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Coleman, Kit (1864–1915)

Coleman, Kit (1864–1915)

Canadian journalist Name variations: Kathleen Coleman. Born Kathleen Blake near Galway in Western Ireland, in 1864; died in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, in 1915; married George Willis (a wealthy country squire), in 1880 (died 1884); married Edward Watkins, in 1884 (died 1889): married Theobald Coleman (a physician), in 1898; children: (second marriage) son Thady and daughter Pat.

In 1889, as a concession to Canada's emerging "New Woman" movement, Christopher Bunting, the managing editor of the Toronto Mail, hired Kathleen "Kit" Coleman to create what he envisioned as a harmless little column of recipes and fashion tips for his Saturday issue. Before long, Coleman was producing some of the most imaginative and thought-provoking journalism ever seen in Canada. Over the next 21 years, through her popular and controversial column "Woman's Kingdom," Coleman commented on a host of topics, from Canadian politics ("After you meet an Ottawa veteran, you sometimes wonder if in the beginning God did not create three species—man, woman and politician.") to fashion trends ("The new hats are weird. But we say that every spring and still wear them."). She initiated Canada's first advice to the lovelorn ("Arlene: We have not yet arrived at the era where women can propose marriage. Remember, paper child: man proposes, woman disposes.") and joined the press corps to cover the Spanish-American War in spite of a ban imposed on women journalists by the U.S. military. In 1893, she traveled to the Chicago World Columbian Exposition and, in 1898, covered Queen Victoria 's Diamond Jubilee. She interviewed some of the most prominent personalities of her day, including William Randolph Hearst and Sarah Bernhardt , whom, it was said, she slightly resembled. In 1904, Coleman helped found the Canadian Women's Press Club and was elected its first president.

Born near Galway in Western Ireland in 1864 into a well-established Irish family (her uncle was the noted Dublin orator Reverend Tom Burke), Kit Coleman apparently adopted her father's liberal views. When she was 16, her parents arranged her marriage to George Willis, a wealthy country squire 40 years her senior. Willis provided for her education in Dublin and Brussels but appeared to have little affection for his young bride. When he died in 1884, leaving his money to his mother, Coleman went to England, then Canada, where she took a job as a secretary in Toronto. Shortly thereafter, she married her boss, Edward Watkins. The couple moved to Winnipeg, where Coleman had two children, Thady and Pat; the youngsters later provided fodder for her column until they reached adolescence and complained that her remarks were making them the targets of school-yard teasing. When Watkins died suddenly in 1889, Coleman returned to Toronto and pursued her childhood interest in writing. With little experience, she began submitting articles to Canadian magazines. A piece on the bohemians she had observed in Paris during a summer holiday caught the eye of Bunting, who made her Canada's first full-time woman's-page editor.

Coleman produced her early columns from her rooms in a shabby boarding house, writing while her children were in school. Once a week, she traveled by streetcar to the newspaper office to gather her mail and supervise the setting of her column, which she submitted in almost illegible handwriting, possibly the result of nearsightedness that forced her to hold the pen an inch from her nose. If the printers complained, she would show up the following week with the column pasted together in a 20-foot strip, just to aggravate them further. The initial columns, entitled "Fashion Notes and Fancies for the Fair Sex," were half-pages but soon blossomed into her seven-column "Woman's Kingdom" format.

Although Bunting did not always approve of Coleman's comments on inept politicians or corrupt businessmen, he gave her free reign. Although her brash attacks, often directed at men, thrust her headlong into the New Woman movement, Coleman was a reluctant member of the sisterhood. Equality was fine in the workplace, but private life was quite another matter. "The New Woman movement is a fine one in moderation," she wrote.

But it overshoots its mark when it makes a vain effort to equalize the sexes, the chief charm of which is that they can never be equalized. They are each the beautiful component of the other. Until nature changes her laws and God alters His creation, it will always be thus. Two unequal sexes fitting wonderfully together.

