10 Vintage Photos of Toronto's Working Women: Celebrating International Women's Day, March 8, 2019

March 8, 2019 | Bill V.

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According to the International Women's Day page on the Government of Canada website, March 8 is "a day to recognize women's achievements and acknowledge the challenges they continue to face in the quest for gender equality."

This year I wanted to share a small personal sample of vintage photographs up to the 1970s of Toronto's working women from the Library's Digital Archive.

Call it professional bias but I start with this photo from 1895 of a group of female library staff at the Mechanics Institute. The leg of mutton sleeves are especially stylish here. You can just make out a man on the left hand side who has been cropped out and I've always wondered if that's James Bain, the City's first Chief Librarian.


Something more working class is this circa 1900 photo of the waitresses and cook of the Empringham Hotel on Danforth Ave and Dawes Road. The woman on the left is showing some jaunty leg.


This 1907 photo of nurse Louise Brent shows a confident and influential figure who was the Superintendent of the Nursing School for the Hospital for Sick Children from 1896 to 1913.


You may know the phrase "swear like a fishmonger's wife". Well, in this 1910 photo we see Mrs Margaret Chambers who was not just a fishmonger but also owned her own small business. A nice early example of female entrepreneur.

1910 vintage photo  Mrs. Margaret Chambers   fishmonger  Danforth Ave.  s.e. cor. Bowden St.
Mrs. Margaret Chambers, Fishmonger. Danforth Ave., south east corner of Bowden St. 1910.


This 1919 photo shows a more typical job for women as factory workers at the Colgate Palmolve factory in Leslieville. If you think this looks like a loft, you would be right. Many factories in the Riverdale area along Carlaw have been converted to lofts.


And a few years later, in the roaring twenties, we find this 1922 Christmas photo showing of the staff of Wood Gundy a well know Bay Street firm, including many female office workers.


In the 1940s many women joined the military and many more worked in non-traditional factory and munitions jobs. For more detailed information and many more vintage photos from the Second World War, see my earlier blog post on Toronto Women Working During WW2: Rosie the Riveter and Beyond.

1943 vintage photo That's all muscle on the arm of Mrs. Robert Wright; 235-pound sandblaster at John Inglis Co. in Toronto.
That's all muscle on the arm of Mrs. Robert Wright; 235-pound sandblaster at John Inglis Co. in Toronto. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1943.


The 1960s was a period of great social upheaval including civil rights, the youth movement (hippies and more!) and the birth of the women's movement including new types of employment.  I like this 1966 photo of a working go go dancer, Sandy Leigh, who was making $125 per week shaking and shimmying, which would have been a good wage at that time.

1966 vintage photo Sandy Leigh go go dancer.
Sandy Leigh, go go dancer who made $125 per week. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1966.


True Davidson was a ground breaking female politician, the Reeve of Leaside and then the first mayor of East York. At a time when political office was dominated by men she stood out in a strong and visible way. Take a look at this group photo of local politicians from that era. Her biography Call Me True is widely available and a very interesting read. You may also be interested in an earlier blog post I wrote in 2016 celebrating International Women's Day Some Powerful Political Women.

1968 vintage photo East York Mayor True Davidson
East York Mayor True Davidson. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1968.


As society continued to change in the 1970s the role of working women continued to evolve. This 1972 photo shows a little remembered piece of history, the role of Catholic nuns in our health care. Here we see Sister Marie de Liesse, administrator of Scarborough General Hospital since 1961, who was the last of the Sisters of Misericorde to leave the hospital as it moved to secular control. She was both a nun and a hospital executive. Here are some other photos of nuns in their changing roles and habits.

1972 vintage photo  Sister Marie de Liesse  administrator of Scarborough General Hospital since 1961  is the last of the Sisters of Misericorde to leave the hospital
Sister Marie de Liesse, administrator of Scarborough General Hospital. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1972.


It's hard to do justice to the thousands of photos in the Digital Archive and also the broad range of women's work. I wanted to end with one bonus photo which is from 1976 and shows Debi Cushing and her daughter at a hardware store buying lumber to do a home renovation project. This stay-at-home working mom was breaking barriers enough that the newspaper took her photo and highlighted it as innovative and out of the norm, or at least creating a new norm.

So for all those working women out there creating new norms... Happy International Women's Day!

1976 vintage photo Mrs. Debi Cushing; with daughter Dana buying some lumber at Lansing Buildall's store
Is this Handywoman? No, it's Mrs. Debi Cushing. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1976.