Saturday, September 25, 2010

Marion Nicholson: Independent, feisty and broken down

Marion Nicholson, my husband's great grandmother, right, looks very tired and thin in this photo. The stress of her teaching job - and her struggles finding a good place to live, were getting her down.

As I have written on this blog, Marion's difficulties looking for a place to live between 1908 and 1913 is a story arc in Threshold Girl, my ebook on

While her brother Herb could rent out any place we wanted, as long as he had the money to pay the rent, Marion had to pound the pavement, and rely on 'connections' to find a rooming house that would take her. And when she did, unlike a man, she had no personal freedom at all. The landlady or matron assumed it was her duty to oversee her tenants.

And Marion was a teacher, educated at one of the province's finest institutions, with well off friends in town. So imagine how hard it was for women without a personal social safety net.

There was always the Y, where she stayed as a student in 1905, but that place had too many rules.

Well, you don't have to imagine. I tracked down a 1910 article on the Gazette archives about a meeting to consider the building of a hotel just for women.

And what an article.

In November 1910, a handful of people, a few clergyman and some social activist women including Carrie Derick, President of the Montreal Council of Women, gathered to discuss the need for a women's hotel, a safe haven for women visitors to stay a day or two and for women workers to live, RESPECTABLY, that would provide a place for the women to socialize on the premises so "they wouldn't have to go out at night."

Someone listed the prominent Montrealers who supported such a hotel, Birks, Reford, the usual suspects.

Dr. Herbert Symonds, Minister of Christ Church Cathedral,said "The idea is to get a building that is to be a suitable home for at least some of the enormous number of women *probably 50,000,working in the city.

Dr. Paterson Smith added some colourful pulpit style language to the proceedings: "I have spoken to a variety of managers of our employing institutions and they admitted they do not like to say in public what they told me. What some of these girls have to do, and the places they have to live and the sort of future they have to look forward to. It is time that these working women had a place they could live in comfort and peace, earning their living and holding their heads up as decent citizens paying their way."

You see, these men wanted a for profit hotel, so that the girls didn't feel they were relying on charity.

A Mr. Hannah said, "We do not want a hotel with its barroom associations, but a wholesome place where a woman can live with reasonable accomodation and provision for recreation, reading, etc, where working women can live and keep their self respect.

Hmm. They wanted to women be self sufficient, financially, but they didn't want women to be able to choose how they lived their lives.

I think Marion Nicholson would have winced to read this article, despite her aching feet. At 25 she felt it her right to do what she wanted.

In Threshold Girl, I  have Marion say:"I wouldn't mind being invited to one of these meetings, but Heaven forbid they actually ask a working woman for her input."

Yes, Marion wanted a safe place to live where she could relax and be herself and that included going to motion pictures and plays and the Orpheum Vaudeville house and Dominion Amusement Park with friends, family and, yes, young men!

That's why in late 1912 Marion  started looking for a flat where she could live with her youngest sister Flora, cousin Mae Watters and another friend, a daughter of an MNA, while they all worked as teachers. She landed on one on Hutchison, but it was an ill-fated experiment. At least she tried.

 (And then she just got married.)

And gee, I just found out why landords wouldn't rent to a group of women.

They were held accountable for what went on in their places, and that's why Marion in 1912 had sooooo much trouble getting a flat for herself to share with her sister and friends, despite being well-connected and having excellent references.

That's why she had to promise that her mother was coming to live with them.

Oh, this article has a funny aside: apparently an English woman called Lady Briggs insisted on reading a long paper out to the group. Dr. Symonds tried to silence her, with little success.

Then the group attacked her, with only Miss. Derick saying "let the woman speak."

She was a stranger to the group, but I looked her up and she was, indeed, an odd fish. The widow of a British Admiral, who had written a book on the Boer War she came to Canada in 1910 to make sure young women were treated right. (British immigrants?) But after this embarrassment she went to NY where she had some success getting into the society pages as a Daughter of the British Empire. Anyway, This Lady Briggs makes fine comic character in the ebook Threshold Girl