A historic election season is in full swing south of the border, with Hillary Clinton becoming the first woman to be a major party candidate for the office of President of the United States.
St. Catharines had its own historic municipal election in 1938, when Estelle Cuffe Hawley became the first woman to be elected to City Council. For Estelle, serving as an alderman was only one element of her career in the service of the citizens of St. Catharines.
Cuffe Hawley worked as a teacher and businesswoman prior to being elected in 1934 to the St. Catharines Board of Education. During her time on the school board, she worked to introduce nursing services into schools, promoted the inclusion of music in the curriculum and advocated for better teacher salaries. While Estelle served as Chairman of every board committee, she was never made Chairman of the Board. In a 1975 interview, Cuffe Hawley noted that there was an “unwritten law – the longest serving trustee would be Chairman, but when I qualified for the job, the small committee recommended a man, who did not qualify.”
Following her tenure on the Board of Education, Estelle Cuffe Hawley became the first woman elected to St. Catharines City Council, in 1938. As an alderman, she focused on improving social welfare services in the community and helped to establish minimum housing standards in St. Catharines. Building on what she had accomplished while serving on the Board of Education, Cuffe Hawley also worked to expand health services (including medical, dental and nursing) to all St. Catharines schools. She campaigned unsuccessfully for Mayor in 1944, although was not the first woman to run for that office.
In 1953, Estelle married Hubert Hawley and moved to Orillia, but continued her community involvement and was a sought after public speaker. In 1976, Brock University awarded her a Honourary Doctorate for her leadership in education and politics.
Meredith Leonard is the Visitor Services Coordinator at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.