A black and white photo of 11 women, some seated on chairs, some in front on the floor, with one standing in the back. They are in a room lined with bookshelves that has brick walls and several large houseplants/.
Members of the National Council of Women in Ottawa in 1898. Lady Aberdeen is in the centre, holding a book. Image courtesy: Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada / PA-028035

Gender Equality Week

September 18 to 24 is Gender Equality Week in Canada, and this year’s theme was “Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities.” In an official statement, the Honourable Marci Ien, Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth, described the week as a time to “recognize the important progress we’ve made towards gender equality while also recognizing the important work that lies ahead of us.”

a local connection

One organization with local roots that was dedicated to the advancement of women was the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC). Founded it 1893, it is one of Canada’s oldest advocacy groups, and is still operating from its headquarters in Ottawa. The NCWC, a member of the International Council of Women (ICW), was created by its first president—and former Vernonite—Lady Ishabel Aberdeen.

Lady Aberdeen was the wife of Lord Aberdeen, Canada’s Governor General from 1893 until 1898. When she established the National Council of Women, she was also the president of the ICW. In 1895, Lady Aberdeen established a Vernon Branch of the NCWC, with Addie Cochrane serving as president.

Women’s Suffrage

The NCWC began fighting for women’s suffrage in 1910; however, the NCWC was considered to be an elitist organization by several well-known suffragists, including Nellie McClung, due to its middle-class composition and lack of French Canadians and women of colour.

The case was similar here in Vernon, in that the local branch was mostly made up of women from Vernon’s more wealthy families. However, both the local and national chapters of the Council of Women made important contributions towards gender equality in Canada.

ORGANIZATIONAL ACHEIVEMENTS

One of the most prominent accomplishments of the Vernon branch was the petition for a hospital, which led to the opening of the Vernon Jubilee Hospital in 1909. Meanwhile, the NCWC established the Victorian Order of Nurses to provide at-home nursing care, and supported the rights and opportunities of women in the workforce.

Mysteriously, the local branch of the NCWC virtually disappeared in 1920, and the reason for this is unknown. In 1959, it was resurrected as the Vernon & District Council of Women which operated until 1974 before folding due to low membership numbers. However, since then, other local organizations have continued to protect and promote the rights of women and gender equality for all.

 

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts

Gwyneth Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator

 

Group photo of Lord and Lady Aberdeen (standing in the back) with their children and nanny on the porch of the Coldstream Ranch circa 1895.

One of the most remarkable women to have lived in Canada is Ishbel Marie Hamilton-Gordon (nee Marjoribanks).

Ishbel was born in Scotland on March 14, 1857, to a wealthy Scottish Member of Parliament, Sir Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks and his wife Isabella Weird Hogg. Ishbel was an extremely bright child. She secretly taught herself to read at the age of three by pestering the household servants to each read a line or two from her book of fairytales. Upon this discovery, her parents immediately hired a governess to begin her formal instruction in reading

In her late teens, Ishbel met John Campbell Hamilton-Gordon, the 7th Earl of Aberdeen, and on November 7, 1877, they were married. Although Ishbel’s outspoken nature was in contrast with John’s quiet personality, their complimentary political views and mutual dedication to social reform resulted in a happy marriage and lasting partnership. The couple had four surviving children: George, Marjorie, Dudley, and Archie. One unnamed daughter was lost in infancy.

The family came to B.C. for the first time in 1890, and purchased a ranch in Kelowna. A year later, in 1891, they purchased the Coldstream Ranch in Vernon from Forbes Vernon. The establishment of these two ranches helped shape the Okanagan’s fruit industry into what it is today.  

In 1893, Lord Aberdeen was appointed Governor General of Canada, and Ishbel did not sit idly by as his wife.  She was a leader in social causes for women, and established the National Council of Women and the Victorian Order of Nurses.

Lady Aberdeen personally established the Vernon branch of the National Council for Women in 1895, and their first meeting occurred on October 22 of that year. The records of the Vernon branch, including the minutes from the first meeting, are housed at the Vernon Archives. One of the most prominent accomplishments of the Vernon branch was the petition for a hospital, resulting in the establishment of the Vernon Jubilee Hospital.

The Aberdeens left Canada in 1898. Lady Aberdeen passed over her title of president of the National Council of Women, but maintained her role as president of the International Council of Women for decades. This remarkable woman remained in Europe for the rest of her life, and passed away in March of 1934.

 

Rebecca Sekine, Archival Intern