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.
In one editorial she wrote: “The union feels that as long as the company refers to them as ‘girls’ they will pay them as ‘girls’ and not as the experienced women they are.”
She met Francis Eady in 1953, a British trade unionist who had recently moved to Toronto. They married a year later and she kept busy not only with the newspaper but also running education seminars for women at Canada Packers, encouraging them to become active.
In 1957, Eady quit working to start a family. She also became a volunteer editor of the NDP’s national newsletter. In 1963, her husband’s work took the family back to Ottawa, where she increased her volunteer commitments as treasurer of the federal NDP. She was the first woman to hold such a position with a major federal political party. One of her pals was Tommy Douglas.
The Eady family moved to Winnipeg in 1970, and Francis became executive assistant to newly elected NDP premier Ed Schreyer.
Then tragedy struck. Francis was diagnosed with cancer and died within two years. Shades of her mother’s life – she was a young widow with two small children to support.
“She was devastated when my dad died, but she had to pick up the pieces and carry on and get a job and put a roof over our heads,” said her son, Don Eady.
In 1972, Eady became the first director of the Women’s Bureau for Manitoba.
“Some of the other applicants were seen as feminists. I considered myself one, but I didn’t come across as threatening,” she said. “I don’t know why.”
Her work included organizing women’s conferences with the Manitoba Federation of Labour and affiliated unions, working to change government policies regarding women on issues like childcare, family law, pension reform and pay equity. She invited colleagues to her cottage to brainstorm, calling her country home “Liberation Lodge.”
In 1977, Eady moved back to Ottawa once again and became the first head of the Women’s Bureau at the Canadian Labour Congress. During her four years in this position she ran dozens of workshops for union women at a labour school in Port Elgin, Ont.
According to Lankin, who attended one of these workshops, Eady talked about accessibility to non-traditional jobs and how women deserved to be paid at a level commensurate with their skills.
“There were so many of those issues, that she taught us about, and inspired us to think about, and motivated us to organize, to accomplish,” Lankin said.
Eady once had an unusual group of students in her class. Just as she was heading into the building, three motorcycles roared up to the door. “Men got off with leather jackets and those bracelets with big steel knobs,” she said. “I thought: ‘Thank goodness they’re not going to be in my class!’ Well, to my surprise, they were!”
The men were Hamilton steel workers who had harassed women co-workers. Their union had sent them for sensitivity training and to set them on the path toward fairness.
In 1981, Howard Pawley’s NDP government won the Manitoba election. The new premier called Eady back to be the province’s first female deputy minister of labour. Her agenda regarding women’s issues didn’t dramatically change – she just had more power to make things happen.
“Women have always talked to each other on a level that men haven’t,” Eady recalled about organizing during these heady times. “But now they were talking, not about personal things, but how to get their agenda up on the political agenda of either the government, the city, or their employer.”
The first labour minister she worked under was Mary Beth Dolin. Coincidentally, the two women had previously met when their children were small and played together. Now they shifted their attention to issues around daycare, parental leave, sexual harassment and pension reform.
In large part thanks to the effort of this government and the work of Dolin and Eady, Manitoba became the first government in Canada to pass pay equity laws.
Eady lost her job when Gary Filmon’s Progressive Conservatives won in 1988. She became a consultant for the Canadian Labour Congress and the federal government. She also volunteered with the Canadian Health Coalition, Seniors’ for Medicare and the Council of Union Retirees.
On the day she died, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of pay equity for women at Canada Post.
Mary Eady leaves sons Donald and Peter, grandchildren Samantha, Simon, Declan and Hamish, and her brother Paul.
Special to The Globe and Mail