By Emma Paling
Linda Kay is the author of The Sweet Sixteen: The Journey that Inspired the Canadian Women’s Press Club. Her book recounts how a single train ride in 1904 ended with the creation of a club that would go on to count Nellie McClung and Lucy Maud Montgomery among its members. A young Ottawa reporter, Margaret Graham, asked a CP publicist for the same press pass her male colleagues were given to attend the St. Louis World Fair. He said if she could find 12 accredited female writers, he’d escort them to St. Louis himself. Well, she found 15. He named them the “Sweet Sixteen,” despite the fact that these were tough, tenacious women, working as journalists at a time when they weren’t even legally recognized as people.
Kay herself was the first female sports reporter at the Chicago Tribune, and is now chair of Concordia University’s journalism department. The Sweet Sixteen book launch will be held this Saturday at the Media Club of Ottawa, an offshoot of the Canadian Women’s Press Club.
What inspired the book?
I thought I was pretty cool as the first female sports writer at the Chicago Tribune, but when I became a teacher I started looking into journalists of the past, and realized there was a female sports writer at the Globe and Mail in 1933. I started doing research on female journalists in Canada and found out that the first one became a full employee in 1886. I didn’t know about this; my peers didn’t know about this.
What’s the connection to Ottawa?
Shortly after the [Canadian Women’s Press Club’s] founding, 17 different branches spread across the country. The Media Club of Ottawa is the only remnant of the club that’s left. It is not an exclusive women’s club anymore though; it accepts men. The irony is that when women like myself came into the industry in the ’70s and ‘80s, they didn’t want to belong to a women’s-only club. Nevertheless, [the Media Club of Ottawa] still tie themselves to the original club and are the only branch left.
Why was the formation of the Canadian Women’s Press Club revolutionary?
The fact that it was a professional women’s business club. They laid down a constitution that they would be supportive of each other, because at that time there were no journalism schools, and men were very unfriendly to them in the workplace. Women were put in separate newsrooms until the ‘60s and ‘70s. One paper called the women’s area, “the cage.” Women were not treated or paid like the other staff. They were segregated.
Why is it important for Canadians to hear this story today?
We have to know where we came from. I had been thinking I had reinvented the wheel! It was very humbling to realize that it didn’t happen yesterday, it happened so long ago. It’s especially important for women, as we are erased from history much of the time. There is scant material on these women. They are being rediscovered little by little, but nothing had been done on this trip and exactly what happened when they got back and started the club.
As someone who dealt with gender barriers in journalism yourself, how is the story significant to you personally?
I had a sense of pride in these women and wanted to tell their stories. I can only imagine what they had to go through, given that in the ‘80s I had to surmount obstacles. I was ostracized in some cases. It’s kind of a double-edged sword because you’re the only woman, so you have a forum, but it can also be lonely.
Why did you decide to use biographies of the “Sweet Sixteen” women as the book’s epilogue?
It was fascinating to see how each of these women went their different ways after the trip. Each deserves a book of her own, really. A lot of them achieved great things after the trip. Margaret Graham, the instigator of the trip, dropped out of journalism completely and didn’t continue with the club. She got married a few years after, so was it because of societal pressure? All these things I speculate on. Also to give them the credit they deserve. To just focus on that one year would be to give short shrift to their lives and the club.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered in your research?
Some of these women were really fabulous writers, and that surprised me. They were clever, they were funny, they were witty, and they had to produce so much copy each week. They wanted to be seen as literary figures. Another thing was how avant-garde they were. These were women way ahead of their time. Some of them were divorced or separated at a time when this was scandalous. Some didn’t marry. Some had love affairs. It was in total opposition to the image I had of women at that time. At times it was in opposition to what they were writing, because their audience was homemakers and single women who aspired to get married and become homemakers.