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Jan 1 2000

Mother has been stirring up things considerably these days, hope she won't be a wreck after the meetings. (W6840)

When one considers the financial and health difficulties that Mary Baker McQuesten encountered in raising her six children, it is difficult to imagine how she also continued to devote a great deal of time and energy to the Presbyterian Church and the Women's Missionary Societies. Mary viewed this commitment as part of her responsibility for social reform, and she worked tirelessly,1 accepting executive office, conducting meetings and writing and delivering addresses.2 She also traveled throughout Ontario and to the West to establish auxiliaries or to inspect missions. Mary's work for the missionary societies demonstrates her leadership and organizational abilities and the high standards that she demanded of herself and of others. She was a zealous leader, liberal in voicing her opinions on all subjects, and inflexible in her moral judgements. This did not always endear her to established authorities.

Soon after Mary's marriage in 1873, she was elected to the executive of the Women's Missionary Society in the McQuesten home church, MacNab Street Presbyterian Church in Hamilton. Mary was also a member of a group of fifty women who met at Knox Presbyterian Church, Toronto in 1876 to establish the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS). Two years later in 1878, she was also a member of a joint missionary society between three local churches. In January 1887 Mary was instrumental in establishing a separate auxiliary group named the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS) at her home church. At the outset she was secretary and in 1893 became president (Buttrum 4). The minutes of the meetings, in her own hand, demonstrate her facility with language and organization, and provide insights into her missionary zeal. For instance, at the inception meeting she noted that the only hindrance was the lack of funds, and the meeting closed "with an earnest appeal to us all, to see to it that we hinder not the spread of the work by any want of liberality on our part." At each meeting Mary's "Minutes" record a similar moral directive. Mary McQuesten was president for twenty-five years and was an active member for more than fifty years.3

As her executive skill flourished and was recognized, she was elected to a Board of Management in 1882 and was charged with forming new missionary groups. She traveled to Manitoba and Quebec by horse and buggy or by railroad, giving addresses as she organized these groups, or attended conferences (W5464, W5487). Her enthusiasm and industry prompted her daughter, Mary, to exclaim: "Saw Mamma off for Winnipeg. . . . I tell you what, there isn't a woman can touch her" (W5477).

Shortly after the turn of the century, Mary accepted an executive position with the newly-formed provincial Women's Home Missionary Society (WHMS4), but she was reluctant to be president, and she and other women executives felt they had been coerced into joining the home mission group (Brouwer 51; W5765). The WHMS was formed, initially, to minister to the men flocking to the Yukon and Alaska Gold Fields, and to provide medical and spiritual aid and education to native women and children in the Canadian North and West5 (Wee Kirks 194; DHB3.6). However, Mary's loyalties remained with the foreign missions. She felt that the foreign women's needs were greater because they were often sequestered and could not be reached except by other women.

For all of their colonial and Christian zeal, the missionary societies were not without internal strife, and Mary's letters record some of the "gender conflicts" that occurred at home and abroad. At home the conflict was between the all-male Foreign Missions Committee (FMC) and the women's executive body in Canada; and abroad the conflict was between the FMC and the women missionaries (W4651, W5172, W5765, W6853). In both cases the dispute involved the control of funds which the women's societies had raised for women's missions and were reluctant to give up to the men for other uses. The WFMS proved to be extremely successful at fund raising, while the FMC had "perennial budgeting problems." Initially "the power of the purse" prevailed and the women insisted on "financing only women's missionaries' activities" (Brouwer 32, 34, 38). The dispute continued for many years while the FMC used pressure tactics, placed restrictions on the WFMS and, in 1910, the provincial WFMS and the WHMS agreed to try to work out a basis for union. In the same year Mary became vice-president of the Ontario Provincial Society and spoke out strongly against the union. However, in 1914 they were "forced to unite" and became the WMS. Although the women provided a "show of unanimity and brave talk" they could not "mask the fact that their leaders had been coerced into union."6

Ruth Compton Brouwer's analysis of this period is very thorough, and she notes that the women dutifully agreed: "their tone and tactics were moderate" in keeping with the Presbyterian tradition "through Calvin and Knox" of women's "subservience [and] various church assemblies had reaffirmed the Pauline injunctions against women's speaking or preaching in mixed assemblies." This was unlike the Methodists and Quakers who already had a tradition of female leadership in religious roles. Nevertheless, the WFMS could look back with pride on their "total income of more than one and a half million dollars over the life of their organization" and on the many schools, hospitals and other facilities they had sponsored.7 Brouwer notes the added benefit that "in seeking to liberate their 'heathen sisters,' they had made considerable progress in enlarging their own sphere" (27, 52).

