Denison, Flora MacDonald (1867–1921)

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Denison, Flora MacDonald (1867–1921)

Member of the Canadian reform and suffrage movements of the early 20th century, who was one of a few who argued for women's rights based on an image of women as equal and autonomous citizens. Name variations: Flora Merrill. Born Flora MacDonald Merrill in 1867 in the wilderness of Northern Ontario, Canada; died on May 23, 1921, from complications related to pneumonia; daughter of George Merrill (a teacher); sources do not mention her mother's name; attended a Collegiate Institute in Belleville until age 15; attended a Commercial school in Toronto; married Howard Denison, in August 1892; children: Merrill (b. 1893).

Moved to Detroit and began journalism career (late 1880s); returned to Toronto, began dressmaking career (1893); joined suffrage movement (1903); established independent dressmaking shop (1905); began writing for Toronto Sunday World (1906); served as president of Canadian Suffrage Association (1910–14); established "Bon Echo" retreat in Central Ontario (1916).

Selected publications:

Mary Melville (1900); Women Suffrage in Canada (1912); contributor to Detroit Free Press and Saturday Night (1890s to early 1900s); contributor to Toronto Sunday World (1906–14); published Sunset of Bon Echo (eight issues, 1916).

In the midst of a battle between the two major suffrage organizations in Ontario, Canada, the president of the Canadian Suffrage Association received an unsigned letter addressed to "Flora MacDonald Denison, Dressmaker." Contained in the letter was a warning to Denison to keep to her "own class." According to its anonymous authors, it was only through the efforts of their kind that support for suffrage had been "lifted … out of the dressmaking class" and embraced by the "best people."

In many ways, the letter exemplified the conflict that lay at the heart of Canada's feminist movement, as well as those aspects of Canadian society that Denison fought against throughout her public career. For one thing, she abhorred the inequality and injustice that resulted from societal notions of a hierarchial class structure. Moreover, she must have realized that these women were also reacting to her "radical" views toward the issue of suffrage, which differed from those of many of her colleagues then in pursuit of the vote for women. Denison saw women as equal and autonomous members of society, entitled to the same rights as men, in contrast to the more accepted view, which assumed women and men were fundamentally different in "nature" and, therefore, destined to perform different societal roles. In her lifestyle as well as her writing, Denison exemplified an alternative vision of feminism, which sets her apart from her countrywomen involved in the women's movement of the early 20th century.

Of course, all my roads lead to the one goal—the goal of women's emancipation from all customs and prejudices that have made her discriminated against.

—Flora MacDonald Denison

The Merrill family was middle class, respectable and firmly established in Picton, Ontario, when Flora MacDonald Merrill was born into it, in 1867. Her father was George Merrill, who quit his job as master of the Picton Grammar School, packed up his family, and moved to the wilderness of Northern Ontario to improve the family's lot by trying his hand at mining. The mining venture proved to be a financial disaster from which the family never recovered. They moved back to Belleville, near Picton, where George worked sporadically and eventually became a heavy drinker.

No record exists of the impact of these early years on Denison's later thought and lifestyle. The Merrill family undoubtedly found their social status diminished, but the family appears to have been close, and, judging by his daughter's later life, it is reasonable to speculate that the adventurous and rebellious spirit of the father rubbed off on her. What is certain is that Denison acquired a lifelong interest in mysticism and parapsychology from her family. Her sister Mary, who died in 1880, was credited with extraordinary extrasensory powers, such as the ability to levitate chairs with her eyes. As an adult, Flora Denison rejected orthodox Christianity because Christian ideals, such as original sin, did not coincide with her own beliefs about human nature. In particular, she detested the "miserable position" women were given within the Christian church. In a suffrage speech, she castigated orthodox Christianity, asserting:

The Church with its doctrine of the total depravity of the human race founded upon its assertion of the inherent wickedness of woman has built up a false morality, a mock modesty, a sneaking hypocrisy. It has murdered innocence…. The teaching of the Church is at the bottom of women's slavery.

Denison adhered instead to a number of mystical religions and philosophies such as Theosophy (espoused by Annie Besant and Helena Blavatsky ) and the Free Thought movement of American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox .

After completing grammar school in Belleville, Flora moved to Picton to live with her aunt and uncle while attending the Collegiate Institute. By age 15, she was a school teacher. For unknown reasons, she shortly left teaching and moved to Toronto, Ontario, to train at a commercial school and work for an insurance company. By the late 1880s, she had moved to Detroit, Michigan, where she found work in an office. All occupations she had sought were common and acceptable for lower-middle-class women before marriage, and in her frequent moves she had always lived with relatives, thereby asserting no more independence than was considered "respectable" female behavior.

