Women in History – 30 April

Dr. Emily Howard Stowe (May 1, 1831 – April 29, 1903) was the first female doctor to practice in Canada and an activist for women’s rights and suffrage.

Stowe helped found the women’s suffrage movement in Canada and campaigned for the country’s first medical college for women.

She was born in Norwich Township, Oxford County, Ontario to Hannah Howard and Solomon Jennings. After teaching at local schools for seven years, Stowe’s public struggle to achieve equality for women began in 1852, when she applied for admission to Victoria College, Cobourg, and Ontario. Refused on the grounds that she was female, she applied to the Normal School for Upper Canada in Toronto. She entered in November 1853 and was graduated with first-class honors in 1854. Hired as principal of a Brant ford, Ontario public school, she was the first woman to be a principal of a public school in Upper Canada. She taught there until her marriage in 1856.

Stowe was denied entrance into the Toronto School of Medicine in 1865 and was told by its Vice President, “The doors of the University are not open to women and I trust they never will be.” Unable to study medicine in Canada, Emily Stowe earned her degree in the United States from the homeopathic New York Medical College for Women in 1867. The same year, she returned to Canada and opened a medical practice in Toronto. Stowe gained some local prominence through public lectures on women’s health and maintained a steady clientele through newspaper advertisements.

In 1870, the president of the Toronto School of Medicine granted special permission to Stowe and fellow student Jenny Kidd Trout to attend classes, a requirement for medical practitioners with foreign licenses. Faced with hostility from both the male faculty and students, Stowe refused to take the oral and written exams and left the school.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario granted Stowe a license to practice medicine on July 16, 1880, based on her experience with homeopathic medicine since 1850. This license made Stowe the second female licensed physician in Canada, after Trout.

Her daughter, Augusta Stowe-Gullen, was the first woman to earn a medical degree in Canada.

While studying medicine in New York, Stowe met with Susan B. Anthony and witnessed the divisions within the American women’s suffrage movement. Stowe also attended a women’s club meeting in Cleveland, Ohio. Stowe adopted a gradualism strategy which she brought back to her work in Canada.

In 1876, Stowe founded the Toronto Women’s Literary Club, renamed the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association in 1883. This has led some to consider Stowe the mother of the suffrage movement in Canada. The Literary Club campaigned for improved working conditions for women and pressured schools in Toronto to accept women into higher education. In 1883, a public meeting of the Suffrage Association led to the creation of the Ontario Medical College for Women. When the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association was founded in 1889, Stowe became its first president and remained president until her death.

In 1896, Emily and her daughter Augusta participated in an all-female “mock parliament,” where the women considered a petition from a male delegation for the right to vote. Stowe, as the Attorney General, used the same arguments that the Canadian Parliament had leveled against female suffragists and denied the petition. Stowe died in 1903, fourteen years before Canadian women were granted the right to vote.

Public elementary schools in her hometown of Norwich Township (Emily Stowe Public School) as well as Courtice, Ontario are named after her.