After the amalgamation, Mary's letters become gradually less concerned with the missionary societies as she transferred her missionary zeal to the social reform agenda that was being accomplished through Thomas and his Parks Board appointment and "City Beautiful" movement. The Presbyterian Church in general became concerned with a social reform movement to counteract the urban moral decay caused by industrialization and immigration in the aftermath of the war (W5359n).

In the early part of the century, immigrants drawn to industry in Hamilton were targeted for conversion and Mary often refers to teaching the "Jews," "Japs," or "Chinamen." Mary was dedicated to the immigrant cause and reports that she spent all one morning "trolling from one end of the city to the other looking for work for a Jew" (W4717, W4847, W5199, W5245). Mary was vice-president of the Jewish Mission where they conducted classes for all immigrants in order to "Canadianize and to Christianize" (Moir Enduring 165).

The Presbyterian attitude to immigrants in the early twentieth century was deliberately colonial. The goal was to assimilate them "to the Canadian way-of-life, by which was meant assimilation to an idealized model of Anglo-Saxon society." It was considered that the immigrants' "insufficient literacy, virtue and intelligence posed a threat" to democracy itself (Moir 165, 168). A headline of the day gives an indication of the prevailing attitude: "Judge Advises Foreigners to Change Names. . . . to plain English" (The Hamilton Spectator, March 23, 1915).

The work ethic was an important part of Presbyterian teaching. Moir notes the attitude toward foreigners: "generally speaking . . .the foreigners that come to this country menace . . . the welfare of our labouring class" and "do not consider pauperism discreditable . . . this is something new on Canadian soil." Immigrants came from fifty-nine countries, and statistics of the day showed that "foreigners of certain classes furnish the criminal list beyond all proportion to their numbers" and were a "menace of a very deadly kind to the body politic" (Moir 165-66, quoted from R.G. MacBeth in Our Task in Canada (1912).

The Presbyterian General Assembly of 1912 set up a "Department of the Stranger" with chaplains to meet immigrants at the borders, and the women's Missionary Societies created "Strangers [sic] Committees" to maintain the contacts. Some of these missions were "less successful" than others. For instance, many of the Jews did not welcome the missionary efforts to "bring a ray of true light to illuminate Israel's gross darkness," and many of the Chinese took advantage of these missions only long enough to learn "enough English to assure them of good jobs" (Moir Enduring 167-69).

Presbyterians paid special attention to the needs of young women traveling unaccompanied and the missions were urged to attend closely to their welfare after they arrived in Canada (Moir Enduring 168). The threat of immigrant women being led into prostitution in the Northwest gold fields was an even more immediate danger and a "vivid warning" was issued to Presbyterian women to extend their efforts to this new challenge "if the motherhood of the nation was not to be permanently debased," and if their own sons were not to be corrupted (Brouwer 46). Mary actively supported this missionary work in the West and for the same reasons she also supported the YWCA at home:

In March 1889 Mary proposed that Hamilton establish its own chapter of YWCA. The fledgling organization's objective was to care for the educational and moral well-being of the many young women who . . .were heading to the cities in search of work. . . .in part, to ensure the continuance of the existing social order. . . . and to counteract sexual exploitation. (DHB3.6)

However, in her YWCA work, Mary made it clear that she favoured the Christian part of the organization over the teaching of Domestic Science, which was being promoted by Adelaide Hoodless (DHB2.72). Mary notes the controversy in February 1903: "Without employing a secretary for religious work, it is useless to go on with it. Mrs. Hoodless has two top stories for her school and declares she cannot pay any rent" (W4795, W5183).

Although there is no record that Mary ever joined a suffragette group, her feminist inclinations are evident in her membership in the National Council of Women (DHB3.6). However, it was likely the lack of a clear Christian thrust in the NCW that made Mary favour the Women's Presbyterian missions. In 1894 it was proposed that the WFMS unite with the NCW, but "the council's decision not to open its meetings with public prayer provided further reason to remain aloof" (Brouwer 43).

Mary's feminist leanings took the form of demands for more opportunities for women in the church and mission societies, and she developed the courage to voice her impatience with the male establishment, particularly in matters of leadership, intelligence and ethics. In 1903 she deeply regretted her silence in the "gentlemen's meetings," especially since the other women had looked to her for leadership (W4745). In 1906 she delivered an address to a group of men at Knox Church, in Hamilton, and later denounced them for their lack of interest and attendance: "doubtless they would not think me worth listening to, at the same time I have a feeling there are very few men there, who are of much value" (W5709, W6975).

