Helen Brimmell says one of her happiest memories was when she received her Parliamentary Press Gallery pass. The year was 1946, and Brimmell (known then as Helen Bannerman) was working for The Canadian Press. She would be only the third woman granted membership in the gallery and, as soon as she was, she said she marched straight up to the parliamentary restaurant to have lunch.
"The manageress came out of her office very graciously, and she shooed me down to the cafeteria," Brimmell said in an interview. "I put my membership card on the table, and she looked at it in amazement, and apologized … It was a very happy occasion."
The weirdness, the novelty, of a woman reporting from the press gallery would persist well into the 1960s, as the institution was a primarily male one for most of its history. In the beginning, it was a proud association of newspapermen, who hung out playing cards, smoking and drinking with the politicians around the precinct, and who were often deeply involved in federal politics themselves – politics that didn't include any female representatives until Agnes Macphail in 1921.
And yet, even before women had the right to vote in Canada, there were tough, pioneering journalists who went to sit alone among the men. Eventually, their presence would pry open the doors to allow others to slowly find their place reporting on Parliament Hill. Very slowly.
Which woman was the first to gain formal membership in the gallery is not entirely clear. Genevieve Lipsett-Skinner is widely identified (including by herself) as the first, in 1923. Her name is listed in the gallery's books that year as a member. But a few other women may well have been members – the Gallery records are incomplete, and group photos were not taken every year.
A brief in the Manitoba Free Press in 1884 entitled The Gentler Sex notes that a "Marnie" or "Mamie" J. Nimmo worked for the Toronto News in the press gallery. British-born Kate Massiah said she reported even earlier, in 1879, from the Speaker's Gallery, after having worked for several years for the Montreal Herald, where her brother John Norris was the editor.
Her obituary also notes that she helped her husband C.W. Massiah report the House proceedings for the Toronto Mail.
John Lambert Payne, a press gallery reporter and later an aide to prime ministers, maintained that London Advertiser reporter Eve Brodlique was the gallery's first woman member.
She reported from the Hill from 1887 to 1889, after which she pursued her career [in the United States]. "Every step in her progress has been due to her own efforts, for she possessed neither money nor influence to push her to the front," reads an 1891 New England Magazine article, noting that Brodlique began on Parliament Hill as a secretary to Liberal Leader David Mills.
Sara Jeannette Duncan overlapped briefly with Brodlique in 1888, reporting for the Montreal Star and The Week. Her biographer, Marian Fowler, wrote that the two women preferred to work in the Parliamentary Library, to escape the thick smoke in the press room.
In 1888, Duncan herself wrote that "nothing ... has been accomplished by women in journalism, partly because the Canadian newspaper world is so small as to be easily occupied by some half-dozen influential journals, partly because it is a very conservative world indeed, and we know what conservatism means in relation to the scope of women's work."
One plausible theory is that Brodlique and Duncan (and possibly Massiah) were given access to the press gallery and quarters, but not full memberships.
Lipsett-Skinner described the challenges she faced in an article for the Canadian Women's Press Club newsletter in 1933, a few years before her early death. An editor friend warned that she would not be admitted. "At that moment," she recalled, "I knew my objective. It shone like a beacon light. I would become an active member of the exclusive press gallery."
She had an impressive resumé, having worked for many years at the Winnipeg Telegram and graduated from the University of Manitoba law school with honours. In 1920, she ran unsuccessfully for the provincial legislature under the Conservative banner.
She came to Ottawa acting as a proxy for a defeated Manitoba MP at a Conservative caucus meeting in late 1921 or early 1922, and then promptly set about freelancing human-interest dispatches for papers across Canada. Her brother Robert was a member of the gallery and, when he wasn't there, she used his desk in the press room.
She appeared in the press gallery in March, 1922, on the same day that Macphail sat below in the Commons. Things were fine at first, until her byline started showing up in the papers.
"Then an early frost set in. One old fellow took a solemn vow never to say good morning to me again," she wrote. "Others sat around in groups and discussed 'this terrible thing which has come upon poor Bob Lipsett – his sister breaking into the gallery.'" The gallery refused to grant her membership that year, even though she had several dailies buying her copy. She hadn't been sent to Ottawa by a paper, she was told – but then neither had the unemployed gallery president at the time.
Gallery membership finally came in 1923, when she became an official correspondent for the Vancouver Sun. She would remain a member until 1926.
Lipsett-Skinner lamented that, when she left, there were again no women in the gallery. Her spot would be filled a decade later by Evelyn Tufts of the Halifax Herald. Once more, the presence of a woman would be an oddity: "Newspaper Woman Taken for a Spy," reads a 1936 headline about an overzealous Commons observer who spotted Tufts and alerted the Sergeant-at-Arms.
