On July 16, 1880, Emily Howard Stowe, a life long suffragist and woman's rights activist, became the first female physician to practice in Canada.
Emily Howard Jennings was born in 1831 on a farm in Norwich Township in Upper Canada (now Ontario), the first of six daughters of a Methodist father and a Quaker mother. Emily's mother had been well-educated at an American Quaker seminary and believed in a good education for her daughters. She was so dissatisfied with the local schools that she chose to instruct all her children herself.
At age 15, Emily became a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in neighbouring Summerville, where she taught for seven years. Her struggle to achieve equal opportunities for women began in 1852 when she applied for admission to Victoria College, in Cobourg, but was refused because she was female. She was, however, accepted by Toronto’s Normal School for Upper Canada, the only advanced school open to women in British North America. She graduated with first-class honors in 1854.
She took a teaching position at the Brantford School Board, and quickly moved up to become the first woman principal of a public school in Upper Canada. After she married John Stowe, they moved to Pleasantville and started a family.
Soon after the birth of John and Emily Stowe's third child, John contracted tuberculosis. His illness inspired Emily to explore the field of herbal healing and homeopathic medicine, an area her mother had studied. This, together with what she saw as a serious need for women doctors, led to her decision to become a physician.
In 1865, Emily Stowe applied to the Toronto School of Medicine, but once again, she was denied admission. "The doors of the University are not open to women and I trust they never will be," the University's vice-president told her. Stowe was outraged. She promised herself that she would do everything possible to enable women to have the same opportunities as men. Unable to study in Canada, she moved to the United States and enrolled at the New York Medical College for Women, a homeopathic institution in the city of New York. She obtained her degree in 1867 and returned to Canada and set up a practice in homeopathic medicine on Richmond Street in Toronto, even before obtaining her license. She thus became the first practising female physician in Canada.
Even after she received her degree in the US, she was not allowed to enter the University of Toronto, until 1871. And then only with a special arrangement to allow her and another woman, Jenny Trout, to attend the lectures.
It was a difficult period for both of these women, since students and faculty went out of their way to humiliate them. Dr. Stowe either failed her exams or defiantly refused to sit them and returned to her practice, still without a licence. Jenny Trout passed her exams and became the first licensed female physician in Canada.
Her work to be accepted into the medical profession, reinforced her feminist ideals. She continued to fight for the rights of women throughout her life. In 1877, she helped to found the Toronto Women's Literary Guild, a suffragette group with the aim of improving women's working conditions. The group work hard to open up higher education opportunities for women in Toronto, and they succeeded. In 1883, their name was changed to the Canadian Women's Suffrage Association, and their reach was extended to all of Canada.
Meanwhile, Dr. Stowe continued her medical practice, specializing in women and children and giving lectures on women's health. In 1879, she was charged with performing an abortion on one of her patients. She faced a long and intimidating trial during which her qualifications were scrutinized and members of Toronto's medical establishment were called to bear witness to her character, skill and professional conduct. In the end, she was acquitted.
The next year, she was finally granted her medical licence by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, making her the second licensed female physician in Canada.
She continued to fight for the rights of women to pursue the medical profession. She worked tirelessly to convince the University of Toronto to reverse its policy and allow women into their program. In fact, perhaps her proudest moment in life can in 1883 when her own daughter, Augusta Stowe-Gullen, was the first women doctor to graduate from a Canadian medical school.
The same year that Dr. Stowe's daughter graduated from medical school, a public meeting of the Toronto Women's Suffrage Association, with Dr. Stowe at the forefront, led to the creation of the Ontario Medical College for Women.
In 1888, Dr. Stowe attended an international conference of suffragettes in Washington, D.C. She returned home to revitalize the women's movement in Canada and continued the fight to win the vote for women. Her vehicle was the Dominion Women's Enfranchisement Association, which she founded in 1889. She became its first president and held the position until her death.
(source: Library and Archives Canada)