Helen Gregory MacGill

Helen Gregory MacGill, judge, journalist, musician (born 7 January 1864 in Hamilton, Canada West; died 27 February 1947 in Chicago, Illinois). Helen Gregory MacGill was a pioneering journalist, feminist and judge. She was the first woman to graduate from Trinity College (now the University of Toronto), as well as the first woman judge in British Columbia, where she served on the juvenile court for 23 years. Her daughter, Elsie MacGill, became the world’s first female aeronautical engineer and aircraft designer.



MacGill, Helen Gregory
Helen Emma Gregory MacGill, women's rights activist and magistrate.

Early Years and Family

Helen Gregory was born to a prosperous family in the industrial town of Hamilton, Canada West (now Ontario). Her maternal grandfather was Miles O’Reilly, an influential barrister and judge. Her father, Silas, and mother, Emma, both grew up knowing the advantages of wealth and connections. Emma was a suffragist; she taught her daughter that a woman’s role as a mother afforded her a right and responsibility to seek gender equality in order to contribute to society’s improvement. This social feminist idea informed Helen’s life.

Education

At age 19, Gregory moved to Toronto with the dream of becoming a concert pianist. She became the first woman to graduate from Trinity College (now the University of Toronto) and was the first woman in the British Empire to earn a degree in music. She went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts and, in 1890, a Master of Arts degree.

Early Career

Upon graduation, she was contracted by the American Cosmopolitan and Atlantic Monthly magazines to cover the opening of the first Japanese legislature under its new Meiji Constitution. Gregory met with family friend, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, who provided her with letters of introduction for her trip to Japan. He also asked her to write of her observations of the Canadian West.

On her journey west, in what is now Manitoba, Gregory met a rancher named Lee Flesher. A week later they were married. Gregory continued her trek and discovered she had become pregnant. Despite feeling ill nearly every day, she pressed on and wrote articles about the Canadian West. While enduring a violent storm on a ship across the Pacific, she broke her leg but nonetheless completed her tour of Japan. She submitted articles about the legislative opening and the country’s unique culture.

When Flesher’s ranch failed, the family moved to California, first to run an orchard and then to San Francisco, where he studied medicine. Gregory’s mother, Emma, left her husband at home to help her daughter with the children. Gregory published articles in newspapers and magazines and, with Emma, purchased and wrote for two newspapers, Society and The Searchlight. Both women advocated greater rights for women at a time when women could not inherit money, hold public office, serve on juries or vote. Gregory continued to write after giving birth to a son, Eric, in June 1891, and then Freddy, born a year later.

When Flesher graduated and was offered a job with the Mayo Clinic, the family moved to Minnesota. Gregory published more articles in newspapers and magazines. She and her mother joined several reform and women’s suffrage organizations. In 1901, Flesher died.

Career as Journalist and Feminist

Carrying on as a single mother, Gregory became the exchange editor of the St. Paul Globe. A series of letters exchanged with university friend, Jim MacGill, led to a romance. The two were married in 1902. With her mother and two boys, Gregory joined her new husband in Vancouver. Two daughters were born, Helen in 1903 and Elsie two years later.

MacGill continued to write articles. She and Emma joined various local organizations. MacGill joined the Women’s University Club of British Columbia in its inaugural year. She served as its president and chaired its Committee for Better Laws for Women and Children in British Columbia. In 1912, she self-published a book, Daughters, Wives, and Mothers in British Columbia – Some Laws Affecting Them. She would rewrite the small book eight times.

In her writing and community work, MacGill rejected radical feminism and sought to bring about change from within the established system. In advocating legal reform and greater concern for women, children, and the poor, she honed her skills as a community organizer and a persuasive public speaker.

MacGill was a founding member of the Vancouver Women’s Press Club in 1909. As a branch of the Canadian Women’s Press Club, it promoted the hiring of more women journalists; it also provided a network of support, as well as classes to help women improve their skills. MacGill also founded the Vancouver Music Society, which brought together women who shared a love of music and provided a vehicle for discussions of social issues.

In 1911, MacGill led an initiative whereby 12 women’s organizations purchased a large building on Thurlow Street, designated the Vancouver Women's Building. It served as the first centre of its kind in Canada, providing office and meeting space for women’s groups and dime-a-day childcare. MacGill taught classes there on writing, public speaking and how to conduct and effectively participate in meetings.

MacGill’s widening circle of friends included painter Emily Carr, who provided young Elsie with art lessons. Another was feminist and social advocate Nelly McClung.

Women’s tireless efforts to win the right to vote led to one province after another granting that right. MacGill was at the forefront of the fight in British Columbia, which granted women the right to vote in 1917. The action allowed women not only to vote but also to run for and be appointed to public office.


Career as Judge

Until 1908, Canadian courts treated children the same as adults, including incarceration with adult offenders. The federal government’s Juvenile Delinquents Act sought to protect children from society, prisons, and themselves. (See also Juvenile Justice System; Children, Education and the Law.) British Columbia instituted its juvenile court two years later. With prodding from MacGill and other women, it created a system of detention homes and reform schools for children convicted of crimes.

In July 1917, the 53-year-old MacGill became British Columbia’s first female judge when she was appointed judge of the Juvenile Court of Vancouver. She handled cases involving girls. On the bench, MacGill balanced the welfare of the child with the safety of society. She acted upon her belief that most children who commit crimes are from homes where love is absent or where the child is neglected or mistreated. She advocated probation rather than incarceration for most children convicted of crimes. She worked with the Children’s Aid Society and other groups to create accommodations, school and work placements, and counselling support. (See Child Welfare in Canada.)

MacGill served as a juvenile court judge from 1917 to 1929 — when a new government appointed a replacement — and again from 1934 to 1945. In 1945, at age 81, Helen Gregory MacGill retired.

Organizational Involvement

Throughout those years, MacGill continued her reform efforts with membership in a great many groups. Among them were the Vancouver Mother’s Pension Board; the Mayor’s Unemployment Committee; the Provincial Board of Industrial Relations; Advisory Committee on Juvenile Delinquency; the Minimum Wage Board; the International Juvenile Court Judges Association; and the Welfare Subcommittee of the United Nations.

Honours

In 1938, MacGill became the first woman to receive a honourary Doctor of Laws from the University of British Columbia. Her daughter Elsie MacGill later became the world’s first female aeronautical engineer and aircraft designer. She cited her mother as her greatest mentor and influence. Elsie wrote that she was constantly moved by her mother’s “passionate, yet objective sympathy for the hurt, the helpless, and the exploited.”



Further Reading

  • Merna Forster, 100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces (2004).
  • Elsie Gregory MacGill, My Mother the Judge: A biography of Helen Gregory MacGill – journalist, social reformer, suffragist, judge, and Canadian heroine (1955).
  • Richard I. Bourgeois-Doyle, Her Daughter the Engineer: The Life of Elsie Gregory MacGill (2008).