 1904.

Linda Kay, who teaches journalism at Montreal's Concordia University, tells the story of the 16 reporters who formed the influential organization in her new book, The Sweet Sixteen: The Journey That Inspired the Canadian Women's Press Club.

Kay said she became interested in the club's story when she started teaching a course called "Gender and Journalism." "I was doing a lot of research for that class, and I found that there was going to be a 100th anniversary party of the Canadian Women's Press Club in 2004 ," she explained to Sonali Karnick, host of All in a Weekend, in a recent interview. "And I said, 'what is this club?'" Kay had never even heard of it, but she decided that she had to attend the celebration and find out more.

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She attended the anniversary party, on a June weekend in Ottawa in 2004, and took along some of her students to film it, thinking she would use the video in class. But what she heard about the club stuck with her. "This was the story of how, when women did not have the same rights as men, there were a handful of very top-flight women journalists working at the time, in the early 1900s, and they were very upset and appalled that they didn't have the same rights as pressmen to travel on the railway, which gave free passage to the men," Kay explained.

One of the women journalists complained to the publicity director of the Canadian Pacific Railway about the unequal treatment. "She said, 'You take these men to the World's Fair in St. Louis, why don't you take the women?' And he said, 'Oh, come on, there's not enough women to make it worthwhile,'" Kay related. When the journalist disputed that, he responded with an offer: if she could find 12 women reporters assigned to cover the World's Fair by their newspapers, he promised to take them himself. As it turned out, the journalist rounded up 16 women, and by coincidence, half of them were Francophones, half were Anglophones.

Kay said the book came about because she felt "someone has to tell this story, someone has to look at who these 16 women were. " Some were renowned; the group included Canada's first woman war correspondent and the first woman journalist to be writing in Quebec. "But there were also novices on the trip. According to Kay, the club "became the basis for a vast network of women journalists at a time when there were no journalism schools and when women were not mentored in the newsroom." In fact they were often "almost pariahs" and "relegated to covering weddings and debutante balls and etiquette lessons and cooking and recipes."

Covering the World's Fair was a major assignment even for the seasoned reporters, Kay said. And despite the language divide, the women "got along very well, but there was a dramatic incident that happened when they finally got there. " When they checked into their hotel, they were told there weren't enough rooms for all 19 (three railways men who were assisting were part of the party). "The eight francophone women went back to the train and they made the train their home for the duration of the trip," Kay said, adding that because of that separation, the two groups ended up going their separate ways and covering different things. Still, she described the experience as a whole as "harmonious," and quoted one of the French journalists, who wrote afterwards that "we were eight French women, we were eight English women, but all united by heart and pen."

By the 1920s, 400 women had joined. It reached its peak in the early 1970s, when 700 women belonged to the club. "They were very influential, prime ministers came to speak at their annual meeting, and they were a force," Kay said.

The 2004 anniversary celebration was bittersweet, because it was announced that the club would fold. The membership had dwindled, even though the number of women journalists in Canada had increased. Women who entered journalism in droves in the 1970s and 80s "didn't want to join a club for women because they felt they were equal to men and didn't need a club for women," Kay explained.

However, Kay believes there's been a change in attitude. Her female students expressed regret about the folding of the club, and seemed to welcome that kind of organization. "Now it seems like women would like something like that, and it's really legitimate at this time to bond and to network with other women — and that's what we do."