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Notes from the Past: The WMC of Winnipeg and Women’s Rights – Constance Eaton Hamilton

When Margaret Morse became a recipient of the Nellie McClung Foundation “Manitoba 150 Women Trailblazer” award this past year, the question arose during a WMC board meeting whether any of our six women founders might have known Nellie McClung, Manitoba’s champion of women’s right to vote. She lived in Winnipeg from 1904 to 1915, and although no documentation of an acquaintance with Nellie has been found, there is a much closer link between the WMC and women’s rights.

Constance Eaton Hamilton (née Bodington), a WMC founder, and our President from 1899 to 1900, was a suffragist and social activist in her own right. Born in England, Constance was a trained pianist who studied at the Conservatory of Music in Leipzig and spoke German fluently. In 1887 she immigrated to Vancouver with her parents and in 1888 married Lauchlan Hamilton, Chief CPR surveyor. When they moved to Winnipeg in the early 1890’s, she soon became an important asset to its fledgling classical music community and, what is less well known, an advocate for immigrant women and their families in this frontier city. When she and her husband moved to Toronto in 1900, she continued both her interests in music and in social justice, particularly for women. She would, over time, chair the Toronto branch of the National Refugee Committee, head the National Council of Women's agriculture committee, and serve as president of the Equal Franchise League and the National Suffrage Organization. When Ontario women became entitled to run for public office in 1919, Constance Hamilton stood as the aldermanic candidate in Toronto’s Ward Three, and was elected on January 1, 1920, becoming the first woman in Ontario to hold elected office at either the municipal, provincial or federal level. She served two terms but did not seek re-election in 1922. She did, however, remain a “crusader” for women and immigrants until the end of her life. Her name lives on in Toronto in the “Constance E. Hamilton Award for Woman’s Equality”, given annually since 1979 by the Toronto City Council to a person who has made a significant contribution to improving the social, economic, cultural and political status of women. It is the women members of the Council who select the recipient. But what of Constance’s musical interests after she left Winnipeg? Once she moved to Toronto it is more difficult to find out about this part of her life. She is said to have been a founder of the Bach Society, but we don’t know whether she was a member of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto. Perhaps a look into their archives might reveal this information. She is also said to have established an artist colony near Mississauga where painters, sculptors and musicians would come and she would feed them and clothe them - a far cry perhaps from the afternoon concerts and teas in Winnipeg, but still very much supporting the arts. Mary Lynn Duckworth, WMC Chair of Archives June 2021

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