To mark International Women’s Day, we are looking at the rich history of the Women’s Literary Club, a St. Catharines institution for the education and enrichment of women in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The club was established in 1892 and while the name conjures up an image of a formal late Victorian book club it provided its members with much more. Literary Clubs were being established in many cities across North America as a means of educating women who were restricted from pursuing university education at the time. The club was founded by Emma Currie who was interested in forming a society that would provide members with enrichment.
Who was this woman who set out to offer extended education to St. Catharines women? A biography written about Currie by Niagara-on-the-Lake historian, Janet Carnochan appears in the revised edition of Currie’s book “Laura Secord.” Emma Currie was born in Niagara-on-the-Lake and her education was made a priority by her parents. She received both private and public schooling in Niagara and in East Bloomfield, NY (from where her parents had originally immigrated). One of her early home tutors was William Kirby, author of the “Annals of Niagara” a publication for the Lundy’s Lane Historical Society detailing the history of the Niagara Region. Kirby’s tutelage left an impression and even appeared as source material for club meetings.
Emma married the Honourable J. Currie in 1865 and the couple made their home in St. Catharines for the next 48 years. During her time here Emma was an advocate of typical Victorian social justice causes and supported the temperance movement and a home for orphans. While supporting the women’s suffrage movement (campaigning to get women the right to vote), she did not actively take part in the suffrage movement’s work as she was concentrating on the literary club and her own writing.
While at first it is unclear as to why the literary club would be so important to the women in the community, Emma leaves a clue as to her motivation in the dedication of her book. She dedicates the work to Sara Anne Curzon. While not a household name today Curzon was a journalist, poet, and women’s rights activist in the nineteenth century. Curzon was a founding member of the Toronto Women’s Literary Society in 1876 and her theatrical play written about Laura Secord aided in making sure Secord’s story was remembered. Emma’s dedication to Curzon suggests that Curzon influenced Emma’s literary work on Laura Secord certainly but also her intent to organize a local Literary Club.
The St. Catharines Women’s Literary Club
Prior to the formation of the St. Catharines Women’s Literary Club, Emma wrote to other literary societies across North America to discover how they operated. Her intent was to discover the best course to establishing a club for enrichment of local women. After gathering advice Emma and Mrs. McClive (the club’s first president) put a call out into the Evening Star newspaper to attract members to their new club. The women that answered the call were upper class women who had had the advantages of private education and cultural enrichment. When the club began holding meetings in December of 1892, the time commitment for members included bi-weekly meeting with literature reviews, musical entertainment, and history lessons. When those first members met did, they ever imagine they were beginning something that would survive just over a century?
Currie was more than just a figurehead for the club and was very heavily involved in the direction it initially took. She was keenly interested in history and social sciences. Her history lessons with Kirby had left their mark. As an adult she believed that adding history lessons to Literary Club programs would be welcomed by the membership.
Looking through the programs of early club meetings details impressive agendas to the biweekly meetings. One program from 1897-1898 gives a glimpse into the group’s ambitions for enrichment.
At a meeting in March of 1898 the agenda was:
- Minutes and Business
- Roll Call. E.A. Poe
- Ontario from 1759- 1812.
- First Settlement. Forts.
- Conquests of Fort Niagara.
- Grants to U.E. Loyalists. Officers and Soldiers.
- First Government and Parliament.
- Abolition of Slavery.
- Methodist Pioneers
- William Kirby. Miss Macher
- Current Events
The breadth of the content being covered in the meetings is surprising and reveals the significance of the literary club in educating its members.
One topic always on the agenda for the Women’s Literary Club meetings was to discuss current events. What topics would these ladies have been discussing? Internationally speaking the Club started just before the South African War or the Boer War which took place between 1899-1902. This would have been a topic of conversation for many at the time because while this was a British conflict in South Africa, Canadian imperial ties had many wanting to send troops. Others were not in favour of sending troops to a foreign conflict. The result was ultimately Canada sent over volunteers and it became the first overseas war that Canada sent troops to.
During these early years on the home front, St. Catharines was a city of progress and change. The population of St. Catharines in 1911 was 12,484 people which today would indicate a small town but in 1911 it indicated a thriving urban centre. Exciting happenings were all around them. In 1902, for example, the first motor car in St. Catharines was driven around the streets, and the hundredth telephone in St. Catharines was installed in 1908.
While St. Catharines at the turn of the twentieth century was filled with urban excitement, social movements organized around causes or interests began to make living in the city more interesting. 1896 saw the organization of the St. Catharines Historical Society. The community had access to a free Public Library as far back as 1888. By 1903 the public library moved into the new purpose built building on Church Street made possible by a grant from Andrew Carnegie. While these new societies and cultural features were for all residents’ use, philanthropy for those in need was also on the minds of many. Movements for improvement in quality of life led to the formation of societies like the Children’s Aid Society and Shaver Hospital (originally a treatment centre for tuberculosis) were founded in 1904 and 1908, respectively.
The formation of a local university to serve the educational needs of Niagara represented a dramatic shift in the education of women in the history of the club. While the St. Catharines Women’s Literary Club had served the educational needs of the city’s upper-class women, similar movements had been taking place for other classes of women in the local chapters of the Women’s Institutes. The founding of women’s institutes had been founded on the principals of advocating for education, family health and community service. The local women’s institute chapters had members of all classes making education for women more accessible.
With the guiding principles of education and community service in mind it is appropriate that the movement to establish a local university was spearheaded by the Allanburg Woman’s Institute and asked the government to consider placing a university in the Niagara Peninsula. Brock University was opened in 1964 and provided access to the kind of education that St. Catharines and Niagara had been craving as far back as the founding of the Women’s Literary Club in 1892.
The last meeting of the Women’s Literary Club was held in 1994.
Abbey Stansfield is a public programmer at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.