FIRST IN HER CLASS
Pioneering feminist Grace Annie Lockhart earned the degree that broke men’s monopoly on higher education.
AT THE AGE OF TWENTY, GRACE ANNIE LOCKHART SAT FOR A PHOTO beside her seven male peers. She wore a dress that reached down to her ankles. The men wore graduation gowns and held their mortarboards. Despite not being given the opportunity to dress in formal graduation attire, Lockhart held something far more valuable — the distinction of being the first woman to earn a bachelor’s degree in the British Empire.
Lockhart graduated with a bachelor of science and English literature on May 25, 1875, from Mount Allison Wesleyan College in Sackville, New Brunswick. (The school became Mount Allison University in 1913.) Never before had a university or college under the British Crown granted a degree to a woman equal to those awarded to men — except in the singular case of Dr. James Miranda Steuart Barry, who masqueraded as a man to earn an MD at Edinburgh University, Scotland, in 1812 and kept up the gender deception her entire life.
Although some Canadian colleges had begun allowing women to take a few courses in the 1860s, Canadian universities like Queen’s, McGill, and the University of Toronto did not admit women as full-fledged students until the 1880s. Meanwhile, the most elite British schools — Oxford and Cambridge — began admitting women as students in the late-nineteenth century but refused to grant them degrees until 1920 and 1948, respectively.
“In all lands doors of learning are being thrown open to [women],” Lockhart remarked in a speech in 1896, two decades after her graduation. “And although Oxford and Cambridge still withhold their degrees, all honour to the women who do the work without its just recompense.”
Though she went on to become an early advocate of women’s suffrage in Canada, little is known of Lockhart’s life, and few Canadians recognize her name. “It is, in some ways, poetic that there’s so little about her,” said Mount Allison University’s archivist, David Mawhinney. “I don’t think that she was the type of person that would be boastful or selfpromoting. So [her graduation] was a very modest event.”
Lockhart’s own impression of her graduation day remains unknown. However, the experiences of fellow Mount Allison graduate Harriet Starr Stewart — who in 1882 was the first woman in Canada to receive a bachelor of arts degree — are recorded in the Fall 1954 issue of the Mount Allison
Record. In that issue, alumna Leah Borden recalled Stewart telling students in later years “of the quandary the governing board found themselves in when they considered her case. She had completed every requirement with distinction, but could a chit of a girl … be given a degree? The compromise was no cap, no gown, no platform. ‘ They just handed you your sheepskin?’ we would ask. Miss Stewart’s keen eyes would crinkle at the corners: ‘It would be more nearly correct to say they threw it at me.’”
Lockhart’s mother, Susan C. Whittekir (or Whittaker), died just nine months after giving birth to her on February 22, 1855, in Saint John. Lockhart was left to be raised mainly by the family’s housekeeper, Rosanna Wilson, and by her three older sisters. Her mother’s death was just the beginning of a childhood filled with loss. Her grandfather died when she was four years old; then Wilson, who had taken on the role of the young girl’s mother, died when Lockhart was only eight. Following this, the children were raised under the guardianship of their father, Edward Elias Lockhart, who remarried in 1867. With the help of an inheritance from their grandfather, all four of the Lockhart sisters pursued higher education by enrolling in the Mount Allison Wesleyan Female Academy. However, none of them went as far as Grace Annie Lockhart, who believed passionately in the importance of education.
Founded in 1854, and renamed the Mount Allison Ladies’ College in 1894, the female academy was housed in a threestorey wooden building located near Mount Allison Wesleyan
College, where the men studied. Lockhart enrolled in the academy in 1871 at the age of sixteen. Working toward her mistress of liberal arts degree, she took courses in Shakespeare, Latin, French, algebra, calculus, chemistry, minerology, astronomy, and many more subjects. The total cost of room, board, and tuition was approximately $165 per year.
The academy had rooms where the women boarded and reception rooms for entertaining, although the women’s social lives were strictly controlled. “Except under careful supervision, access to the students of the ladies’ academy was restricted to members of family, and even correspondence ‘beyond the home circle’ was allowed only with special permission; failing such permission … the principal had power either to destroy offending letters or to send them to the parents of the student involved,” historian John G. Reid wrote in Mount Allison University: A History to 1963.
A student who graduated from the ladies’ college in 1902 described their strictly regulated life in an article that later appeared under the headline “The Ladies College of Yesterday” in the Argosy Weekly student newspaper: “One of the important events of the day was the afternoon walk, and in some way the University boys always seemed to choose the same time for their strolls; only, of course, on the other side of the street…. From seven to nine was our evening study period; each girl in her own room and not a whisper to be heard…. From nine to nine-thirty, we visited in other rooms, then back to our own rooms and lights out at ten.”
