Book clubs and reading groups seem to be everywhere these days – in-person and online, at a local library or in a shop or café. These clubs are enjoying considerable popularity, in part because they provide both an intellectual and social benefit to their members – who get to discuss their book selections in-depth within the comfort of a community that shares their interests (and on occasion, a pot luck feast). Book or literary clubs provided the same benefit to members in the mid-late 19th century and were especially attractive to women, who had more limited educational and entertainment outlets than they do today.
Perhaps the best-known literary club in our province, the Toronto Women’s Literary Club, was founded by Dr. Emily Stowe in 1877. The TWLC offered women an intellectual and social outlet, but also proved to be an excellent vehicle for organizing women around political and social causes. In fact, Toronto Women’s Literary Club members rallied around the issue of women’s suffrage so much so that the Toronto Women’s Literary Club became the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association in 1883. Building on the work of the TWLC, CWSA members campaigned for women’s right to vote as well as other social reforms, including advocating for the admission of women to the University of Toronto.
St. Catharines had its own Women’s Literary Club, founded by Emma Harvey Currie in 1892. Mrs. Currie was herself an author, who had taken lessons in language and history from William Kirby of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Emma spent most of her life in St. Catharines and had a great interest in local history; she used the proceeds from her book, the “Story of Laura Secord and Canadian Reminiscences” to promote the construction of a monument to Laura Secord at Queenston Heights. Our City’s historically-minded Women’s Literary Club installed several markers at area historical sites, including St. Davids, Mackenzie House and Queenston Heights.
While many members of the St. Catharines Women’s Literary Club supported women’s equality and their right to vote, the local group did not morph into a suffrage organization as did their sister club in Toronto, but rather remained focused on literature, history, camaraderie and their community.
Meredith Leonard is the Visitor Services Coordinator at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.