Muriel McQueen Fergusson receives
her honorary Doctor of Law, 1969
Muriel McQueen Fergusson: A Study in Strength
Muriel McQueen Fergusson was one of the first women to be called to the Canadian Senate and in 1972, she became the first woman speaker of the Senate. In 1987, I spent many Thursday mornings interviewing the Senator in her home on Waterloo Row in Fredericton, New Brunswick. At 88, she was, for the first time in her adult life, not in a care-giving role. Her beloved younger brother, Tom, had died the previous December after suffering Alzheimer's for several years. Today, at 98, she still lives in her own home although she now has a live-in attendant.
When I began the interviews with Muriel, she was having the house repainted. Apologizing for the paint cans and ladders scattered around the downstairs rooms, she explained that she had been unable to paint the interior for at least half a dozen years because of her brother's illness. Strangers in the house upset him.
Muriel McQueen Fergusson grew up in a traditional household of the post-Victorian upper class. She appeared to share her mother's belief in the values of feminine domesticity and learned the basics of homemaking such as cooking and needlework. She did not, however, learn to hold her tongue. Ever polite, she made known her many strong opinions. While at university, the influence of the modern era combined with the force of her personality to make a great impact on her future as she shifted her courses from those intended to produce a more confident, ornamental and gracious wife and mother to those designed to facilitate her announced intention of pursuing a career in law.
For a time, the choice between husband and career appeared to teeter in the balance, finally tipping in the direction of husband over career. Yet, even having committed herself to the promise of marriage, she continued preparations for her career in law while her husband-to-be completed the preparations for his. Fergusson not only undertook her legal apprenticeship in her father's office but enthusiastically embarked on the political campaigning and speech-making which customarily went with it. She was the third woman in New Brunswick to be called to the bar.
Her mother, Julia McQueen, was a typical matriarch of nineteenth century gentry. Her photos show her as a tall, forceful woman, excellent posture, head held high, very much the Victorian lady. She is not as clear in her daughter's memory of the early 1900s as is her father, James, the handsome Liberal lawyer with the "bright blue eyes".
Muriel's feistiness was evident from early childhood. When her mother was expecting in 1903, Muriel had the baby's name selected before he was born: Tommy. Tommy Atkins, the universal soldier of Rudyard Kipling's Barrack-Room Ballad was her hero. However, the honor of naming the baby fell to an old uncle "who was very Scottish. I suppose we were lucky he didn't call the baby Roderick Dhu." The baby was baptized Robert Arthur. But Muriel was insistent that the baby be called Tom, and in spite of the formal naming, her brother was known all his life as Tom; his letters were signed Tom and his obituary in December, 1986, was headed "Robert (Tom) Arthur McQueen".
While the determination was evident at an early age, her interest in law was not. She had been a good student at the Shediac elementary and high schools but evinced no special interest in a career as she enrolled in a course of elocution the Mount Allison Ladies' College. The Ladies College had been the accepted route for upper class girls in the province since its inception in 1854. There was nothing unusual about a lawyer's daughter going to the college which was a mere twenty miles away.
The year she first registered in the Ladies College, 1916, was a good year for a high-spirited young woman with aspirations beyond marriage and children to enter a college or university. She was less apt to feel out of place for many of the young men who would fill the classrooms were overseas, their vacant places filled by eager, bright young women.
She was active in drama at university. She also enjoyed sneaking out of the residence after curfew. "I think the sneaking out must have been the attraction because what we did when we got out was very tame: skating on the Lily Pond or going to see The Perils of Pauline. Every Saturday the local theatre would show an episode and everyone just had to go the next Saturday and see what happened to Pauline."
The wider world of higher education gave Muriel the first glimmer of the notion that she could be a lawyer just as her father was. During her first year in the Ladies College she realized that she wanted to be enrolled in the university course rather than in what amounted to a finishing school for wives-in-training. In what must have been an effort to appease her mother while doing what she wanted to do, Muriel undertook the onerous task of attempting to complete both the Ladies College course in elocution as well as the regular B.A. at the University which she began in the fall of 1917.