It might be expected that the WFMS's growing power base would eventually lead it into the suffrage movement; however, this did not happen because the missionary cause was given the priority. Brouwer explains that the Presbyterian women's "strong convictions about Eastern [Asian] women's disabilities and about their own incomparably more emancipated status undoubtedly served as an effective damper on any tendencies toward militancy." They could not forsake the "'heathen women's pathetic cries for help" without "concluding that they had little reason to protest women's lot in Canada" (190-91). Mary makes this priority clear in one of her addresses to the WMS. She quotes Dr. Elizabeth Beatty, the first Canadian lady missionary physician: "if the women of Canada knew what the women and children of India suffer they would spend their last dollar to help them." Mary continued: "Then it was that the members of our WMS realized the wonderful difference in their condition . . . [and must] pour out their hearts in thankfulness to God for His unspeakable goodness to them" (W-MCP2-4.023). In some of Mary's addresses there appears a definite note of resistance to the suffragette movement:

The very freedom we enjoy of going in and out when we please treated with all consideration and courtesy by men, especially those near and dear to us, of saying and doing as we like. . . .This very freedom, I repeat, if we think at all, must be a constant reminder of those millions of women who are valued as a man values his cattle, who lead lives of drudgery and degradation who have no one to come to their help and unless we do, they have no one else to take up their cause. (W-MCP2-4.023)

Nellie McClung had made the case for suffrage by linking it with the Methodist missionary cause, with some success; however, the Presbyterians had no feminist of her "stature and inventiveness." Although McClung and other militant feminists deplored the "false consciousness" that the "church-generated propaganda promoted, their attempts to counteract it met with little success." Many Presbyterian women and men did advocate suffrage but they did it "while wearing a different hat." In fact, "Presbyterian men were strongly represented in the ranks of acknowledged suffrage advocates" (Brouwer 190-91).8

There is also no evidence that Mary ever joined the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, and the WFMS declined to support them as well. Again, the likely reason was their single-minded devotion to the missionary cause, which had its own Temperance agenda (Brouwer 43). In Mary's missionary speeches she often targeted alcohol as a primary social problem and as one of the main deterrents to Christian and social reform. During the Ontario Temperance Referendum of 1902, Mary worked feverishly to convince the women to influence their men to vote for Temperance but it was narrowly defeated (W6419).

Two contentious issues that engaged Mary and divided the Presbyterian Church in the first quarter of the century were "Higher Criticism" and "Church Union." Mary rejected any modernization in Bible exegesis that was being debated by some of the "professors and preachers," and was creating a "storm centre" in the church. Mary's frequent criticisms of preachers were often based on her objection to modifications of doctrine that challenged her fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible (W5283n, W4436, W5868).

Those who favoured "Higher Criticism" also tended to favour "Church Union": the organic union of the Methodist, Congregationalist and Presbyterian churches. Mary was fiercely opposed to union as well and, in 1923, although she was seventy-five years of age, she spoke out forcefully against it (W0127a-April 24, 1923, W5283, W6446). Union did occur in 1925 with the formation of the United Church, and the Presbyterian Church in Canada was fractured and weakened leaving only a quarter of its former members. However, the MacNab Church voted to remain Presbyterian, and only four churches in the Hamilton Presbytery voted for union (Wee Kirks 213; McNeill 245, 260).

Mary was an effective leader and her executive position in the Missionary Societies provided a good deal of status for the family. It is likely that the McQuestens worked even more diligently in the church in an attempt to regain the social prestige that was lost with Isaac's death and bankruptcy. The church provided an active social life and Mary's letters give a rich and colourful account of the Victorian cultural scene in Hamilton during the McQuesten era. However, the endless teas and visitings were not merely frivolous society affairs; they were a mandatory part of church and social life. Indeed, Tyrell's Society Blue Book (1900) provides a day and time for "receiving" for each family registered. The church members were required to make regular visits to one another and to new members, which were then reported at the auxiliary meetings. The visiting, and the gossip, were also part of the Presbyterian emphasis on "neighbours' watchfulness," an incentive to moral behaviour (MacGillivray 52). Mary sometimes grew weary of the constant visiting and of "having to make conversation for a whole afternoon" and she complained that she was "simply tired to death of transients" (W5392). Whitehern was just a block from the church and the McQuestens often received these transient visitors. On the other hand, there were also times when Mary deplored the lack of social life for her children: "we do not like to live always to ourselves" (W5709).

