Lillian Phelps: St. Catharines’ own suffragette

Lillian PhelpsSt. Catharines’ Lillian Phelps was a well-known activist and speaker at the turn of the century. Throughout most of Lillian’s life, women in Ontario and Canada did not have the right to vote, but that didn’t stop Lillian from being an outspoken advocate and in-demand lecturer on temperance and women’s rights topics.

Born in 1859 in St. Catharines, Lillian, the daughter of a blacksmith, graduated from the Philadelphia School of Oratory. Following her schooling, she dedicated her life to public activism, with much success. Lillian was very involved with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and served the organization in a number of different capacities: she served at the recording secretary from 1877-1881 and was the President of the St. Catharines WCTU at various times from the 1880’s through to 1900. She was also a member of the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association and a freelance writer on temperance and women’s rights topics. Lillian wrote “Women as Wage Earners” in 1890, which argued for equal work opportunities, equal pay and a voice for women, excepts of which appear below:

“Those things which are halves of the same thing are equal to one another. It follows then, that woman being one-half of the human whole, is equal to the other half, the male fraction, and they being one, have a common interest in all that relates to either sex.”

“[In St. Catharines] there are two teachers in our central school, both doing entrance examination work; last year the woman promoted 14, the man 2; the woman gets $600, the man $900. Giving as is granted $100 for the responsibility of head master, why is it that woman, whose work is superior to the man’s, gets $200 less [in] wages?”

“All that I ask for woman is the same liberty of choice as that offered man, and the chance to prove by that liberty of choice her ability to do her chosen work…I do not plead the identity of the sexes, I plead their equality”

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Much of Lillian’s time was spent lecturing across North America, spreading the temperance message and furthering the work of the WCTU. She received many accolades for her speaking engagements, including from the Daily Argus of Ann Arbour, Michigan, which noted her “address was scholarly throughout, showing Miss Phelps to be a student of sociology and also an accomplished historian of all lands and periods of the world’s history”.

Lillian Phelps died in January, 1920 at her family’s home in Merritton and is buried in Victoria Lawn Cemetery.

To learn more about Lillian and other pioneering women of St. Catharines, visit our Leading the Way exhibit, on display at the Museum through December, 2016.

Meredith Leonard is the Visitor Services Coordinator at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.

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