Unfortunately, Julia became ill and Muriel was required to stay home with her mother during the second semester of her sophomore year which put her behind her classmates. When she returned, she still attempted to take both courses, catching up even though it meant taking Latin I and Latin II concurrently. Having missed the semester made it impossible to complete either course with the class with which she had begun the elocution class or the B.A. class of '21. It was a point of honor to graduate with one's own class and given the choice, Muriel would rather finish with her classmates and given a choice of classmates, she chose the B.A. class of '21.
Forced by necessity to make the choice between Ladies College and University, she turned her full attention to the B.A. program. This would emerge as a pattern in her life: she would always try to satisfy both society's expectations of her as a woman as well as satisfying her own desire to have a career in law but when the middle road became impossible, she would always chose her career.
Even when she fell in love with Aubrey Stafford Fergusson and they began to talk about marriage upon their mutual graduation, her plan to study law was not altered. Fergusson, who re-enrolled at Mount Allison after serving overseas with the 9th Siege Battery in France, had been invalided to England with a heart condition which later would lead to his early death and Muriel was quite flattered by the attention of the older student, one of the heroes who had fought overseas. She was flattered, she was in love, but she was not ready to make the choice between a career and marriage which was expected in 1921. The notion of combining a career with marriage was inconceivable. Although she was well aware that combining both was virtually impossible, Muriel simply refused to accept the necessary for making such a choice while still in university. Just as she had done with the choice between Ladies College and University, she would try to combine both as long as humanly possible.
She recalls that "Aubrey had such a dry sense of humour" which enchanted her. Enchantment notwithstanding, Muriel objected when Aubrey was chosen valedictorian, because he had been a late comer and was not technically of the class of 1921. Although her objections were overruled, she felt it necessary to request the most correct behavior from the class. The couple graduated in the spring of 1921 and both planned to go to law school in the fall of that year.
While romance flourished, however, another problem arose: Julia McQueen declared law school out of the question for Muriel. Julia McQueen was "quite advanced" and her objections were solely based on finances. It simply did not seem logical to send a daughter through expensive law schooling when she was engaged and would be marrying immediately upon Aubrey's return from Harvard Law School.
James McQueen sensed his daughter's disappointment and allowed her to read law in his office in Shediac. She studied law, while carrying out basic duties for her father in his law office, from the summer of 1921 until October, 1924, when she passed the bar exams along with Aubrey who had been studying at King's College in Saint John and at Harvard. They were among six who passed the bar examinations in October, 1924.
Being engaged was expectable and acceptable behavior for someone at Muriel's age and station in life; it also helped mask the masculine nature of her daily life. Indeed, Muriel admits to being "taken aback" when Aubrey Fergusson returned to New Brunswick in 1925 after attending Harvard Law School to claim his bride. Being engaged was one thing and it did not interfere with her legal endeavors or daily duties. Being married meant that she would have to give up her legal work. Or so she thought. Nevertheless, she married him.
As a result of his war service, Aubrey Fergusson was not a healthy man. Muriel was reluctant to discuss the problems or the amount of work she put into their practice during the years they were married. Just before their wedding, they were approached by Frederick Kertson, a friend of Aubrey's from his days at Mount Allison prior to his service overseas. Kertson's father had a law practice in Grand Falls, New Brunswick and had suffered a heart attack which threatened to be fatal. Young Kertson asked the Fergussons to go to Grand Falls and take over the practice while his father was recovering and when and if he recovered he would make Aubrey a partner. If he did not recover, arrangements would be made to turn the entire practice over to the Fergussons. The elder Kertson did not recover and the Fergussons remained in Grand Falls until Aubrey's death in 1942.
