Walking a slim societal tightrope between suitable behaviour and her interests as a journalist, Kit Coleman stepped carefully but confidently into a ground-breaking career as a female writer.
The first to lead her own section in a Canadian newspaper, Coleman was also the first accredited female war correspondent in the world. The journalism pioneer as well was the first syndicated columnist in Canada.
Catherine Ferguson was born on February 20, 1856 to a farming family in Castleblakeney, Galway, Ireland. Her middle-class parents ensured she received good education. Ferguson loved books and studied language, the Classics and music, but she did not leap into journalism. Changing her first name to Kathleen, she faced an arranged marriage at age 20 to an older man. Her child died when two, and her husband, Thomas Willis, died not long after.
Teaching, Housecleaning and Writing
In 1884, Ferguson took a steamer across the Atlantic to Canada for a fresh start. Marrying Toronto salesman Edward J. Watkins, her second husband “turned out to be a philanderer and a drunkard, and he was probably a bigamist as well,” said Barbara M. Freeman in Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Mother of two children teaching French and Music in Winnipeg, Ferguson separated from her husband. Changing her last name to Blake, housecleaning jobs paid the bills before she was “hired by Edward Farrar in 1889 as women’s editor of the Toronto Daily Mail,” noted Freeman. Blake also wrote short pieces for Saturday Night.
“Woman’s Kingdom” by Kit Coleman
Titled “Woman’s Kingdom,” Blake’s column was a women’s feature with cosy topics of home, beauty and fashion. Too outspoken and forward-thinking for such boundaries, the expressive columnist wrote about politics, science, religion, equal rights in the home and workplace, and issues of women’s abuse, alongside recipes and domestic tips. “Woman’s Kingdom” gained an immense following, readers enjoying Blake’s sharp writing style and sense of humour. Shortening Kathleen to Kit, Blake “was the first woman journalist in Canada to head a section of a Canadian newspaper,” stated Status of Women Canada in “Biography of Kit Coleman.” The columnist was dubbed “Kit of the Mail.”
Blake was a pioneer, promoting advancement of women and trail-blazing new pathways, however, she did not openly support the suffragist movement until 1910. Her employers were strongly against the women’s vote, and Blake was treading a fine line between what was proper in society’s view and the expanding prospects for women.
Travelling widely beginning in 1892, Blake’s vivid columns brought the world to her readers. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, Blake volunteered to cover the action in Cuba for the merged Toronto Daily Mail and Empire. The first accredited woman war correspondent, she still faced gender bias; the job was considered the male correspondents’ domain, not somewhere a woman should be. Persisting, Blake arrived in Cuba near the end of fighting. The heart-wrenching events and miseries suffered by soldiers written in stark detail by Blake brought the war home in all its horror.
Before returning to Canada, Kit Blake spoke at the International Press Union of Women in Washington, D.C. While in the Capitol, she met another Canadian, Dr. Theobold Coleman. On August 25, 1898, they married. The Colemans settled first in Sudbury, then Hamilton, Ontario, where Kit Coleman continued to write her column.
Canadian Women’s Press Club
Along with twelve other women journalists in June 1904, Coleman was a co-founder the Canadian Women’s Press Club. The initial meeting was held in a private CPR train car heading home to Canada from the US. Kit Coleman was elected first President of the organization.
In 1911, Coleman asked for a raise of $5 a week from the Mail and Empire. Denied, she resigned. Coleman then “added another first… and became the first syndicated columnist in Canada,” wrote Patrick Watson in “The Canadians: Biographies of a Nation” (2003). Four years later, Coleman contracted pneumonia. The innovative writer who informed and entertained readers for over 30 years died in Hamilton on May 16, 1915 at age 59.
Freeman, Barbara M., “Ferguson, Catherine (Kathleen Blake) (Willis; Watkins: Coleman), known as Kit Coleman,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
“Women’s History Month 2011: Biography of Kit Coleman,” Status of Women Canada
Watson, Patrick, The Canadians: Biographies of a Nation, Omnibus Edition, McArthur and Company, Toronto 2003
James, Donna, “The Canadian Women’s Press Club,” The Canadian Encyclopedia
This article first appeared on Suite101.com in February 2013. Copyright Susanna McLeod