When Jane E. Bigelow was elected the first female mayor of London, Ont., in 1972, her family remembers one newspaper announced to its readers that the new mayor’s name was James E. Bigelow. Ms. Bigelow, who died on June 1 at the age of 92, came up against that sort of thing all the time, but she took it in her stride.
During her first few weeks on the job, a city manager came to her with a crisis. “Some of the women staff are wearing pantsuits to work. What do we do about it?” he asked.
“Leave it with me,” Ms. Bigelow said. The next day, she arrived at City Hall wearing a pantsuit. The issue was never raised again.
One story that did make headlines was when Ms. Bigelow refused to wear a hat during a visit by the Queen in June, 1973. Protocol officers briefed her ahead of the visit, saying the mayor must wear a hat. She never wore hats and wasn’t about to make an exception.
Her faux pas made news in Canada and Britain, since officials such as mayors were not supposed to thumb their noses at royal protocol. “I think the most notable thing was that my mother liked to sew, and in the photo with the Queen, she is wearing a dress she made for herself,” her daughter, Ann Bigelow, said.
In an interview in 2005, the elder Ms. Bigelow said the hat kerfuffle was what many people remembered about her. “People bring it up all the time. I guess I’ll go down in history,” she said. “It was London, Ontario, at the time. That’s why it made such a fuss.”
Jane Elizabeth Dillon was born on June 9, 1928, in Toronto. Her mother, Margaret King, stayed at home; her father, Edward Dillon, was a lawyer. The family lived on Albertus Avenue in North Toronto, and young Jane went to nearby St. Clement’s School, where she excelled at sports. In the spring, the Bigelows moved to a cottage on Toronto Island and young Jane would take the ferry to go to school. During the summer, she worked at camps in Ontario and Quebec.
The family also spent time at a one-room cabin on Talon Lake near North Bay. “My grandfather built it during the Second World War because he was worried Toronto might be bombed,” Ann said.
Jane Dillon took a degree in physical education at the University of Toronto, graduating in 1950, and worked for several years as a high-school teacher. She married Charles Bigelow, a biochemist who was finishing his doctorate. In 1958, they moved to Denmark, where Dr. Bigelow worked at the Carlsberg Institute. Their first child, Ann, was born there.
Before leaving Canada for Denmark, Ms. Bigelow cashed out her pension and received $2,000, which she spent on modern teak furniture. The Danish furniture turned out to be a good investment. It moved with the family; in later life, she sold just the dining-room set for $5,000.
The next posting was to the Sloan Kettering Institute. In 1960, the family moved to New York, where their second child, David, was born. Ms. Bigelow worked for a while as a high-school teacher there. Their final out-of-country posting was in Tallahassee, Fla., where the racism of the American South shocked them.
“I remember my parents telling me that my father couldn’t drive our Black cleaning lady home because it wasn’t safe for either of them to be seen in the car together,” David said. Ms. Bigelow and her husband became lifelong supporters of liberal causes and later returned to the United States to help work on the presidential election campaign of a Democratic candidate.
After Florida, the family resettled in Canada, and Charles became a professor at the University of Western Ontario. He was president of the union at the university and ran unsuccessfully for the provincial New Democratic Party. Jane also became involved with the NDP, serving as its secretary at one stage. The couple were deeply involved in politics. When David Lewis, then leader of the federal NDP, came to town, David remembers sleeping on the couch so Mr. Lewis could use his bed.
For a while, Ms. Bigelow worked on earning a master’s degree in sociology. Her children remember that to concentrate, she would leave the house and study in their parked car.
Ms. Bigelow was elected to the London Board of Control in the late 1960s. In one photo, she is the only woman surrounded by a group of men in suits. When London mayor Fred Gosnell stepped down for health reasons in 1971, she was narrowly chosen to be the interim mayor. City council elected her mayor in 1972, and she received her first mandate from voters in an election in December, 1973.
Although she was the first female mayor of London, she was not the first female mayor of a large Canadian city; that would be Charlotte Whitton, who was elected mayor of Ottawa in 1951.
During her time as mayor, she faced the stereotyping and sexism that were prevalent half a century ago. Reporters followed her to the grocery store to photograph her shopping. At the time, Ms. Bigelow was divorced, and reporters wondered how she would have time to feed her children. Daughter Ann remembers her mother’s retort: “It’s amazing what you can do with a jar of frozen spaghetti sauce.”
It was front-page news when the London Club, then all-male, invited her to speak, as they did for every new mayor. She accepted. Newspapers snidely called her “Jane of Arc.” It didn’t bother her.
At the local television station, an interviewer referred to Ms. Bigelow’s 13-year-old son David, who had fashionable long hair, as her daughter. Her children did not enjoy their mother’s local fame.
“We both hated it. I felt like I lost my identity,” said Ann, a CPA who taught accounting at Western. “Walking down the halls at high school people would call me mayor. In Grade 12, one guy whose father planned to run against my mother body-checked me into the lockers.”
Her son remembers their mother asked them to stay out of trouble. “Our goal was not to do anything that would get us on the front page of The Globe and Mail,” said David, a professor at Vancouver Island University. “It was the 1970s. People’s mothers weren’t supposed to be mayor.”
Ms. Bigelow lost the 1978 election and later won one more term on the Board of Control. She spent many years working for the federal government in Hamilton and London, helping to settle immigrants.
“My mother believed that Canada needed new immigrants to make the country stronger,” Ann said. After her mayoralty, she worked with women’s groups such as local women’s centres and the sexual assault centre, among others. She was on the board of Anova, a woman’s shelter in London, and bequeathed a significant amount of money to the shelter in her will.
Ms. Bigelow’s achievements as mayor included the expansion of parks and walking and bicycle paths, as well as the promotion of libraries, museums and festivals. She was an avid cyclist and would often bike with her poodle, Figgy, in the carrier. On her 90th birthday, the City of London named part of its trail system the Jane Bigelow Parkway. She received an honorary doctorate from the University of Western Ontario.
Ms. Bigelow, who died in London after complications from a fall, leaves her two children, as well as her brother, David, and two grandchildren.