McCULLY, LAURA ELIZABETH, feminist, poet, journalist, and independent woman; b. 17 March 1886 in Toronto, one of three surviving children of Samuel Edward McCully, md, and Helen Fitzgibbon; great-niece of Jonathan McCully*, a Father of Confederation; d. 7 July 1924 in Toronto.
Through her commitment to political equality for women and a life dedicated to work, public expression, and social reform, Laura McCully epitomizes the aspirations of many first-wave feminists. Although she was never a national figure in the manner of Nellie Letitia McClung [Mooney*], she was well known in Toronto. Her career demonstrates that early feminism, which has sometimes been dismissed as too limited in its goals and too middle-class in its perspective, was a complex movement composed of women with a variety of views and experiences.
McCully’s public expression began in childhood. She was a regular contributor of poetry and correspondence to the “Children’s corner” of the Toronto Daily Mail and Empire and was profiled in Harper’s Bazaar (New York) in 1899. She continued to write poetry throughout her life, publishing two volumes, Mary Magdalene, and other poems (Toronto, 1914) and Bird of dawn, and other lyrics (1919). The verse interweaves her love of the classical and of nature with her political views, moral perspective, and thoughts on the human condition. Her poem “Cassandra,” for example, builds on the classical story to reflect her own views of life’s quest:
Knowledge is pain, and love and life are pain
And every upward impulse from the clay
Is pain, and but by pain we have no growth.
Her work was sufficiently well known to be included in the first edition of John William Garvin*’s anthology Canadian poets (Toronto, 1916) and in the revised edition a decade later.
McCully was part of the first generation of Canadian women for whom the doors to university education were opening. After early studies at Deer Park Public School and Jarvis Street Collegiate Institute in Toronto, she obtained a ba in 1907 and an ma in 1908 from the University of Toronto. Her master’s thesis, entitled “A critical study of Milton’s theory of divorce,” raises issues relating to the impact on women and children of divorce laws intended to favour men. The bitter separation of her own parents in the 1890s may have influenced her views. In 1909 McCully received a fellowship to study Anglo-Saxon at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Reporting the event, the Toronto World of 2 October noted that this was “an honor that university has rarely accorded to a woman.” It is not clear why McCully returned to Toronto in 1910 without completing her studies, but it is possible that court proceedings between her estranged parents were among the reasons.
The commitment McCully made to women’s suffrage and feminism emerged during her undergraduate years. She aligned herself with those who viewed votes for women as an equal right to be extended to them as human beings, not simply as a reward for their maternity. She sympathized with the militant tactics used by some British suffragists, although she did not believe them necessary in Canada. The image of women who could fight for a cause, stand firm against injustice, and make personal sacrifices inspired her. To advance the movement, she wrote about women’s rights, participated in the first open-air suffrage rallies, including one in Orillia on 9 Aug. 1908, and was an active member of the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association. In an article published by Maclean’s (Toronto) in January 1912, entitled “What women want,” she described the desire for suffrage in part as a by-product of increased education, noting that after they began obtaining access to professions, women realized “however important education and the emancipation of the body, no human being is complete without the legal status of a citizen.” In her writing and poetry, McCully discussed the inequality women faced. Single throughout her life, she reflected on the difficulties for those who sought to define themselves outside the accepted societal norm of wife and mother. Although she sometimes echoed the biases of the English Canadian community of which she was a part, writing, for example, that the female vote was needed to bolster Canadian voices against those of foreigners, her general approach to women’s equality was to expand the horizons of all women.
The declaration of World War I created a moral dilemma for McCully, as it did for many suffragists. Although they viewed the war as evidence of the failure of male politics, only a few suffragists were able to maintain their pre-war pacifist beliefs in the face of the perceived threat to civilization. What separated McCully from most suffragists who supported a role for women in winning the war was her ardent belief that they should have the right to bear arms during the crisis, or at least serve in an auxiliary military force. In 1915 she joined the Women’s Home Guard to train with a view to relieving men for active duty. When the guard was ridiculed in the press, McCully responded with an April 1916 article in Maclean’s entitled “The woman soldier: a by-product of the war.” She disputed that gender differences were relevant to the issue, stressing the absolute necessity of using women to support the war effort.
By late 1916 McCully’s active public life had begun to unravel. Diabetes and mental illness diagnosed as dementia praecox resulted in several hospital admissions between 1917 and 1923, a suicide attempt in 1917, and a descent into poverty. The thoughts that plagued McCully during these last years of her life are particularly poignant because they highlight doubts and fears that existed in a woman who seemed so strong. She became convinced that her reputation was being ruined by false allegations of pregnancy. She thought she was at risk of being forced into prostitution. She believed that others were taking credit for her poetry. Although the tone of McCully’s comments was distorted, the nature of her fears reveals the vulnerability of women generally, and in particular single women who were leading lives for which precedents and role models were few.
McCully was committed to hospital for the last time in March 1923 and she died there on 7 July 1924 of complications from her diabetes. She was 38 years old. Toronto newspapers marked the passing of “one of the most brilliant of Toronto University graduates,” “a young poet of remarkable ability,” and “one of Toronto’s most enthusiastic suffrage workers when it was an unfashionable thing.”
In a society where most women’s lives were preordained from cradle to grave, Laura McCully challenged established views of who women could aspire to be. Although her middle-class background may have made it easier for her to take the first steps toward education and work, what is significant is that she used her education to lead an unashamedly public life devoted to reform and women’s rights.
Further details concerning Laura Elizabeth McCully’s life can be found in the author’s exhaustively researched article, “‘For the joy of the working’: Laura Elizabeth McCully, first-wave feminist,” OH, 84 (1992): 283–314.
Additional poems by McCully appear in the Univ. of Toronto Monthly, 25 (1924–25) and in the university’s newspaper, the Varsity (Toronto), between 1903 and 1908. A copy of her essay, “The woman suffrage movement in Canada,” published in an unidentified magazine in or around November 1914, is preserved in Univ. of Toronto, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, ms coll. 51 (Flora Macdonald Denison papers), box 8A. Her views on the war and the Women’s Home Guard can be found in the Toronto News, 31 Aug. 1915.
AO, F 719; RG 10-20-B-2, no.16148; RG 10-20-G-1, no.1411. Univ. of Toronto Arch., A73-0026/258(56); T79-0077(31)