From time to time, Mary suffered extreme exhaustion, depression and "nervous prostration" because of the stress of her missionary work. In her letter of January 15, 1907 she complained that she was finding it difficult to concentrate, and could not "stand too much in the way of being responsible" (W5765). However, by February 6, she had rallied sufficiently to deliver another paper to her auxiliary (W5784), but she remained exhausted throughout that year.

Mary's work with the missionary societies demonstrates that she had the Victorian attributes of a clear social and political sense of responsibility, a deep sense of mission, a firmness of will, and an unwearying industry. She was also remarkably practical and determined to create change in her world which was circumscribed by the Scottish Enlightenment ideas of progress, complete confidence in the British imperialist vision, and a firm Presbyterian morality (Brouwer 4). She was a dedicated leader for social change for women and children, and for men, wherever she could effect it, and her every act for herself, her children, her church and community, was calculated toward that end.

1 See W5675 for a letter describing Mary's activity level.

2 A very small selection of Mary's missionary society addresses can be found at W7193. See also W7172, W7181, W7203, W8422, W8432, W8447, W0127.

3 Ania Latoszek, former curator of Whitehern, provides an analysis of "The Woman's Foreign Missionary Society Auxiliary of the MacNab Street Church (1887-1907)--A Preparation for Change" (1993 unpublished).

4 Note change in spelling from woman's for WFMS to women's for the later organization WHMS.

5 It is an interesting cultural and post-colonial irony that native Canadians were considered "foreign."

6 Brouwer adds that at least Lucy Maud Montgomery was happy about the union since, as a minister's wife, she had a "surfeit-of-societies difficulty" and found the meetings "deadly dull" (Brouwer 51-52).

7 I am aware, of course, of the post-colonial research that has exposed some of these missionary efforts as harmful to the recipients, but this was not known at that time. Mary's letters are valuable for a cultural study of the movement and show that the missionary societies were dedicated and sincere, although misguided.

To the Victorians (and late Victorians), the British race was deemed to be racially superior and the compulsion in Canada was to prevent any deterioration of civilization. Consequently attempts were instituted to anglicize all other racial groups. A Eugenics agenda was widely used in order to preserve the quality of the race so that the "feeble-minded" would not procreate. The "feeble-minded" included mental patients, the unemployed, immigrants and migrants. Thus, sterilization was instituted to control the quality of the race. Dr. Charles Kirk Clarke (1857-1924) of The Clarke Institute was a member of the NCW and their annual report of 1895 contained an impassioned speech against the feeble-minded which gave power to Dr. Clarke's eugenics agenda in which he sterilized thousands of people so that they would "abstain from--and no longer procreate [their] kind." He also limited immigration to those who were desirable: British and Americans and some Western and Northern Europeans, but they were to be anglicized as soon as possible after arrival. ("Ideas" CBC August 2000, by Mary O'Connell, journalist)

8 In Canadian Feminist and suffrage history, the WOMEN AS PERSONS LAW was enacted on June 11,1929; women were finally declared "persons" under Canadian law. The historic legal victory is due to the persistence of five Alberta women--Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards. The battle started in 1916. From Murphy's very first day as a judge, lawyers had challenged her rulings because she was not a "person" under Canadian law. that_was_then/life_society/women_persons_case.
In 1916 the Western Provinces granted suffrage--Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan.
In 1918 all provinces granted the vote (with some restrictions) except Quebec.
In 1920 Women were allowed to stand for election (limited)
In 1940 Quebec granted the vote to women.
In 1950 FULL SUFFRAGE was granted to all women and men (those previously not included.
See W1116, for Margarette Lerned's [later McQuesten] essay on the equality of women which was written likely written in 1824. Her opinions and ideas are strong and well-developed for Margarette's age (15) and for THE age. The ideas are also appropriate to her school which is Adams Female Academy (see footnote at W1100). Nearly one hundred years later, in 1917, women were still being arrested for picketing the White House in behalf of women's suffrage; and in the same year the U.S. Senate rejected President Wilson's suffrage bill. It was not until August 26, 1920 that the Women's Suffrage Bill was passed into law in the United States. "Woman's Suffrage." The Woman Suffrage Timeline. December 12, 2003.

See Box 03-313 for an article arguing for woman's [or women's] suffrage based on the Declaration of Independence--in the National Woman's Temperance Union, magazine in Evanston Illinois.

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