A Canadian Pacific Railway freight eastbound o...

A Canadian Pacific Railway freight eastbound over the Stoney Creek Bridge, British Columbia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is easy to assume that Linda Kay’s book The Sweet Sixteen is about women’s rights. Instead, it is about camaraderie. The 16 journalists on board the luxurious, private coach provided to take them to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, MO bonded closely. However, they did not all agree, for example, that it would be a good thing if women got the vote.

Although they led lives different from the traditional pattern, the 16 were unanimous in believing the role of the housewife and mother was sacrosanct as the underpinning of society. In their writings for newspapers, magazines and religious publications, they used pen names and became revered as fountains of sound advice and views.
The housewife was commander-in-chief in  the areas of  child-raising, morals, education, health, charity, the arts and much more. If well informed, she  could influence her man’s decisions on political and economic issues. Beneath the facade of home, family, cooking, fashion and etiquette was a social theme of facilitation, empowerment and national sentiment. 
Col. Ham, the first public relations man for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), was aware these working journalists had big jobs to do. A reason for granting their request for a free trip, a perk routinely granted to male journalists, was the CPR’s aim to populate Canada’s western and northern expanses. What better way to influence a major family move than to get the message out to the housewives?
After the Fair, when the women had formed their club and made Ham honorary president, the CPR underwrote travel expenses and free rail tours of the northwest for delegates to the CWPC triennial conference.
The personal lives of many of the 16 were difficult and fell well short of ideal. If Kay had chosen to, she could have highlighted juicy morsels, such as Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s mutual feelings  for one of the 16. But this is a work of scholarly discipline, research and fact.
This club lives on today, under the name of the Media Club of Ottawa. It has retained its original basis of a bonding of women who want to improve their writing craft and see the working  journalist as having a literary function and a role to play in building a good society.
As a member, I was present at a meeting in 2003 where a professional facilitator was present to ask each person’s views. His role was to nudge us to the sensible, inevitable decision that the time had come to fold. Instead he found this club still had a strong will to live and attract younger members working in the new media.
We celebrated our centennial in 2004 with an offstage re-enactment of the trip to St Louis at the National Arts Centre. Linda Kay, Chair and Associate Professor of the Journalism Faculty of Concordia University, attended and was inspired to write The Sweet Sixteen
It is a fascinating account of the accomplishments of extraordinary women and I hope it will not be the only  book Kay writes on the subject. The last of the 16 died in 1963, and the club has preserved a  mound of archives since then. A sequel about more extraordinary lives is waiting to be written.
What is your favorite social biography? We want to hear about it how you identify with it. Drop us a line or two in the comment box!

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