Nils illegitimus carborundum – don’t let the bastards grind you down – was Mary Eady’s rallying cry to women. Eady was a feminist leader with a long reach, mentoring Canadian women from prisons to provincial and federal governments; from workers on shop floors to union executives. She was a tall, dignified, soft-spoken woman who packed a punch. She died in Ottawa on Nov. 16 at 85.
As Manitoba’s first Women’s Bureau director during Ed Schreyer’s NDP government, she championed women’s rights on issues including pension reform, daycare and employment equity.
Later, as deputy minister of labour under Howard Pawley’s Manitoba New Democrats, she increased the range of her influence. Eady also worked for the Canadian Labour Congress in Ottawa as director of the Women’s Bureau, harkening back to her early days as a union activist with the United Packinghouse Workers, where she guided women and men in the Canadian meatpacking industry.
“Are you one of those women’s lib types?” people would ask her.
“Yes!” she would say, with a gentle smile. “Isn’t everybody?”
Liberating women just made sense to her.
Frances Lankin was a young woman working as a prison guard at Toronto’s Don Jail when she first spoke with Eady in the late 1970s. She refers to this encounter as a Ms. Magazine “click” moment.
“I remember Mary saying to me that women need to be able to live, to survive, and thrive, and to lead and support families … she was absolutely instrumental in helping me at a point in time where I was just awakening to these issues.”
Lankin went on to become an equal opportunities co-ordinator for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union. She was later MPP and cabinet minister in Bob Rae’s Ontario NDP government, worked with the Ontario Coalition for Better Childcare and was provincial spokesperson for the Equal Pay Coalition.
“[Eady]led the way, but she developed a large number of us to keep that progress moving,” Lankin said.
Mary Gilchrist was born in Toronto on April 9, 1926. Her father, Robert Gilchrist, managed a lumber company that went bankrupt at the start of the Great Depression. He moved his family to Ottawa in 1931, hoping to land another job. But this didn’t happen. Instead, he got sick, couldn’t pay the doctor’s bills, and died within a year. He left his wife, Jessie, a widow with three small children. Mary, sandwiched between two brothers, was seven years old.
Watching her father die was the first in a long line of “click” moments for Mary, leading her along the road toward social activism. The clicks increased as she watched her mother struggle to support the family on wages from selling hats at Eaton’s in Toronto.
Growing up, Mary found role models not only in her mother but also in her grandmother, who had been an admirer of Agnes Macphail, the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons in 1921. And then there was Gertie Cameron, a widowed immigrant with two small children who lived across the hall and told inspiring stories about life as a Toronto garment worker in the 1930s.
“She’d leave [her children]at home – there was no daycare – so she’d leave them at this place, doing crayoning and things whilst she was away, terrified,” recalled Eady in a 1991 interview by personal historian Barbara Brandreth.
Mary quit school at 16 and took a job in the Ontario Hydro mailroom. One day, her mother read a notice in the Toronto Star about an upcoming meeting of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. They attended.
She joined the CCF Youth Movement, attended weekly study groups, and eagerly began her education. She attributed the group’s success to the postwar period, when many progressive ideas flourished in Canada.
“I often think wars have side effects that planners of them never dream of. Some of them are bad, but some of them are good in the sense of liberating old ideas and old myths that people have,” Eady said. Women now had chances they hadn’t had before.
A highlight of her time in the group was the unexpected arrival of a box of books from American novelist Upton Sinclair. Sinclair wrote The Jungle, a novel depicting life for workers in the Chicago stockyards.
In 1946, Eady moved to Ottawa for a term as national secretary of the CCF Youth Movement on the party’s federal council. She returned to Toronto in 1948 and began her career as a labour activist with packinghouse workers. Their union represented food processors, 20 per cent of whom were women. She quickly became editor of their newspaper, The Canadian Packinghouse Worker.
It was a challenging time for an inspired feminist working a decade before Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. When Eady took over the paper, the “woman’s page” featured fashion tips about “fitted princess-line frocks with puffed pockets.” She soon replaced this with survival tips for women working in the stockyard killing rooms at half the pay of their male co-workers.