Her father died around this same time and Muriel took over the care of her aging mother. She had done the majority of the legal work in the law firm she shared with her husband, although there was a pretense that she was the assistant. When he died, the country was in the middle of a war. Muriel was offered a job with the Wartime Prices and Trade Board. After all, the men who could do the job were needed in the war effort and she was a lawyer.
She became friendly with a man she had met through her work with the Wartime Prices and Trade Board and this man wanted to marry her. Julia felt that a house was not a home without a man in it and encouraged Muriel to remarry. "Mother and Art got along very well and I'm sure he would have fit into the household without any difficulty. It would have made Mother very happy and I didn't know what to do."
Finally, she turned to her brother. Tom told her not to be a "damned fool." It would be ridiculous for her to marry someone just to make Julia happy. In 1988, she showed me an ornate green German porcelain cup and saucer, heavily inlaid with silver filigree, that Art gave her. It was part of a large setting of china which he had purchased while visiting Germany "and he just thought it was beautiful. He gave me this one piece and told me if I married him, I would have the whole set. It was just too high a price to pay, especially for something that looked like that. It isn't my taste at all."
The freedom she had had during her war years as widow was heady and addictive. She could not imagine relinquishing even a small part of her independence. Although she had worked outside the home while married, she had done so under the guise of assisting her husband. It was unthinkable that a married woman would work because she wanted to. She declined Arthur's offer of marriage, much to Julia's annoyance.
There never has been any doubt in Muriel's mind that the genders operate in different manners; she was fortunate enough to have a window on both worlds. She had had long experience with women's groups and was quite familiar with the power of women's networks even though she frequently felt that this power was unused. Her speech-giving reached prodigious proportions during her time with the W.T.P.B. as she toured the province with information about the Board and what was expected of people. Then as she became more involved in women's groups, she continued to speak, as the war ended, on other matters. One of her favorite topics, however, was women's unused power.
In 1946, she was elected president of the Business and Professional Women's Club. At some point, the B.P.W.C. came to discuss various ways and means of making women more politically aware. One of the suggestions was that they stage a mock parliament which would, presumably, educate women about the machinations of parliament. Muriel was incensed and adamantly refused to support such a notion. She would have been "ashamed to be associated with such an activity for grown women." In spite of the strong protestations of some of the members, Muriel prevailed. For women who were as responsible as members of the B.P.W.C. should be, a mock parliament was ridiculous: this sort of exercise was invaluable, she conceded, for grade school children. But it was unthinkable for women to admit that their knowledge of political activity had to begin at such a basic level.
Meanwhile, "I could see very well that the Wartime Prices and Trade Board was going to wind down. The war was over and we were already winding it down. I thought I'd like to find something else I'd like to do. There was an opening here in Fredericton for the Director of Family Allowances." This was a new social program established following the war and she was interested in it. There was a problem, however: "The advertisement said it was for male persons who had such-and-such qualifications. I sent in an application but I knew that was no good because they said it had to be male. But I had quite a few connections through the University Women's Club, through the Business and Professional Women's Club, through the Women's Council. So I alerted the national offices and we started sending protests in. Not about me," she is quick to emphasize, "but because that position which a woman was quite capable of handling was advertised only for men. And that it should be open as an opportunity for women too. Women could do that job.
They got quite a lot of flack about this and so the ad was withdrawn and a new one was issued cutting out the male requirement and so I applied. And I got the job." The department of health and welfare was embarrassed and apologetic. "It had been a "clerical mistake...the department had had no intention of discriminating against women...." It is interesting to note the persistence of maternal feminism even at this point and at this level: somehow the fact that the position dealt with "families", in particular women and children, made the attack on the department of health and welfare more acceptable to the women. As for Muriel, the fact that the groups to which she belonged did the lobbying was clearly differentiated in her mind from the fact that she was applying for the job. She had sent in her application before the women's groups became active in their attack and feels that she was hired because of her legal experience and because the job was essentially in a women's area of domestic expertise.
