Monday, July 27, 2015

Carrie Derick's Very Bad Year

Marion, second left, at McGill Normal School in 1905, I know because she wrote about taking this pic in a letter home. She hated the final print, said the pretty girl at left chose it.

Timing it is everything.

Earlier, I wrote a post on this blog, comparing the lives of Nella Last (a Lancashire homemaker) and my grandmother Dorothy Nixon (a Colonial Brit in Malaya but born in County Durham) and I showed how five little years difference in their births, 1890 and 1895, made a HUGE difference in their lives, despite their similar circumstances.

That's because of  WWI.

I can make the same case comparing Carrie Derick, and Marion Nicholson Blair (my husband's grandmother) who both figure in my NoCumentary (half fiction have facts) Furies Cross the Mersey, the story of the Canadian Suffrage Movement in 1912.

(I'm in the final stages of editing the book and hope to put it up on Kindle when the movie Suffragettes with Carrie Mulligan and Meryl Street is released.)

The entrance hall to one of the tony row houses in the Prince of Wales Terrace on Sherbrooke. Principal Peterson lived in one of these stunning homes so I have Carrie Derick sit here waiting for a meeting with him after she's been told that the position of Chair of Botany isn't hers. 

Carrie Derick was born in the Eastern Townships (ET) of Quebec. Like many of  the smart and ambitious women of her era, she went to Normal (Teachers) School.

She excelled at academics, so upon graduation she got a post as a principal in a school in a country town.

But the idea of this dead-end existence didn't sit well with her and she enrolled in college at McGill University in 1883, one of the first women students,  and won the gold medal with the highest marks ever, and went on to study in Europe and get posts at McGill, first as lecturer, then as as Assistant Prof and later, in 1912, she became Canada's first ever female full professor.

Furies Cross the  Mersey tells her story along with the story of Montreal's 'inert' suffrage movement.

Professor Derick was the leading suffrage advocate in the city and in 1913 she was appointed President of the Montreal Suffrage Association. Well, she appointed herself.

(The odd term 'inert' was used in the Gazette to describe Quebec's suffrage movement, in a 1913  article about the launch of the  Montreal Suffrage Association. I have little doubt that was Derick's own term.)

Marion, too, was offered that hellish job as principal in a small rural community upon her graduation from McGill Normal School in 1906. I have the letter.

The District Commissioner says some of the young students are rough, but he knows she can handle it.

She turns the Principalship down. (She's already witnessed a fistfight between an older student and a principal at her first job.)

Marion's family doesn't have the money to send her to McGill as a Donalda, but that doesn't matter. By 1906 there's an immigration boom in Montreal and a growing need for new teachers in the city.

As early as just 5 years before, in 1900, getting a job as a teacher was an iffy proposition. Derick, herself, wrote in a 1900 National Council of Women Report that teaching held bleak prospects for ambitious young women.

 "However, it must be said that the teaching profession is overcrowded, and the prospect cheerless. Teachers are overworked and underpaid and there is comparatively little hope of advancement for even the best trained and most talented Canadian woman teachers." 

The Nicholsons, Norman and Margaret, Edith and Marion and some relation or neighbour, 1910 circa.

As it happens, most Donaldas, despite their BA's from McGill, ended up as teachers, usually principals, but in the city.

Even as late as  the 1930s'  teaching was about the only option for McGill's female graduates who had to or wanted to work.

Men with the same degree went into the professions, but the women graduates didn't have the contacts these men had.

What's extremely ironic, those women who received diplomas in homemaking at Macdonald College had more career options as the century progressed as the industrial fields opened up

They had practical training..

Here's something else ironic: today in the Guardian online newspaper is an article about a man who wrote a WWI book about his ancestors from information found in box.

My Ancestors Live in a Box about Duncan Barrett who has just published a book called Men of Letters:


10 years, when I found the Nicholson Family Letters in an old trunk, I got some publicity in the West Island Gazette, but no one has been interested since.

My husband's ancestors are women, though and, worse, they are English Quebeckers. Few people want to promote this kind of history in Canada, I guess.

Except me.

Or maybe I went about it badly. I got the publicity, put the letters on a website (that got a lot of traffic from schools) then wrote four books.

Threshold Girl - about Flora Nicholson's year at MacDonald Teacher's College, with a social welfare theme.

Diary of a Confirmed Spinster: About Edith Nicholson's lost love in 1910.

The Nicholson Family Letters, from 1911 to 1913 edited.

Not Bonne Over Here, the WWI letters.

And Furies Cross the Mersey, a much more complex story, about the Montreal Suffrage Movement and Professor Carrie Derick's very bad year, 1912, at McGill.