The Remarkable Estelle Cuffe Hawley

St. Catharines history has no shortage of strong and accomplished women to highlight as we celebrate and mark International Women’s Day. 

Estelle Cuffe Hawley, here forever known as the ‘remarkable’ Estelle Cuffe Hawley (according to me, anyway) was described as strong-willed, engaged in the community, caring and hardworking. Cuffe Hawley led a life filled with energy, drive, poise, and, of course, hats! Estelle Cuffe Hawley’s penchant for hats won her pride of place in our ‘Hold onto Your Hats’ exhibit, now on display here at the Museum. 

Many sources cite an “indomitable spirit” which she used to push through the mountains of criticism and discrimination she faced throughout her career. 

Most of all, however, Estelle Cuffe Hawley is remembered and celebrated as the first female city councilor/first elected female politician in St. Catharines, and the first female candidate for mayor. 

Estelle Cuffe Hawley’s mayoral campaign photo from 1938. Cuffe Hawley is featured in our ‘Hold onto Your Hats’ exhibit since she was often photographed wearing a hat. Archives, Brock University Library, RG 503 EC.

Early Life 

Cuffe Hawley was born just south of Hastings, Ontario and raised in Peterborough. There was an early core memory from her childhood: her mother took her to hear famous English suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst speak in Peterborough. Estelle also quickly adopted Agnes McPhail as her hero when McPhail was elected the first female Member of Parliament in 1921. 

By 1919, Cuffe Hawley came to St. Catharines to take up a teaching position at Connaught Public School, then later at St. Paul’s Ward School, where she was principal for six years. In 1930, she gave up teaching to pursue a new career in the business world and began selling insurance for Sun Life Assurance Company. 

Municipal Politics 

In addition to her professional career, Cuffe Hawley took an active interest in overcrowded housing and relief for the poor, especially in regard to public health. As a teacher, she was exposed to the hardships endured by children living in poverty. She was elected to the St. Catharines Board of Education in 1934 and worked to improve teacher salaries and introduce nursing services into schools, where it was clear both food nutrition and general cleanliness were lacking. Cuffe Hawley took particular pride in coordinating public health to set up a complete health service, including medical, dental, and nursing for all pupils in the public, separate and secondary schools, which was unique to St. Catharines in Canada. 

While a member of the Board of Education, Cuffe Hawley was the chairperson of every sub-committee but was never appointed chairperson of the Board when her turn came. The discrimination was blatant to Hawley who later reflected in an interview: 

“I was chairman of all committees, but never board chairman. The unwritten law was that the longest sitting trustee would be chairman, but when I qualified for the job, the committee recommended a man who did not qualify.” 

Estelle Cuffe Hawley, the lone woman, poses with other members of the 1934 St. Catharines School Board. STCM 2488-N.

In 1938, Cuffe Hawley was elected the first woman to St. Catharines City Council. Cuffe Hawley had a very ambitious agenda including advancing participation in local democracy, continuing to improve health standards in educational facilities, and most importantly of all, improving housing for the City’s poor by introducing minimum housing standards. 

As chairperson of the Board of Health she quickly came to learn of and expose the housing conditions for many poor families. A by-law which she drafted as chairperson of a newly formed Housing Standards Committee, she was able to pass minimum housing standards at council, but unfortunately it was rejected by the provincial government as “dangerous legislation to be placed in the hands of municipalities.” 

She didn’t stop fighting and was successful at rallying her fellow councilors to action. Despite her success in these files, she still had to defend her right to sit at the table: 

“A woman was not welcome on the City Council in January 1938. All sorts of roadblocks were set up, but with an inborn balance and with principles added to much experience being the only woman (in business meetings I was nearly always the only woman among 50 to 200 men) I was able to jump the hurdles.” 

Estelle Cuffe Hawley (back, centre), poses with her male colleagues for the 1940 council photograph. STCM S1940.14.3.1

“A Great Minority in this Agency…” 

Meanwhile, in 1939, Cuffe Hawley had considerable experience selling life insurance policies to women, especially, and was asked to speak at a conference of Sun Life employees. Her talk focused on the advantages of male salespersons making more of an effort at understanding the financial needs of their female clients. She doesn’t hold back, and the result, which was also published in the company newsletter, is remarkable. Below is an excerpt of my favourite passage: 

“…I don’t think men appreciate the fact that women have many responsibilities. The day is long past when men assumed the exclusive responsibilities in families…I know from talking to many women, that large numbers are carrying big loads – and when a man comes along suggesting that she doesn’t, by proposing a plan out of all proportion to her income and responsibilities, her reaction is not conducive to business. Either she is annoyed at his lack of understanding, or she’s dismayed and alienated by the magnitude of his proposal. 

