Emily Stowe was without a doubt an inspirational, motivated feminist determined to make a difference in the lives of women in Canada. She was a key part of the development of our nation, and a true pioneer in the medical and political systems. 2
Emily Howard Jennings was born in Norwich, Ontario on May 1st, 1831 to parents that were strong believers in the importance of receiving proper education: such strong believers, in fact, they actually home schooled their daughters. 1 At only 15, Stowe began her teaching career in a one-room schoolhouse in the neighboring town of Summerville, Ontario. However, she received only half of the salary that men did at the time. Six years later, she applied to Victoria College in Cobourg, Ontario but was denied admission since she was a girl. Some say that this was the turning point for Emily’s suffragette mindset. 1 In 1854, she graduated on the Honour Roll from Toronto’s Normal School for Upper Canada, the only school in British North America at the time that actually accepted women. This was obviously a good year for her, since she also became the first woman principal in Canada at a school in Brantford, Ontario. While teaching as a principal, Emily met and married an immigrant from Yorkshire, England, John Stowe. The couple moved to Pleasantville, Ontario and gave birth to three children: Augusta, John and Frank.
After John was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1863, Emily was inspired to explore herbal and homeopathic medicine and healing aids. Her husband’s condition mixed with her desire for women’s rights lead to her to the decision to become a physician. 1 In 1865, she applied to Toronto School of Medicine. Of course, she was denied admission. “The doors of the University are not open to women and I trust they never will be,” said the Principal of the University at the time. 2 This outraged Emily, and she promised herself she would do everything she could for women to have the same opportunities as men.1 Since she couldn’t get a medical degree in Canada, Emily moved to New York and enrolled herself in the New York Medical College for Women to study homeopathic medicine. She obtained her degree in 1867 and returned to Canada to set up a practice in Toronto, even though she did not have her license. Emily Stowe became the first female physician to practice in Canada.
By 1871 Dr. Stowe and Jenny Trout, who was another aspiring female doctor and one of Stowe’s rivals, were finally admitted to the University of Toronto School of Medicine s by special arrangement, becoming the first two women to attend lectures at the Toronto School of Medicine. Although this seems like a great accomplishment, students and the faculty went out of their way to embarrass them. It got so bad that Emily did not complete the schooling – it is unknown as to whether she failed her exams or defiantly sat out.3 So, she returned to her practice again, still without a licence but Dr. Trout passed her exams and became the first licenced female physician in Canada.
All of this experience fighting for acceptance and rights in both of the political and medical communities made her want to fight harder for Canadian women. 4 So, in 1877, Stowe helped found the influential Toronto Women’s Literary Guild (renamed in 1883 to the Canadian Women’s Suffragette Association) which was Canada’s first suffragette group. These efforts actually lead to some more higher education in Toronto becoming available to females. This year was great for Emily, since she was advancing in her education and suffragette efforts, and her husband recovers from tuberculosis and proceeds to receive dental training. Emily continued her medical practice, specializing and women’s and children’s health, but then in 1879, was charged with performing an abortion on one of her patients and there was an investigation into the death of a pregnant woman who had taken medicine prescribed by Dr. Stowe. After a long, intimidating trial, the charges were dropped and less than a year later in 1880, Dr. Stowe was finally granted her medical licence by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. This dubs her the second licensed female physician in Canada.
Dr. Stowe continued to break down important barriers for the next generation of women doctors and continued to try to make education more available for women. She put relentless pressure on the University of Toronto to reverse its policy. With luck, the first woman doctor to graduate from a Canadian medical school was actually her own daughter, Augusta in 1883! In the same year, at a public meeting of the Toronto Women’s Suffrage Association, many ideas lead to the creation of the Ontario Medical College for Women. Attending an international conference of suffragettes in Washington, D.C an 1888 inspired her to “bring home” the information to revitalize the women’s educational and political rights movement in Canada. 4 The following year, she was also a co-founder of the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association. She became it’s first president and held the position until her death. The following year in 1889, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union addressed the Ontario Legislature asking for the vote for widows and spinsters. Emily Stowe spoke, saying, “As educated citizens, as moral and loving women, we desire to be placed in a position to impress directly our thought upon our nation and time.”
Although the women were treated with disrespect by the legislators, they caused further debate. In 1891, Emily’s husband John Stowe passed away. A bad fall from the platform at the Columbian Exposition’s Women’s Congress at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 may have ended her medical career, but it did not stop her from participating in the Mock Parliament in Toronto in 1896. She played a hilarious role as the Attorney-General, her speech recommending that the men’s petition to vote be denied and encouraging the right for the votes of women. 5 In 1903, Dr. Emily Stowe passed away in Toronto. Although she was gone, her legacy did not stop there. 514 years after, women finally got the vote in Canada and much of the credit goes to Stowe. Her daughter Augusta also continued the legacy as a Canadian female physician and suffragist, clearly inspired by her motivated mother. Dr. Emily Howard Jennings Stowe was an amazing contribution to Canadian women’s history and will be remembered as a great teacher, physician and passionate suffragist.1