Women and the Labour Movement in Oshawa: Bev McCloskey

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

The gender wage gap, harassment in the workplace, and finding a work/life balance are frequently in the news as we examine our changing society. It was not all that long ago that women were relegated to certain jobs and were forced to leave once they were married. A driving force in the fight for equality was Oshawa native Bev McCloskey.

Born on January 1, 1929, Beverly Beryl Christian Gibson was introduced to the United Auto Workers when she started work at General Motors in 1949.  In 1954, she was elected as a delegate to the Oshawa and District Labour Council, and in 1956 she ran for the position of Recording Secretary, the only position available for woman, with the U.A.W. Local 222. McCloskey won and held this position for 17 years.

From the very start of her career, McCloskey was a steadfast union supporter and passionate social activist. A fantastic example of this passion is how she chose to spend her honeymoon. Bev and her new husband Patrick honeymooned in Long Beach, California.  Rather than soaking up the sun and sites, the McCloskeys attended the United Auto Workers meeting.  At this meeting, a motion to add a woman to the top executive body of the U.A.W. passed, and Bev spent her honeymoon running for that position. While she didn’t win that race, it didn’t dampen her passion for women’s rights within the Union.

By the 1960s, six members of Local 222 banded together to fight for equal rights for women. The first obstacle tackled by the group was the segregated seniority list and the fact that, no matter how much seniority a female member may have earned, some jobs were restricted to men only. The group worked to form the U.A.W. Local 222 Women’s Committee, and in 1969 the group began work to change the Ontario Human Rights Act.

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In 1962, when the Ontario Human Rights Act was passed, it barred discrimination on the basis of colour, race, creed and national origin.  What it did not include was discrimination based on sex.  The Local 222 Women’s Committee wanted that changed and approached Cliff Pilkey, the Oshawa NDP MPP, and worked with him to draft a bill outlawing discrimination based on sex in employment. After a year and a half of lobbying and protesting, Bill 83, “An Act to Prevent Discrimination in Employment because of Sex or Marital Status” was passed in December 1970 and became an amendment to the Ontario Human Rights Act.

McCloskey and the Women’s Committee continued to work to make the factory floor an environment that was inclusive for all workers.  In 1983, she approached General Motors and the Union to have inappropriate photos, ones that objectified women, removed from workbenches and walls in the plant. Prior to approaching management and the union, McCloskey had been dealing with the issue in her own unique way.  She had special stickers made up that read “THIS INSULTS WOMEN” and she would attach them to any and all offensive photos she came across.

Her social activism was not focused solely on the equality in the workplace. McCloskey took Local 222 to task in 1984 when they came out against the Ontario Federation of Labour’s support of Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s abortion clinics in Toronto and Winnipeg. The opening sentence of her retort sums up McCloskey’s thoughts concerning union’s condemnation of the OFL. McCloskey: “It is with disgust that I take pen in hand to reply to the headline…” and she continues to state that “No issue is more important to women now than that of reproductive choice.”

Even in her retirement, McCloskey continued to champion women’s rights and became a founding board member of the Durham Region Unemployment Help Centre. Bev McCloskey passed away on January 14, 2014. Speaking on her impact, Unifor Local 222 President Ron Svajlenko stated “Bev was very active in the struggle for women’s rights in our union and fought for the equity that women enjoy today in our communities. Her legacy will serve as a standard for activists who strive to create a better society.”

Sister Act: The story of Clarissa and Sarah Terwilliger

By Laura Suchan, Executive Director

In almost every town there are those people who are known by their behaviours or actions as eccentrics.  In Oshawa, the Terwilliger sisters were certainly regarded as somewhat unusual, and maybe even eccentric.

For much of its history, Oshawa, Ontario, has been known as an industrial hub and was often referred to as, “the Manchester (England) of Canada.”  However there was a time during the 1840s when the town gained notoriety as one of the centres for the Millerite craze.  During the winter of 1842-1843 many people were captivated by the teachings of William Miller, an American farmer and evangelist, who preached that the Second Advent of Christ would occur shortly.  His followers believed Christ would appear in person to claim his earthly kingdom, and the world would be destroyed by fire.  Stories of Oshawa farmers giving away all their livestock and farm implements were locally reported.  One of the most interesting stories connected with this period concerns the Terwilliger sisters, Sarah and her older sister Clarissa.

Clarissa (sometimes known as Clara) and Sarah were daughters of local farmer Abraham Terwilliger.  They lived in a beautiful brick mansion on the main road in the east end of town.  Their family was among the earliest settlers in the area, arriving from New York State in about the year 1816.  The sisters were said to be clairvoyants and became quite notorious in the Oshawa area for hosting free séances at their father’s home.  Local resident and amateur historian Samuel Pedlar attended one such séance with a party of unbelievers and noted, “that while some (of the party) may have been impressed with startling noises and rappings, others could see nothing in them but something to excite a subdued merriment.”[1]

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An artist’s rendition, ES Shrapnel, of Sarah Terwilliger flying from the porch.  It comes from Upper Canada Sketches by Thomas Conant, published in Toronto in 1898 by William Briggs.