Coleman, while the purveyor of beauty hints and fashion forecasts, had little regard for her own appearance, often wearing the same wrinkled blouse and run-down shoes that she wore in the newspaper composing room to an important interview or event. She ignored her permanently ink-stained fingers, twisted her naturally curly red hair into a casual upsweep, and frequently made up her face with a heavy hand. Warm and sympathetic by nature, she was nonetheless given to outbursts of temper. Coleman once physically accosted a gentleman who had stormed into the newspaper office to protest something she had written, threatening to cut off his beard with the scissors she was using to clip items from a paper. (Coleman later apologized in a note, explaining that she had no intention of harming his beard. "I was aiming for your nose," she wrote, "which I felt required trimming as it was so large it could not help poking into other people's affairs.") Coleman was also a tyrant about smoking and drinking, although she was known to be slightly more tolerant of these habits in males than in females. If a woman lit up a cigarette or became inebriated in her presence, she offered a vigorous scolding regardless of the setting. She once asked the waiter in a posh Ottawa restaurant to remove a woman smoker at the next table to the alley, "where the rest of the trash is kept." In spite of her temper and dowdy appearance, Coleman was adored by her colleagues, who stood in awe of her intelligence, wit, and unfailing dedication.

Known to go to any lengths to get a story, Coleman traveled to Cleveland, Ohio, in an effort to interview the notorious swindler Cassie Chadwick . She hung around the city jail for days, until she and a handful of reporters were finally allowed access to Chadwick's cell. When Chadwick would not cooperate and insisted that the guard remove the reporters, Coleman tricked her way back into the cell by telling the guard she had dropped her glove. In 1898, when war on Spain was declared, Coleman literally haunted the office of Secretary of War Russell Alger until he gave in and signed the papers making her an accredited correspondent (the only woman among 134 men). She had an equally difficult time reaching her destination. After waiting six weeks in a dank hotel in Tampa, Florida, she was denied passage on the special press boat for Cuba. She was even turned away from a Red Cross Ship leaving from Key West, reportedly because Clara Barton took an instant dislike to her. Coleman finally made it to Cuba by talking her way onto a decrepit U.S. government freighter carrying war supplies. Once she reached her destination, she was given no special allowances as a woman. Bedding on the ground, and eating when and where she could, Coleman filed vivid and poignant accounts of the war. After the crucial battle at Santiago, she wrote: "Here in Santiago, men, nobles and commoners alike, dying in filth and stench, and uttermost squalor; lying out there on the hills for the buzzard and the crab to feed upon. There was heartbreak in the thought of it; in the sight of all this hopeless suffering. We are very little creatures. Very small and cheap and poor."

Why do men look ashamed if they are caught reading the woman's page in a newspaper? Are women utter idiots? Do men believe that there is not a word to be written for our sex beyond frills and fopperies?

—Kit Coleman, 1891

In 1898, after professing that she'd never take a third husband, Coleman married her relentless suitor, Dr. Theobald Coleman, and for two years lived in an isolated mining town before settling in Hamilton, Ontario. There, in addition to covering stories, she took up horseback riding and raised prizewinning Bedlington terriers. In 1911, when she was denied a small raise from the newspapers for an additional front-page column she was ordered to write, Coleman quit her job and began selling "Woman's Kingdom" (renamed "Kit's Column") to dozens of newspapers across Canada. Charging five dollars a column, she earned more than she ever had at the Mail.

In 1915, Coleman went to bed one evening with a cold, expecting to produce another column from her sickbed the next day. The cold developed into pneumonia, from which she died at age 51. By that time, she had won the respect of her colleagues and paved the way for other female journalists like Faith Fenton (Alice Freeman ), who covered the Klondike Gold Rush, Cora Hind , named the first agricultural editor in Canada by the Winnipeg Free Press, and poet Jean Blewett , who was hired by the TorontoGlobe to compete with Coleman. Instead of becoming arch rivals, Coleman and Blewett disappointed everyone by becoming good friends. It was Blewett who dubbed Coleman "the Queen of Hearts" and in a Globe column wrote that Kit "not only writes of the affairs of the heart when she renders romantic advice, but she touches our hearts with everything she does."

Hind, Cora (b. 1861)

Canadian journalist. Born in 1861.

When Cora Hind began writing for the Winnipeg Free Press in 1901, she had already served as a wheat inspector for three years. Her judgment of crops and possible yield were so accurate that for the next 25 years her estimates influenced the advance price of Canadian wheat.

sources:

Ferguson, Ted. Kit Coleman: Queen of Hearts. NY: Doubleday, 1978.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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