In 1904, when veteran newspaper correspondent Margaret Graham met with the Canadian Pacific Railway to request sponsorship for an all-women’s press junket to the World’s Fair in St. Louis, the company jumped at the chance. At a time of great competition for railroads – and the CPR’s desire to convince Americans to move to Canada – what better way to attract positive publicity?
Graham, along with her colleague Kate Simpson Hayes and Quebec reporter Robertine Barry, assembled a group of 16 women journalists (half of whom spoke English, the other half French) to board a luxurious private rail car as it made stops across the country, then travel on to the fair.
What started out as a publicity stunt for the CPR turned into the catalyst for an organization that would encourage mentoring and professional development for female journalists, and equality for all women. These journalists, known as the Sweet Sixteen, caught a glimpse of the future and chose to harness its potential by forming the Canadian Women’s Press Club. First presided over by Kit Coleman, of The Mail and Empire, the club had an interesting history and solid membership until it lost relevance in the early 1970s, when men were allowed to join.
Author Linda Kay conveys the women’s impressions of their revolutionary journey, travelling as professional reporters at a time when they could neither show their ankles nor vote, and years before women were even considered “persons” in Canada. How progressive and freeing it must have felt. Unfortunately, that excitement doesn’t come through. The level of detail in The Sweet Sixteen is an academic’s dream, but the casual reader will often find it unwieldy.
Still, Kay leaves us with the undeniable sense that something significant happened among the women on that train, and the biographies in the epilogue are a wonderful introduction to Canada’s women reporters of the early 20th century.