In the 1870s, women contributed significantly to the workforce in Canada. They found employment in woollen mills, shoe factories and linen mills. They made fur coats, shirts and other garments. Women slaved alongside men but at half the wages. Most did not belong to unions. Trade organizations only allowed skilled tradesmen into their ranks. Only in some small local unions such as tailors and shoemakers would you find women.
In 1880, the Knights of Labor came to Canada. Unlike traditional unions, the KoL believed in organizing an entire factory – not just the skilled workers. They also reached out to women. In 1882, the brought their message to Hamilton, Ontario. One of the women workers who responded was Kate (Katie) McVicar.
McVicar and the KoL
McVicar was born in 1856 in Hamilton to Angus McVicar, a Scottish tinsmith and his wife Jane, an English woman. In 1871, she was 15 and not yet employed. Her two older sisters, Mary (19) and Ellen (16) were working – the former as a milliner; the latter as a brushmaker. Kate joined the workforce as a shoe worker sometime in the early 1870s. When the KoL arrived, creating two assemblies in Hamilton in 1882, McVicar took up the issue of women workers.
Her response to their attempts to organize women became public in the KoL’s Hamilton newspaper of the time – The Palladium of Labor. Through a series of letters signed “A Canadian Girl,” she voiced her concerns and offered solutions to what seemed an uphill battle. The author of the letters argued coherently and logically that the approach in use by the KoL was not suitable for recruiting women to the cause. She wrote:
“Organization …was all very well, but how were girls to accomplish it; were they to advertise mass meetings, mount platforms and make speeches? If so, the Canadian girls, at least, would never organize” (October 13, 1883)."
She and fellow female workers felt the KoL needed to respect the privacy and modesty of these women workers and adopt a more subtle and suitable approach if they wanted to organize them successfully.
The reply was not long forth coming. A “Knight of Labor” suggested that select and discrete trusted women talk to each other and, when the number reached 10, get in touch with him to arrange a secret meeting. The knights would provide a “comfortably furnished, well lighted hall free from intrusion by persons opposed to their proposed step. They could there have the principles of the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor explained to them by an Organizer of the Order.”
McVicar was not completely satisfied with the response. She commented accordingly on November 10, 1883:
“I think the better plan would be for the girls who wish to assist in organizing to send their cards to a “Knight of Labor,” PALLADIUM OFFICE.” And let him appoint a night for the preliminary meeting when we can receive the information requisite without any particular one of us appearing as the moving spirit.”
Whatever the method, a meeting did take place resulting in the formation of an all-female assembly. In fact, Hamilton soon had Local Assembly 3040 in January 1884 with female textile operatives and shoemakers. This was the first all-female KoL Assembly in Canada. Shortly afterwards, the women shoemakers, under McVicar, split from this assembly to form their own Assembly - Excelsior Assembly 3179 in April 1884.
Fighting for Women’s Rights
McVicar’ focus was not solely her Assembly and the shoemakers. Throughout her life, she wrote about and fought for the rights or women to have a safe working place. She sought good living wages and respect. Her letters to the Palladium of Labor called attention to various issues, including the plight of the domestic servant. She noted the many drawbacks including that they “like clerks and sewing girls, are underpaid. Their monthly wages range from $4 to $8…Furthermore, [the domestic’s] work is never done…She is one of the household but not of the family, and, as a rule, she receives as much consideration from the members as the tabby cat.”
Throughout her life, she continued to address issues she felt inflicted Canadian female workers. She took place in marches. She wrote passionately about “organization being the “Only Solution’ for female workers of all trades. She always acted in the best interests of the females in all trades.
A Promising Life Cut Short
As a leader of her Assembly and her ability to clearly state issues, Katie McVicar rose to prominence in the Hamilton labour movement. Unfortunately, her life was short. Her promising career eliminated in her death in Hamilton on June 18, 1886. After her death, her Assembly did not find a female replacement. It seems no other female could match the vigor and passion of Katie McVicar.
Instead, the Hamilton Assembly petitioned the parent body. They requested the KoL local governing body allow a male to take over her position as master workman. Their wish was granted and a shoemaker from local Assembly 2132 came over to operate this Hamilton Assembly of women.
Kealey, Gregory & Palmer, Bryan. Dreaming of What Might Be: The Knights of Labor in Ontario, 1880-1900.
Ontario Census for Hamilton, 1871
McDowell, Laura Sefton. Canadian Working Class History: Selected Readings
“McVicar, Kate.” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Volume XI (1881-1890)
Palladium of Labor various dates including Oct. 6, 1883; Oct. 13, 1883; Nov. 3, 1883; Nov. 9, 1883; Nov. 10, 1883
Vernon Street Directory for Hamilton 1874, 1881, 1895