Tufts would go on to become the first woman director on the press gallery's executive committee in 1945, and later a lifetime member. She reported on the Queen's coronation and then her wedding, as well as the British-American military conference featuring Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt that took place in Quebec City in 1944.
For a few years Helen Bannerman overlapped with Tufts, who in a 1950 Saturday Night interview bemoaned the lack of women – in the Commons as well as the gallery. "That's the only fault I have to find with Canadian men," she said. "They've got a plot to keep women out of government. I can't understand it. There's no sex in brains or capacity that I can see."
The 1950s brought a few more women into the gallery, including Ruth Campbell of the St. John's News, Maj Jarke of Swedish newspaper Expressen and respected New York Times reporter Tania Long, who had been a London-based correspondent throughout the Second World War.
The Toronto Telegram's Judith Robinson was one of the best-known female gallery members of the era, a columnist who was a fearless critic of the Liberal government and the Ottawa groupthink of the time.
"What has happened to the authority of Parliament in the long years of one-party domination is worse than conquest; is usurpation," she wrote in her 1957 book, This is on the House.
"It is usurpation engineered by bureaucrats elected and appointed; men all solemnly and sincerely convinced that they alone have the brains; that they alone can be trusted."
Time marched on, but still the number of women did not move substantially in the 1960s, even though the gallery was growing. Joyce Fairbairn of United Press International and FP Publications (later an assistant to Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Senator), CP's Susan Becker and Françoise Côté, Louise de Celles of Radio-Canada, the Ottawa Journal's Marjorie Nichols and Vancouver Sun columnist Pat Carney were among the few. Carney later entered politics, and was in Brian Mulroney's cabinet.
"I never thought about myself as a pioneer. I never thought about being a woman amidst all these men," Nichols wrote in her memoirs. "It never occurred to me that I was a woman. I was never the victim of discrimination. Never, never, never. Nor have I ever been treated as inferior by anyone. In my view, people, especially women, have that totally, entirely wrong. It wasn't that there was discrimination against women. It was that there were no women."
A sign of just how little the gallery had progressed in terms of its attitude toward women came during an internal debate in 1967. The members of the gallery executive voted narrowly to allow women reporters and parliamentarians to attend the Centennial Year dinner, but emphasized it was a one-time-only invitation.
"I am the first president of the gallery in its 100-year history who has ever been able to say, 'Welcome, ladies and gentlemen' at one of these affairs. I hasten to add there is a strong possibility that I may be the last," the CBC's Tom Earle wrote in his speech to the gathering.
"On your way in tonight, gentlemen, some of you may have stepped over some members of the press gallery over whose dead bodies the ladies are with us tonight."
The debate repeated itself in the following years, with female members allowed to attend but no other women. "The presence of women inhibited the dinner and created privacy problems with respect to off-the-record remarks," was one male member's assessment, recorded in the gallery minutes, while another grumbled about women taking up space at the event.
Women would finally make a substantial foothold in the 1970s and eighties. Among them were Taanta Gupta of the Selkirk News radio service, CTV's Gail Scott, Susan Reisler of United Press International, the CBC's Marguerite McDonald, the first host of the radio program The House, and national TV correspondent Wendy Mesley. Pamela Wallin, later appointed to the Senate, became bureau chief of CTV News in 1985.
Gupta, a gallery member from 1974 to 1983, plunged into parliamentary reporting only a few years after immigrating to Canada from Calcutta, India. She juggled life as a single mother with the irregular hours of a Hill radio reporter. Her favourite thing was the late-night sittings of committees. "That gave me an opportunity to really get to know what politics was all about – their politics, their thinking, directly from the Members of Parliament because I spent so much time there," Gupta said in an interview for this book. "I'd go home, put my baby to bed, and then come back for the night sittings."
Eventually, women would also break into the most male-dominated of media jobs on the Hill, those in the technical sphere. Cathy Kearney is believed to be the first woman technician to cover Parliament Hill starting in 1984, working with sound and later operating camera equipment for Global Television.
Women are thankfully no longer a curiosity in the gallery ranks, and include show hosts, bureau chiefs, camerawomen and program producers. Still, they are underrepresented. Of the gallery's 345 full-time members in late 2015, just 35 per cent were women.
Jennifer Ditchburn is editor-in-chief of Policy Options, and formerly a reporter on Parliament Hill with The Canadian Press and CBC-TV. This article is from Sharp Wits and Busy Pens: The Role of the Parliamentary Press Gallery Over the Years – available online from Hill Times Books.