Canada 2017

This Canadian birth control trailblazer wasn't afraid to play the 'devil'

Canada's first birth control clinic needed a medical director — and Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw had the right mix of gender, expertise and defiance.

Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw was a contrarian right from the start

Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw, medical director of the first birth control clinic in Canada, broke into the medical field before women were broadly accepted and worked until the age of 95. (Library and Archives Canada)

Welcome time travellers! Inspired by the missing journal pages in Murdoch Mysteries: Beyond Time, we're exploring what Canada might have been like without a few extraordinary citizens.

If you think the conversation around birth control can seem heated today, consider the story of Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw.

When she became medical director of Canada's first birth control clinic in 1932, it was illegal to even advertise contraception — even though women were routinely dying in childbirth and amateur abortions.

Today, access to birth control is considered an essential part of women's health care in Canada — and that's thanks in no small part to the efforts of women like Dr. Bagshaw.

Born to be defiant

Elizabeth Bagshaw was born in her family's farmhouse in Victoria County, Ont., in 1881.

She was a contrarian right from the start. As a child, she got in trouble for being saucy with her teachers, and learned how to ride a horse standing up. At the time she decided she wanted to study medicine, Canada's first licensed female doctors had only been working for a few decades.

"I just wanted to be a little different from other people," she said in the documentary Doctor Woman. She wanted to do something worthwhile, where she'd be on an equal footing with men. It was an uphill battle the whole way.

In 1905, Dr. Bagshaw graduated from the Ontario Medical College for Women, affiliated with the University of Toronto. Most of her classes were segregated by gender. She set up her own practice in Hamilton, specializing in family medicine and obstetrics.

She was a contrarian right from the start. As child, she got in trouble for being saucy with her teachers, and learned how to ride a horse standing up.

She was a dedicated physician who delivered thousands of babies throughout her career.

Once during a blackout, she delivered a baby by the light of kerosene lamps from her car.

Then in 1932, she crossed paths with the newly-formed Birth Control Society of Hamilton. Selling or advertising contraceptives was illegal, and the Society's founders were alarmed about the public health crisis they saw unfolding.

After meeting American birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, BCSH President Mary Hawkins had been inspired to found Canada's first birth control clinic. They needed a doctor to come on board as medical director, and Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw had the right mix of gender, expertise and defiance.

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"They needed a woman doctor to run the clinic," says Dr. Ellen Amster, Jason A. Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine at Hamilton's McMaster University.

"You're talking to all these women about their sexuality. Also it's associating your name with this thing that people think is shocking and scandalous."

Bagshaw said the local bishop told women not to go near their clinic because it was run by heretics and devils.

"I was a devil," she later quipped. "I didn't worry about it."

From illegal to essential

Bagshaw said part of the reason she signed on was because as the Great Depression wore on, more and more people simply couldn't afford to keep having more children. Maternal mortality was also a major concern.

Indeed, a 1934 study by Dr. John T. Phair and Dr. A.H. Sellers showed that about one in six deaths among young women in Ontario "were the direct result of pregnancy and child-bearing," and about 17 per cent of those women had actually died due to an abortion.

Canada's first birth control clinic needed a doctor to come on board as medical director, and Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw had the right mix of gender, expertise and defiance.

But it must also be acknowledged that the clinic's founders were motivated by arguments that seem much less noble by today's standards. Inspired by eugenics movements in Great Britain and the United States, Hawkins argued that children from poor families were burdening society by filling up juvenile courts and mental hospitals. The BCSH said that "until sterilization becomes a fact rather than a theory, birth control clinics offer the main protection available for the protection of Canadian race standards."

History's standard-bearers are rarely the uncomplicated heroes we want them to be. And while some of BCSH's motivations feel profoundly out of step with today's norms, this movement was essential in cracking open the door for birth control in Canada.

Elizabeth Bagshaw remained medical director at the clinic for another three decades, and continued practicing medicine until she was 95. In 1969, Canada finally decriminalized contraception, and the Hamilton clinic was able to work legally.

The clinic closed in 2015, but its legacy lives on in sexual health clinics all across Canada.

Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw, seen here receiving the Governor General's Award, was the defiant director of Canada's first birth control clinic. (Library and Archives Canada)

Reproductive rights have a big effect on women's ability to work and be part of public life in Canada.

As McMaster's Ellen Amster puts it: "If you can't control your own fertility and your own family, then your life opportunities are much narrower."


Chris Chang-Yen Phillips is the Historian Laureate for the City of Edmonton and News Coordinator at CJSR 88.5 FM. He also produces a monthly history podcast called Let's Find Out where he asks Edmontonians for questions about local history, and then they find out the answers together.


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