While in Detroit, Flora met Howard Denison, whom she married in August 1892, at age 25. Not much is known about their relationship, although it was not particularly close, at least after the initial courtship, and they eventually separated. Howard was a traveling salesman, an occupation that did not carry much status, and he was not consistent in supporting his family, which included a son Merrill, born in 1893. Wrote Denison:

Girls took their position from what their fathers were, women took their position from what their husbands were. As long as they had a brother or a husband to support them they were respectable. They did not lose caste.

Clearly, Denison gained no "respectability" or class status from either her father or her husband. In Canadian society around 1900, it was expected that women would leave paid employment following the wedding to care for their homes and family; if working-class women were still forced to work, society had not come to terms with the causes of this situation and thus blamed the women indirectly.

In Detroit, Denison began to contribute articles to the Detroit Free Press. After the family moved to Toronto, Ontario, in 1893, she continued to write, contributing articles to the monthly magazine Saturday Night. Her most consistent source of income, however, came from dressmaking. By 1898, she had been hired as a "modiste" for the Robert Simpson Company, managing the custom-dress department. As a dressmaker, she was in the elite of the profession, considered a skilled worker, and made a decent income. She was self-supporting—a rarity in Canadian society, since most working women did not earn incomes sufficient to support themselves. This undoubtedly contributed to her growing independence, and the development of her views about women.

Dressmaking (including all the "needle trades") was notorious for its poor work conditions and pitifully low wages, however, and despite her own privileged position, Denison soon became an outspoken critic of the working conditions in an industry composed, almost entirely, of women workers. In her mind, it was unjust and cruel that women were paid starvation wages to make lavish clothing for the rich. In a column in Saturday Night, she offered the following poem:

Pale blue lips—a ghastly picture
Stitching she to dress a world
That, perchance, does not dress her
Nor indeed but barely feeds her,
Hardly gives her bread enough
To keep soul and flesh together
This "The Woman with the Needle"

Denison's opposition stemmed from her beliefs about caste and work. Caste was the term she used to refer to both social inequality and the snobbery or elitism that went with it. Perhaps it was her experience of seeing her own status lowered, without feeling a reduction in her own selfworth, that led her to despise any class division predicated on the notion that some classes were superior to others. In her mind, all work, whether manual or intellectual, was equal, and what was necessary was for people to view and treat each other as equals. Her beliefs about caste were summed up in a pre-1910 speech:

The thing that keeps the world moving is work. … It is labour that builds the castles, makes the carriages and paves the streets and yet the one that can play the best game of cards with labour's products to shuffle or he who by chance of birth…. claims ownership, lives in castles, rides in the carriage over the paved streets.

In 1905, Denison quit her job at Simpsons to protest the introduction of time clocks. To

her, the clocks promoted class distinction and social inequality. Having established a name for herself as a creative dressmaker of high quality, she established her own shop, which she would run successfully until 1916.

A meeting with Emily Howard Stowe , a doctor and early Canadian suffragist, had led Denison to join the Dominion Women's Enfranchisement Association in 1903, one of the major national suffrage organizations in Canada. Suffrage had not yet gained widespread appeal, and the association was small, composed primarily of the few female doctors practicing in Canada. Denison quickly became prominent in the organization. By 1906, she was the association's secretary and acted as delegate to the Third World Conference of the International Suffrage Alliance in Copenhagen. From 1910 to 1914, she would be president of the organization, by then renamed the Canadian Suffrage Association. For several years, her house would serve as the association headquarters, and she would provide the movement with a prominent voice through her column in the Toronto Sunday World, a popular newspaper with a large circulation. Beginning sporadically in 1906, the column became a regular weekly feature in September 1909, and a platform for a variety of social issues, mostly related to women.

By the standards of the age, Denison's views about women, family, and home were radical, even to her colleagues within the Canadian women's movement. While the cause of suffrage that claimed women's right to vote had achieved widespread popularity by 1910, most middleclass women in support of it subscribed to what was called "maternal feminism." Along with the generally held contemporary view that women, due to their nature, were primarily responsible for care of the home and family, they saw the vote as a means of fulfilling their duties to home and children, since many political issues impinged on the privacy of the home. Women's "special" qualities, it was asserted, as the more caring, moral, and nurturing of the sexes, should be brought into public life in order to help steer the nation away from corruption and immorality. The vote was construed, in essence, as a form of social housekeeping. While Denison held that men and women differed in essential ways, she saw the vote as deserved by women simply because they were autonomous and equal citizens of the country. All citizens—women, the poor, and immigrants—should have the voice the vote gave them in public affairs. Rejecting the "public housekeepers" view, she argued for a more comprehensive equality, active in the public world of work and politics as well as the privacy of the home. "Men need women in politics," she wrote, "women need men in the home. The suffrage fight is not to separate the sexes but to join the sexes."

