Thursday, July 16, 2015

McGill's Woman College: Royal Victoria College

Ethel Hurlbatt from McGill website.

Strange. I am re-reading a McGill University thesis about Women's Colleges with a special focus of McGill's Royal Victoria College, in prep for my play, Sister Salvation, about two RVC students who try to start a militant suffragette movement in Montreal.

My story will include real life personages, including Edith Nicholson of Threshold Girl, my husband's great aunt, who was a suffragette sympathizer and, later, a tutor in residence and Assistant Warden at RVC.

Last year I visited McGill to check out the archives of RVC and found very little there. Certainly nothing about the suffragettes!

And just one note that mentioned Edith Nicholson.

Well, I have her letters to back up the family story that she worked at McGill from 1920 to the 1950's or even 60's.

Strange, this thesis doesn't mention Edith at all, although all of the RVC Wardens are discussed, including Ethel Hurlbatt, a suffragist.

The thesis explains how RVC had trouble reconciling its day to day reality with its original mandate (as dictated by Lord Strathcona who gave McGill the money to start a women's college and Principal Dawson) to teach women the same curriculum as the men, but in a separate space.

Women at RVC never did take all their classes at RVC and eventually, over the decades, "the great ladies hotel" became a mere residence which greatly bothered the various wardens who wanted RVC to be like Wellesley or Smith, a self-contained place.

Upon re-reading this particular thesis, one point stuck out.

The author claimed that applications for  RVC started being reviewed by the Registrar's Office in 1940,  making RVC less autonomous and irking the then Warden who complained to the Powers That Be, but nothing was changed.

I had assumed this happened much earlier.  You see, Edith Nicholson worked in the Registrar's Office at McGill starting in  1920.

I assumed she oversaw the women applicants. After all, her other job was at RVC, as Assistant Warden, probably.

Oh, well. No doubt she had something to do with women's applications.

This thesis is helpful to me in that it does reveal how the women students at McGill were treated in 1915, like little girls in need of a great deal of  protection.

(It was only late in the 60's that women students were allowed to live off campus without their parents' permission. In 1927  could only visit a few places in the city, the Ritz, Henry Morgan's Department Store, The Windsor Grill (probably in the Windsor Hotel) and the Mount Royal Hotel.

(Ironically, the most notorious club in Montreal, the Baghad Cafe, was right across from the Mount Royal, to service tourists of course!)

The co-eds were also in training to be mothers and wives, refined ladies, not professionals. There was an elegant parlour at RVC to help teach them how to properly entertain guests.

Their every move was watched they dressed, who they entertained and where they shopped and what they bought.

Still, the only profession open to these Donalda's, McGill pioneers, was teaching - and that profession was open to non-university trained women as well.

Edith herself was a teacher, without any diploma at all, not even a Model School Diploma.

So that makes my prospective play all the more fun: I'll have 2 young women daring to fight the status quo...although their matron, Mrs. Hurlbatt is a closet suffragette sympathizer, she cannot be too careful watching over her girls, or she could lose her job.

I found Hurlbatt's 1934 obit online. She was from London and highly educated.  It does mention she was into suffrage, but claims she did not approve of the suffragettes.

 I found a newspaper report from 1909 where she both criticizes and applauds the militants in the same breath....They are being bad but the British government has forced them to be so.

In 1911, Ethel Hurlbatt sat on the board of the Montreal Council of Women and was very pleased when Mrs. Pankhurst came to Montreal to speak.

After the speech, she wanted to give classes on citizenship (code for suffrage) in 1911 but no one signed up.

But she soon gives up her post, citing a work conflict.

I find this all suspicious, especially since the Montreal Gazette published an anti suffrage editorial in February 1913 claiming that universities were 'suffragette factories.'

Hurlbatt attended the inaugural press conference of the Montreal Suffrage Association in April 1913, because it is mentioned in a newspaper report that she made a motion to close.

However, she was not on the Board and her name is never mentioned in the minutes.

During WWI she turned to War Work, collecting money for the Serbs, a pet project of Mrs. Pankhurst's.

Barbara Wylie Suffragette, came to Canada in 1912.. She told Votes for Women Magazine she had set up a meeting with RVC students. I wonder whether it materialized. Well, it will materialize in my play!