Being the great minority in this agency (but not an oppressed one, I assure you) perhaps I’ve been overbold in casting aspersion on the way in which men sometimes approach women to sell them insurance. I had better safeguard the peace of the next five minutes in this room by assuring you any criticism was meant to be helpful – and further that, of course my references excluded ‘present company!’” 

The Mayoral Campaign of 1943 

During her time as a city councillor, Cuffe Hawley organized hundreds of public meetings and talks in hopes of educating the public on the workings and importance of local government, on citizenship in a democracy, and why women should participate in and run for public office. 

“I guess my speeches were well received. I spoke to the local groups, church groups, and teachers groups. To the American Women’s Club, the St. Catharines Lions Club… to the local women’s councils in Toronto.” 

As a public organizer and figure in the city, Cuffe Hawley was well known as a public speaker and champion of participation in community. At her address to the class of 1938 at St. Catharines Collegiate, she stressed the importance of democracy and peace in the face of impending war and dictatorships. 

Having kept such a profile and schedule, Cuffe Hawley was well placed to throw her hat in the ring for the mayoralty. Though, she faced an uphill political battle in 1943. When Charles Daley resigned as Mayor in September 1943, Cuffe Hawley put her name on the ballot to replace him for the remainder of the term. She was unsuccessful but launched a campaign for Mayor in the general election that December. 

Editorials ran in the St. Catharines Standard throughout the campaign that dogged her chances. Fair game in an election campaign, though the editorials themselves were particularly preoccupied with her gender. In the end, the paper ran an ad on New Year’s Eve – night before the election – that killed her campaign. The ad was signed by a local female doctor who was said to be a communist, which insinuated Cuffe Hawley was a communist sympathizer. Later Cuffe Hawley reflected: 

“Having Completed 10 consecutive years of Public Service I thought I was qualified to run for mayor. I was not a follower of the established political parties – a woman with an open unprejudiced mind was dangerous.” 

After politics, she took up a career in writing and broadcasting and had a popular radio program through the 1940s. She continued writing for newspapers regularly, including the Globe and Mail, and wrote a few books as well. In 1953, she married Hubert Hawley and they moved to Orillia, where she continued her writing career. 

Estelle Cuffe Hawley was honoured by Brock University in June of 1976 with an honorary Doctor of Laws for her contributions to the community, education, business, and politics. She died at the age of 101. 

All While Wearing a Hat 

We celebrate Cuffe Hawley’s remarkable achievements and her tenacity in the face of discrimination, and we also wanted to bring her story back to light because she is currently featured in our ‘Hold onto Your Hats’ exhibit here at the Museum. 

She’s featured in the hats exhibit not because she liked hats. In fact, in most formal photographs, Cuffe Hawley is pictured wearing a black hat. For Cuffe Hawley, this was about more than fashion. Her choice of hat was a deliberate performative act which communicated messages to her colleagues and the public.

Those choices could stem from a variety of messages she wanted to convey. Perhaps because formal photographs demanded the highest fashion sense of the period and she wanted to appear as both professional and as feminine as possible. Or perhaps, she felt a stark reminder to her colleagues that a woman was amongst them was necessary. Or, as in her mayoral campaign photograph, perhaps she wanted to convince and reassure the electorate that she was responsible, conservative, rule abiding, and serious. 

Estelle Cuffe Hawley broke through barriers all throughout her life, and all while wearing a hat. 

A Remarkable Inspiration 

Estelle Cuffe Hawley remains a remarkable inspiration for all people today, but especially for women in positions of leadership who continue to face discrimination and make purposeful decisions about their style. It is in that light that we celebrate Cuffe Hawley’s fortitude, drive, passion, indomitable spirit, and most of all, confidence, strength, and surety of women’s contributions in leadership in our community. 

More for International Women’s Day 

Want to read more or hear about more remarkable women who made an impact in our community? Check out these other International Women’s Day posts: 

Special Thanks and Source Material 

Special thanks to David Sharron and Edie Williams at the Special Collections and Archives at Brock University for generously sharing this material with our audiences. 

Please visit the Special Collections page on Estelle Cuffe Hawley for a closer look at her personal papers, photos, and other memories. 

Quotes attributed to Estelle Cuffe Hawley come from a 1975 interview, held at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre. 

Adrian Petry is a public historian and Visitor Services Coordinator at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre. 

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