Church attendance was mandatory, and the women were chaperoned almost everyplace they went. A high evergreen hedge kept the young women sheltered from prying eyes. “They were completely controlled from the time they got up in the morning until they went to bed at night; there was a very strict order to the way that things were done,” said Mawhinney. Through all of the classes, expectations, and rules, Lockhart remained dedicated to her studies and received good marks. She graduated from the female academy with a mistress of liberal arts (M.L.A.) degree in 1874. She then decided to further her studies at Mount Allison Wesleyan College with the aim of earning a bachelor’s degree.
The door that allowed Lockhart to earn this degree had been opened two years earlier by Dr. James R. Inch, the president of the female academy. Inch, who sat on the Mount Allison College board, persuaded the board in 1872 to pass a motion that “ladies having regularly matriculated and completed the course of study prescribed by this board shall be entitled to receive the degrees in the arts and faculties upon the same terms and conditions as are now or may hereafter be imposed upon male students of the college.” Thus, upon Lockhart’s graduation in 1875 the Halifax Herald reported, “this was the first occasion on which the College had conferred a degree on a member of the female sex.”
When she became the first woman not only in Canada but in the British Empire to earn a bachelor’s degree, Lockhart set a precedent that foreshadowed the expansion of educational opportunities for women over the decades that followed.
In 1881, six years after she graduated, Lockhart married a fellow student named John Leard Dawson, who sat to her right in their graduation photo. Though it’s not known if they were romantically involved while at Mount Allison, by the time they married Dawson was an ordained minister in
the Methodist Church. As a minister’s wife in the late nineteenth century, it was not socially acceptable for Lockhart to work outside the home. Rather, she was expected to be an active member of the community and a stay-at-home mother. She and her husband had three children: Kenneth, Wilfred, and John. The family travelled to different areas in the Maritimes, pursuing the usual life of a Methodist minister’s family. But, in addition to fulfilling her conventional role as a minister’s wife, Lockhart continued with her untraditional pursuits.
Lockhart’s university studies gave her the ability to advocate for higher education for women by writing compelling speeches — like the one she delivered to the Methodist conference educational meeting at the Grafton Street church in Halifax, recorded in the Halifax Herald on July 2, 1896: “What is this higher education? It is the education of women to fit them for the higher spheres of action, whether they be political, professional, or social — the same education that men need under the same circumstances,” she said. “It may be true that women are not welcomed in these positions but still they come, some on bicycles and some off, some with a great deal of noise and confusion, some silently and earnestly. We cannot push this new woman off the track for hydra-like, a dozen would rise in her place.”
She went on to demand voting rights, arguing, “if taxation without representation is tyranny when applied to man, is it less so when woman is made to suffer by it? … These new women desire to say by whom they shall be governed, both in politics and religion.” Her speech concluded with a remark that would resonate with working mothers, even today: “I am conscious of the imperfection of [my] presentation, but you can attribute that, if you will, to the fact that it was mainly written while rocking the new baby.”
With her belief in gender equality, Lockhart took a progressive stance in a society still very much divided on the role of women. By contrast, fellow Maritimer and minister’s wife Lucy Maud Montgomery, the famous author of
Anne of Green Gables, gave lukewarm answers when questioned on the matter of women’s suffrage. In 1910 she told the Boston Post: “I am not a suffragette…. I am a quiet, plain sort of person, and while I believe a woman, if intelligent, should be allowed to vote, I would have no use for suffrage myself. I have no aspirations to become a politician. I believe a woman’s place is in the home.”
Lockhart also belonged to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which was established in Canada in 1874. With local branches across Canada and the United States, the WCTU was a non-denominational organization of mainly middle-class women who believed that the disease of alcoholism was ruining society. The WCTU lobbied for nationwide societal changes while also providing social services for communities. While Lockhart’s level of involvement with the WCTU is uncertain, it’s known that she belonged to the organization because of a family photo in which she wore a small white ribbon, the symbol of membership, pinned to her dress. She also called for alcohol prohibition in her 1896 speech: “Why do women feel this curse [of alcoholism] more than men? Because they are the greatest sufferers by it, because they spend long nights in loneliness, while the children not only cry for bread, but inherit their father’s sin.”
Not much is known about Lockhart’s personal life. One of her sons, Wilfred Thomas Dawson, served as a gunner in the First World War and eventually became a medical doctor. Her two other sons studied engineering. Her husband was a man of delicate health; as they grew older, she became his caregiver.
Lockhart died on May 18, 1916, at the age of sixty-one, after a life spent advocating for women’s education and voting rights. In fact, she lived to see the day on January 28, 1916, when the Manitoba legislature became the first in Canada to pass a law allowing women to vote and to stand for office in provincial elections. Sadly, Lockhart herself never had the opportunity to cast a ballot. Had she lived a little longer, the
Wartime Elections Act would have allowed her, as the mother of a soldier, to vote in the federal election of 1917.