No doubt, her own personal experiences as a working woman separated from her husband influenced her views, which extended to issues of marriage and the family. In a society that did not provide decent jobs for women, and where women without men to support them were left on the fringe, she argued against the popular mythology that confined women to the home; in recognition of the value of child care, she advocated paying a wage to poor mothers, and she also supported divorce and abortion. In 1909, Denison alluded to abortion when she argued that it was better to "look after the children that are here than fuss too much about the ones that will never exist." She also argued that women should be able to propose marriage, and that titles for women that display marital status should be abolished. In one speech, she said:

Women's sphere should only be limited by her capabilities and I believe there is no sex in the human brain. Women are at last in the commercial arena and each day becoming more independent. Their final salvation will be achieved when they become the financial equals of men.

Stowe, Emily Howard (1831–1903)

Canadian doctor and feminist. Born Emily Jennings in South Norwich, Upper Canada (now Ontario), in 1831; died in 1903; graduated from the New York College of Medicine for Women, M.D., 1867; married John Stowe; no children.

After graduating from New York's College of Medicine, Emily Howard Stowe returned to Canada and launched her 13-year fight to be admitted to the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Ontario. In 1880, she became the first woman to practice medicine in Canada. A leading suffragist, she was the founder and first president of the Dominion Woman Suffrage Association.

The maternal feminists could not go this far; it was to be another 50 years before Denison's vision of equality would dominate the women's movement. Meanwhile, her outspoken advocacy of such ideas frequently led to friction with her associates in the suffrage movement. By 1912, suffrage organizations had grown substantially, but Denison's unorthodox views, combined with her lower-class status, were causing dissension, especially among the new members, who were more conservative than their predecessors. In 1913, Denison again attended the International Suffrage Alliance conference, this time in Budapest. On her way home, she stopped in England, where she delivered a speech to the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). The WSPU was highly controversial in North America because of its radical views and tactics espoused by members. When Denison returned to Canada a member of the WSPU, it was the final straw for many in the association, and in 1914 Denison was compelled to resign her presidency.

Perhaps as a means of getting away from the tensions, Denison left Toronto and moved to the small town of Napanee, in Northern Ontario, where she worked as a dressmaker and remained plagued by financial difficulties. In 1916, she moved again, this time to New York state where she served as a speaker and organizer for the women's suffrage campaign. Her financial situation remained difficult, and she became deeply troubled by the outbreak of World War I, an anxiety that was escalated when her son Merrill decided to join the U.S. army. Denison and Merrill were exceptionally close, and, throughout his years in the army, she wrote him daily letters that he answered with regularity.

By 1910, Denison had returned to the Ontario countryside, where she and Howard purchased "Bon Echo," a property in the Ontario highlands. After 1916, she ran the place for a number of years as a summer hotel and spiritual retreat and also managed to publish eight issues of a magazine entitled Sunset of Bon Echo.

Denison's public activity centered at this time around a developing interest in socialism. In 1918, she helped organize the Social Reconstruction Group of the Toronto Theosophical Society. As its honorary president, she attended the 1918 convention, which launched the Ontario section of the Canadian Labour Party, one of a number of early socialist parties in the country. In 1918–19, she gave a number of speeches to the party membership on the women's movement and the ideas of Walt Whitman.

It is hard to say whether Denison ever fully embraced the tenets of socialism; the ideas expressed in her columns and as a member of the suffrage movement cannot be labeled as "socialist." Although she advocated equality and spoke out against injustice in work and the social system, she also promoted a vague notion of "brotherhood," and the idea of class antagonism inherent in socialism would probably not have appealed to her. Her desire was for all people to regard and treat one another as equals.

Denison had suffered for years from declining health, and when she contracted pneumonia, she was unable to fight it. She died on May 23, 1921, at age 54. An obituary in the Canadian Theophist eulogized: "No one in the present generation of Canadians has done more for the 'institution of the dear love of comrades' than Flora MacDonald Denison."


Gorham, Deborah. "Flora MacDonald Denison: Canadian Feminist," in A Not Unreasonable Claim: Women and Reform in Canada 1880s–1920s. Edited by Linda Kealey. Toronto: Women's Educational Press, 1979, pp. 47–70.

Roberts, Wayne. "Six New Women: A Guide to the Mental Map of Women Reformers in Toronto," in Atlantis. Vol. 3. Autumn 1977, pp. 145–164.

suggested reading:

Denison, Flora MacDonald. Mary Melville: The Psychic. Toronto: Austin, 1900.

——. Women Suffrage in Canada. Toronto: Toronto Suffrage Association, 1912.

MacDonald, Dick. Mugwump Canadian: The Merrill Denison Story. Montreal: Content, 1973.


Merrill Denison Collection located in the Douglass Library, Queens University, Kingston, Ontario.

Scrapbooks located in the University of Toronto Rarebooks Room, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario.

Catherine Briggs , freelance writer and Ph.D. Candidate, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

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Denison, Flora MacDonald (1867–1921)

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