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University of Toronto
U of T Great Past

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What was front page news in the inaugural issue of the student paper The Varsity in 1880?

Answer Debate raged on whether women should be admitted to the University Toronto. Four years later, they were.

On March 15, 1827, King's College - the precursor to the University of Toronto - was granted its royal charter by King George IV. Throughout 2002, U of T celebrated 175 years of Great Minds. As part of the celebration, the U of T website featured excerpts from The University of Toronto: A History, written by Martin Friedland, University Professor and Professor Emeritus of Law at U of T.

"The question of the co-education of the sexes in Colleges," stated an article on the front page of the inaugural issue of the Varsity in 1880, "is still a vexed one and some time must elapse before it can be regarded as finally disposed of." The Varsity - "A Weekly Review of Education, University Politics and Events" - which was run by both graduates and undergraduates, played an important role in shaping opinion in the debate on the admission of women.

The aforementioned article, strongly in favour of co-education, was written by William Houston, an 1872 graduate who had been a reporter for the Globe and other papers. "It is only a question of time," he wrote, "when female under-graduates will be knocking at the door of University College for admission." He ended the article with a somewhat unappealing image: "Let a few young ladies muster courage to break the ice and they will soon find a numerous troop plunging in after them and the young gentlemen generously applauding their intrepidity."

When she predicted that "these university doors will open some day to women," McCaul, according to Stowe, answered "with some vehemence": "Never in my day Madam!

Although there was nothing in the University of Toronto Act specifically excluding women, they were not admitted to University College. President John McCaul certainly did not favour their admission. Emily Stowe, later to be the first Canadian woman licensed to practise medicine, sought to take classes at University College in chemistry and physiology in 1869, but her request was denied by the senate. McCaul conveyed the decision to her. When she predicted that "these university doors will open some day to women," McCaul, according to Stowe, answered "with some vehemence": "Never in my day Madam!"

William Houston
William Houston, MA, 1874

One of the first major issues President Daniel Wilson had to face was that of the admission of women. Houston's article appeared the week after Wilson took office on October 1, 1880. Women were starting to enter the professions, particularly the teaching profession. For the most part, one needed a university degree in order to teach high school. "Without a University training," Houston wrote, ''they cannot take charge of High Schools or become even acceptable assistants in them." Wilson noted in his diary in February 1882: "A deputation of ladies - strong minded - bent on having the college thrown open to women. Parliament to be appealed to, etc. etc."

Augusta Stowe Gullen
Augusta Stowe Gullen, a graduate of Victoria's medical school in 1883.

The deputation was most probably from the Toronto Women's Literary Club, founded in 1877 by the physician Emily Stowe. The club, which later reconstituted itself as the Canadian Women's Suffrage Association, had approached the university senate several years earlier, seeking to have it allow women to write university entrance examinations, "identifying papers by numbers instead of names." The senate gave permission for women to write examinations in localities with a sufficient number of female candidates, provided there was a local committee to supervise the exams (to be held in June at the same time that male candidates wrote the exams in Toronto), pay all costs, and provide suitable accommodation, and provided also that "the questions should be precisely the same as those proposed to male candidates in the same subject."

While the first women students were admitted in 1884, women would not get their own gymnasium until the Benson Building was constructed, almost eighty years later, in 1959.

While the first women students were admitted in 1884, women would not get their own gymnasium until the Benson Building was constructed, almost eighty years later, in 1959. But they did obtain a playing field, at the corner of Queen's Park and Bloor Street, for the "Ladies Tennis Club," founded in 1893, and the use of the East Hall of University College for the "Women's Fencing Club," founded in 1895.

Clara Benson
Clara Benson, 1899

President Daniel Wilson would not permit co-educational sports activities, but after his death in 1892 a number of co-educational sports events began to take place, such as mixed doubles in tennis; and there were recreational ice-skating rinks from 1896 and a co-educational golf club in 1898. The golf club obtained permission to play throughout the university property, and within a year a thirteen-hole course ranged over the northern end of the University. Wilson would not have been pleased. Clara Benson, after whom the 1959 women's gymnasium would be named, was a member of both the golf and the tennis club as an undergraduate in the 1890s.

Five women graduated from U of T in the spring of 1885. Three of them were among the group of women who had attended lectures in 1884-5, including Ella Gardiner, who later became principal of Albert College in Belleville. The other two graduates were the Brown sisters -- daughters of the Globe publisher George Brown --who had chosen to complete their education with private tutors and after graduation returned with their family to Scotland.

Margaret Langley, May Bell Bald, Ella Gardiner
Three of the women who graduated from University College in 1885, members of the first graduating class that included women: from left to right, Margaret Langley, May Bell Bald, and Ella Gardiner. Two daughters of the Globe publisher George Brown, Margaret and Catherine, also graduated in 1885, but their pictures were not included in the composite.

Eliza Balmer graduated the following year and later taught at Harbord Collegiate. Nellie Spence, also in the first class, graduated in 1889 and became head of English and history at Parkdale Collegiate. Henrietta Charles, who had passed the entrance exams in 1879, did not graduate until 1888, having interrupted her studies to teach in Ottawa. She later taught mathematics at Humberside Collegiate. All three remained single. Both Balmer and Spence became members of the university senate, and in 1937, Spence received an honorary doctorate from the University.

Teaching, particularly the teaching of modern languages and English in high schools, would be the path chosen by many of the early women graduates. By the beginning of the First World War, 87 per cent of the students studying modern languages and 64 per cent of those studying English at University College were women. The number of women attending the University increased significantly over the years. By 1892, there were more than a hundred in arts, and this number doubled over each of the next two decades.

After their admission in 1884, women students became an increasingly important part of university life. It would be another three-quarters of a century, however, before more than a handful of women would become tenured members of the faculty.

Women's hockey
Women's hockey, circa 1910

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