Sarah so fervently believed in Miller’s vision that on February 14, 1843, the evening before the predicted end of the world, she made herself a pair of silk wings and jumped from her father’s porch with the expectation of departing this world ahead of the fire and flying to heaven.  Thomas Conant, in his 1898 book Upper Canada Sketches, gives an account of what reportedly happened next:

…falling to the ground some fifteen feet she was shaken up severely and rendered wholly unfit to attend at all to the fires that were expected…  The wings were made of silk.  Though in the picture, they appear to do their work, they did not prevent the wearer falling to the ground about fifteen feet, and suffering the result in a broken leg.[2]

The incident, as one would expect, garnered quite a lot of excitement in town.

Unfortunately, other than this story of blind faith, the historical record does not tell us much more about the Terwilliger sisters.  While Sarah’s burial place remains unknown, Clarissa was said to be buried in Oshawa’s Union Cemetery.  Often overshadowed by her “flying” sister, I was determined to find out more about Clarissa in order to shed some light on her story.  I always felt sorry for Clarissa, partially because of the family’s notoriety even 175 years later and partly because I believe no one’s story should be lost to history.  After much research, I found Clarissa’s gravestone in the South Presbyterian section of the cemetery, located near one of the old access roads.  The upright stone features a small tympanum with a weathered carving flanked by graceful scrolling to the shoulders.  A floral wreath enclosing a delicate carving of clasping hands adorns the upper part of the memorial.  A few flowers additionally grace the side of the stone.  The stone reads, “In Memory of Clara Terry, Died.”  All in all, it is a fairly typical gravestone of the time, except for two things: the lack of any other information, including a death date (even though there is a spot for one) and the phrase at the bottom of the stone which reads “Erected by Clara Terry.”  Why would someone go to the trouble to make sure everyone knew that she erected her own gravestone?  Perhaps more research would shed some light on the mystery.  It was back to the archives I went to uncover more information.

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Clara Terry headstone in Union Cemetery. Photo by Melissa Cole.

Clarissa’s “attempting to fly” sister, Sarah, died about the year 1869.  Shortly thereafter, Clarissa married the much younger (by as much as 10 years), John Terry, a medicine peddler and farmer of East Whitby. In the 1871 Census of Canada, Clarissa and John lived in East Whitby Township with a young woman (possibly household help) named Harriet Young, then 23 years old.  Sadly, John and Clarissa’s union appears to have ended; by the 1881 census, John Terry is living only with Harriet, and they have a six-month-old boy named Frederick.  Clarissa is still listed as living in East Whitby, but she appears to have moved closer to her parents, Abraham and Alma Terwilliger.  I’ve often wondered if the end of Clarissa’s marriage prompted her to place the inscription about who was responsible for her gravestone, almost as if she was declaring her independence for all eternity.  Unfortunately, unless new information is unearthed, we will probably never know.  We do know that in 1891, Clarissa is living with Chauncy Terwilliger, likely a relative.  The 1901 census lists her as boarding with Alfreda Chatterson.

Clarissa passed away in Oshawa on July 17, 1905 — which begins the second mystery. Although her gravestone is present in Union Cemetery, official cemetery records show Clarissa is not actually buried there.  No birth or death dates are listed on the stone.  It can be surmised that, for whatever reason, Clarissa was buried in a still-unknown location.  She may have ultimately been laid to rest in another local cemetery with her parents.

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Headstone detail – “Erected by Clara Terry.” Photo by Melissa Cole.

Hopefully, this is not the end of Clarissa’s story.  It’s unfortunate that even 175 years after her sister jumped from the porch in a religious frenzy, the Terwilliger sisters are still associated with this eccentric act.  I think it is important to separate Clarissa, the daughter, sister, wife, and friend, from the story of one of Oshawa’s most notorious episodes.  Her gravestone with the “Erected by Clara Terry” inscription is a reminder that she did not always conform to Victorian society’s expectations of women and did things her own way.

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Association for Gravestone Studies Quarterly in Spring 2017


References:

[1] Samuel Pedlar, unpublished manuscript, Oshawa Museum; digitally available through the Oshawa Public Library.

[2] Thomas Conant, Upper Canada Sketches, (Toronto: William Briggs, 1898), 92; digitally available through archive.org.

Dr. Jane Plews Thornton 1832-1904

By Laura Suchan, Executive Director

Before female doctors Emily Stowe and  Jennie Trout practiced medicine, there was Oshawa’s own Dr. Jane Mary Plews. Born in Ontario about 1832, Dr. Plews practiced medicine before the establishment of the (Canadian) Women’s Medical College in 1883. She practiced eclectic medicine, a branch of medicine which made use of botanical remedies and was popular during the 19th century. The term eclectic was derived from the Greek word eklego, meaning “to choose from” because eclectic physicians used whatever was found to be most beneficial to their patients. Dr. Plews started studies at the Eclectic Medical Institute of Cincinnati, Ohio  during the winter term of 1855-56 and graduated in 1856.