The family allowance program had been in operation about a year when Muriel joined the department. They had had a director but he "didn't work out." Muriel was hired to replace him which caused a slight chill in the office during her early weeks. "A lot of the senior staff had thought they might be promoted to it and they were all men. Oh, perhaps for a couple of weeks I had a little bit of trouble. They never were rude to me in any way but perhaps weren't as helpful as they might have been."
Later when the old age pension was added to her department, without adding extra help, she searched for a way in which to fulfill the demands of the job as well as look after her mother who, she felt, could not be left alone at night. She opted for buying a dictaphone, a relatively new office convenience. The price was "about $900", very expensive, and the item was cumbersome. Nevertheless, when denied this assistance, she bought it with her own money and spent nights at home taking care of the office work and her mother. "Of course, when they saw how much work I got done with one of those things, they got them for other regional offices."
In the early 50s, she also got involved with municipal politics. Reminiscent of her student days, sneaking out of residence after curfew to skate or see The Perils of Pauline, Muriel (a woman in her fifties) would sneak out to council meetings because her mother considered the whole notion of Muriel being an councillor nonsense and scolded Muriel for spending so much time on "that damned job". Muriel would tell her mother she was going to visit Maude McKee, a close friend and neighbour. Julia, if she so desired, could see Muriel enter Maude's house by the front door. What she could not see was Muriel exit Maude's house by the back door and proceed to the council meeting. The only problem was that Julia then criticized Maude for always having Muriel visit but not returning the visits with equal frequency.
Maude McKee travelled with her for many of the evening speeches she had to make in outlying districts. Later, Maude was no longer available to accompany her and Muriel was uncomfortable travelling alone late at night. This was one of the times she recognized that men had their uses: they were very handy as travelling companions for late night trips. "I don't know where it came from, but I got an inflatable man. I slapped a hat on him and put him in the passenger seat of the car and drove all over the countryside without a worry.
During this time, she made many friends in Fredericton, including federal M.P. Milton Gregg and his first wife, Dorothy. In the early 1950s Mrs. Gregg was stricken with leukemia and on more than one occasion, Muriel, whose blood was compatible, was called on for a blood transfusion to the failing Mrs. Gregg. In particular, she remembers one Christmas Eve when Milton called her, apologetically, but in urgent need of someone willing to give his beloved wife another transfusion. Muriel went. She says the nurse on duty must have been very new to the job because she had difficulty finding a vein in Muriel's arm and it was only after several mistries that the connection was made. The transfusion was safely made. "But the next day, Christmas day, my arms were so sore I could barely lift the turkey."
"Everyone thinks you're appointed to senate because of politics. I think I was appointed because I was making so many speeches. These brought me to the attention of the government." However, in the mysterious way of whispers by which many such things are accomplished, Muriel's appointment to the Senate probably came due to the efforts of Milton Gregg.
In any case, Prime Minister St. Laurent summoned her to the senate in May, 1953, shortly before her fifty- fourth birthday. She got the first telephone call from Milton Gregg while she was visiting her cousin in Shediac. "He asked if I were sitting down. When I assured him I was, he told me that I was about to be called to the senate."
After the official call from Prime Minister St. Laurent telling her of her appointment, Muriel went into her office and called the staff together. "I have some good news," she said. One woman excitedly burst in, "You're getting married!" "Even better than that," the Senator-to-be countered, "I've been called to the Senate."
Nineteen years later, she was the Speaker of the Senate. She retired at 75, although at the time Canadian Senators were not required to retire. However, there had been a debate about it and Muriel took the view that senators should step aside at the age of 75 to let new blood enter the house. So when she turned 75, she had to do what she believed to be the right thing.
In retirement, she continued to be involved in politics albeit from behind the scenes. She also maintained voluminous correspondence with politicians old and new. Around the time I met her, she was getting involved in the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Foundation, which has since grown into a centre for the study of family violence at the University of New Brunswick.
Muriel died on April 11, 1997, mere weeks before her 98th birthday.