Canada: The Story of Us

Kit Coleman: The Canadian journalist who fought for the idea that women care about more than fashion

Kathleen Blake Coleman battles sexism to fight for equality on the pages of Canada's largest newspaper in the 1890s; she’s also the first woman to be accredited as a war correspondent.

Kit Coleman battles sexism to fight for equality on the pages of Canada's largest newspaper in the 1890s.

Kit Coleman believed that women are just as capable of talking about serious issues as men. In the 1890s, she wrote about politics, social justice and the deplorable conditions faced by female factory workers. (Canada: The Story of Us)

It's the late 1880s and Toronto is in the middle of a newspaper boom.

A half-dozen papers, from the populist conservative Telegram to the liberal, reform-minded Globe, are in a fight for eyeballs and advertisers.

In a bid to attract new readers, papers begin to run weekend "women's sections." The sections are filled with fashion and housekeeping tips, and give advertisers a chance to pitch things like cleaning products to the people most likely to buy them.

In 1889, the Toronto Daily Mail launches its weekend women's column, edited by a writer named Kit. Kit claims to be descended from a deposed Irish king and to live with a dear friend named Theodocia. She's funny and acerbic and often strays far from typical women's column fare. She reports on fashion, but is outspoken with her views — writing things like, "the new hats are weird. But we say that every spring and still wear them."

A novel idea for the 19th century: Women are capable of talking about serious issues

Most importantly, Kit thinks that women are just as capable of talking about serious issues as men. She writes about politics and social injustices, spotlighting the deplorable conditions faced by female factory workers.

Occasionally, she transcribes snatches of conversation overheard on the streetcar or writes rants aimed at women who wear bonnets that block her view at the theatre. Her mix of thought-provoking articles and funny observations on late 19th-century urban life make her a hit with Toronto Daily Mail readers, both male and female. But for the early part of her career, Kit's actual identity was unknown.

Who is Kit?

In reality, Kit is an Irish immigrant and a single mother. Her name is Kathleen Blake Watkins.

She has no royal blood and Theodocia is just a literary device. She was born Catherine Ferguson in Castleblakeny, County Galway in 1856. She grew up in a middle class farming household and attended Loretto Abbey school in Rathfarnham (a suburb of Dublin) before being sent to a Belgian finishing school. Her passion for social justice comes from her uncle, an outspoken liberal priest named Thomas Burke.

At age 20, Coleman's family arranges for her to marry Thomas Willis, a man 40 years her senior. They have one child and the marriage is largely unhappy. When Willis dies, his family disinherits Coleman. In 1884, she boards a steamship for Canada.

Shortly after landing in Toronto, she marries again — this time to an English immigrant named Edward Watkins. They move to Winnipeg and Coleman has two more children. But Edward Watkins is a drunk and serial philanderer and is rumoured to still be married to a woman back in England.

Coleman heads back to Toronto, with two children in tow. To get by, she starts taking odd jobs, as well as trying her hand at freelance writing. In 1889, her first articles are published in Saturday Night, followed by bylines in the Mail. Mail editor Edward Farrier takes her on as the editor for "Woman's Kingdom," the paper's women's section.

She soon becomes a sensation, with readers attempting to guess her real identity (some people think she is a man, writing as a woman).

Coleman becomes a crusader for women's economic equality. She starts travelling as much as she can, visiting places like London and San Francisco. She often travels undercover as a man or a poor woman. She sees where the poor and downtrodden live in these cities and reports back on the conditions.

In 1895, Coleman hits another roadblock. The Mail merges with the more conservative Empire. Empire management wants a typical women's section, with more recipes and fewer depictions of hardscrabble conditions in Victorian London. Kit compromises.

She agrees to stop writing dispatches from the road, but she staunchly refuses to have anything to do with the paper's new fashion pages, saying it is "none of [her] concern."

Her readers flood the paper with letters, saying they want Kit to stay and have no interest in Woman's Kingdom becoming more like other women's sections.

The first female war correspondent

In 1898, Coleman makes history by becoming the first woman to be accredited as a war correspondent, heading to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War. Other war reporters dismiss her and the American administration seems determined to block her from getting to Cuba.

For weeks, Coleman finds herself stuck in Tampa. Eventually, she manages to board a freighter leaving Key West and gets to Cuba. She reports on the human cost and aftermath on the war — what it did to both the soldiers and the civilians caught in the crossfire. On the way back to Toronto, she gets married for a third time, to Dr. Theobald Coleman. This time, the marriage sticks.

By 1910, Coleman's relationship with The Mail and Empire management is at an all-time low. Years of battles about editorial control have taken their toll on the relationship. When the paper refuses her request for a pay raise, she quits.

Instead, she begins writing "Kit's Column" and syndicates it to papers across the country. She charges $5 per paper, per column, making more money than she ever made at The Mail and Empire. In Toronto, her column runs in The World. She refuses to let her former employer print it. 

Coleman died unexpectedly at age 59. What she thought was a cold turned out to be a deadly case of pneumonia. But her legacy lives on in every voicey, snappy crusading columnist writing in this country.

Canada: The Story of Us - Kit Coleman

6 years ago
Duration 2:35
Sharp, acerbic Toronto columinst Kit Coleman blazes a trail for female journalists.