Journalist and reformer Rosemary Speirs has died, leaving a legacy of leadership in her field as a reporter and columnist. She also effectively promoted the advancement of women in politics and, as the first female Ottawa bureau chief for the Toronto Star, continued the long battle for acceptance of women in key roles on Parliament Hill. Herewith an excerpt from my 2018 book on Ottawa reporters, Power, Prime Ministers and the Press: The Battle For Truth on Parliament Hill (Dundurn).
In 1964 Rosemary Speirs, fresh from the University of Toronto, was applying for a job at The Canadian Press. Over afternoon coffee and a bowl of french fries in May 2015, she recalled the response from bureau chief John Dauphinee as only an experienced reporter can:
He said that my credentials were good and the things that I had done were good if I was going to come in there as a young reporter. But he said, “I’m sorry, we don’t hire little girls.” I just lost my temper. I banged on his desk and said, “I am not a little girl.” I think that’s what he was waiting for, actually. He just sat back and laughed. He just wanted to see if I could take the newsroom, I guess. He was well to be wary. There was a protest walkout of the male news staffers the day I came in because a female was going to be in the newsroom.
Speirs worked her way up from doing stock listings and sports scores to the CP labour beat in Montreal. Occasionally she would go to Ottawa to cover what seemed like the annual postal strike. One day, she saddled up to the bar of the National Press Club to order a beer. From the other end came the bellow, “A woman touched the bar!”
Speirs explains: “I remember jumping back from the bar wondering what contagion I was supposed to have conveyed by merely touching it. The rule then was that females could not touch the bar.”
In fact, the club had a males-only membership rule. The year was 1964, and the exclusion lasted until 1970 when members, finally embarrassed by public demonstrations, voted to admit women to membership.
Speirs left CP and Montreal to join the Star in Toronto as a labour reporter (by then she had completed her Ph.D. in labour history). Then the paper promoted her to be the Ontario legislature bureau chief at Queen’s Park. She subsequently crossed over in the same role for the Globe, ultimately returning to the Star as the Queen’s Park columnist. In 1989, just in time for the free trade election, Speirs became the first female Ottawa bureau chief of the Toronto Star.
Speirs also agitated for more women to enter Canadian politics. She was a member of the Committee for 94, which aimed to have women MPs make up half of the House of Commons by 1994, and later was a co-founder of the bipartisan Equal Voice. In 2004 she explained her motivation in a speech to interns at the Ontario legislature: “The answer, if you ever climb into the Press Gallery to look down on the floor, will be obvious. From that perspective, it is a sea of men.”
In Ottawa progress came at a snail’s pace. The number of women in the gallery increased dramatically, but in the House of Commons, not so much. When Speirs made her speech in 2004 there were sixty-three female MPs, 21 percent of the House. In the election of 2015 eighty-eight women were elected, or 26 percent.
Almost a century earlier journalist Genevieve Lipsett-Skinner had fought to advance the cause of women. In her twenties she convinced the Canadian Women’s Press Club to create a fund to help “any infirm, ailing or needy member” who was in need of financial assistance. By 1934 Lipsett-Skinner applied to the fund herself. She died the next year. Despite a funeral attended by the Drummonds and Bronfmans of Montreal, and a spray of orchids and lilies of the valley sent by Prime Minister Mackenzie King, her estate contained only enough funds for a dinner for fellow members of the CWPC branch in Montreal. She was only forty-nine. But she had marked a trail for generations of women to come.