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Little else is known about Dr. Plews’ medical career. In the 1861 Canadian census, Dr. Plews was shown as living in Oshawa and stated her occupation as a physician. I find this census information to be intriguing given that the census taker was most likely a male who obviously accepted that the woman answering the question of “what is your occupation?” was indeed a physician. Remember this is before women were accepted into the established medical colleges and six years before Emily Stowe began to practice medicine. In the January 1, 1862 edition of The Oshawa Vindicator,  an ad for Dr. Plews M.D was placed prominently on the front page alongside ads for (male) Drs. Foote, Warren, Tempest and Agnew.  Dr. Plews’ ad gave special notice that she specialized in diseases of women. Dr. Plews’ medical career was also noted in the Progressive Annual 1862, a spiritual register, almanac and calendar of events, which listed her as a practicing woman physician in nearby Bowmanville. She is also listed in the subsequent annuals of 1863 and 1864. The Progressive Annual proudly stated that it only lists regularly graduated and diplomatized physicians engaged in practice. Although the Annual noted that their list of practicing women physicians was “the most complete ever published” it was most likely not inclusive. It deserves mention that Dr. Plews was the only Canadian amongst all the names.  I am confident Dr. Plews was quite proud of her listing in the Annual because she was in good company for the Annual also contained the names of other forward-thinking individuals such as Harriet Beecher Stowe (Literature, Morals and General Education) and Susan B. Anthony (Freedom and Equality of the Sexes).

In 1867 she married Patrick Thornton, a machinist, and they had one child, Frederick born about 1877.  Husband Patrick died in 1880 from consumption and was buried in Oshawa’s Union Cemetery.  Jane and son Patrick are listed in the 1891 census however there is no occupation listed for her. By 1901, Jane was a lodger in the household of Fanny Pethick, also of Oshawa.  Jane passed away from a stroke in 1904 and was laid to rest alongside her husband in Union Cemetery.

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It is unfortunate we do not know how long Dr. Plews’ medical career lasted. After the 1861 census, she no longer listed her occupation as physician and with the scarcity of Oshawa newspapers in existence for the 1860s, we have no indication of how long she ran her ad in the newspapers. For now, we will have to say that the rest of Dr. Plews’ story remains to be told.

Verna Conant

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

Born on April 23, 1888, Verna Conant (nee Smith), was delivered by one of the first women doctors in Canada, Elizabeth Smith Shortt,  who was one of her father’s sisters. Verna was the only daughter of Mr. and Mrs E. D. Smith, the same family which is associated with the company that produces a wide range of fruits, jams and other products. The Smith family was very active in their local community. For example, her mother was the first president of the Women’s Institute of Canada and her father was a MP in Ottawa. Verna followed in their footsteps and became involved in a variety of local groups.

Verna and Gordon Conant
Verna and Gordon Conant

In 1912 Verna married Gordon Conant. In a newspaper article published in the Oshawa Times, Verna recounted a fascinating story from their courtship. When they began dating, she used to drive from her home in Winona to Hamilton to pick up her then boyfriend, Gordon, at the train station.  What made this trip to the train station unusual is that the train would often arrive very late at night, generally after midnight.  It was not considered proper for a young lady to be out by herself at that time of night, so she would wear male attire so that her actions would be less conspicuous. Concerning her late night travels, Mrs. Conant stated: “My parents allowed me to go meet Gordon, but I sometimes wondered what they thought of me going out like that”.

While raising a family, Verna became active in a large number of organizations in Oshawa, including the Oshawa General Hospital, where she became honorary president of the women’s auxiliary, the Women’s Institute, the Oshawa Historical Society, and the Girl Guides. In addition to serving the community in a voluntary way, Verna spent the year of 1937 as the township tax collector when her husband became Ontario’s attorney general. Unfortunately she resigned after one year when the obligatory social events from a MP’s wife began to take up too much time.

Verna Conant
Verna Conant

After her husband’s death, Verna continued with her interest in the community, particularly with the St. John Ambulance, which she served in many capacities and which in 1978, invested her with the title Dame of St. John. She died in 1992 in her 104th year.

During her long life, Verna maintained a collection of scrapbooks highlighting the achievements of the many organizations she was heavily involved with.  Many of these scrapbooks can be found in the archival collection at the Oshawa Community Museum.


 

The month of March is celebrated as Women’s History Month in the US, UK, and Australia.  Canada celebrated Women’s History Month in October to coincide with the anniversary of the Persons Case.

In honour of the international celebrations of Women’s History Month, we are proud to share the story of Verna Conant, a true force in Oshawa’s history.