Notable Women of the Pontiac
These four women were innovators and shakers: journalists, mayors, midwives, farmers, mothers, storekeepers, and more. They helped carve a path to a better life, bringing waterworks to Shawville, increasing women’s presence in public life, improving food safety in rural communities, fighting for healthcare, farming, and raising large families.
They lived extraordinary lives, although they may not have labelled them as such. These vignettes are but a glimpse into the lives of four notable women. There were many more remarkable women and many more stories of strength, dedication, and courage in the Pontiac.
Abbie held office in her branch, at county, and was secretary of the Quebec Women’s Institute for a number of years. She attended conventions at Macdonald College faithfully from 1914 until she became ill, sometimes in the role of photographer. She was the first woman in Pontiac to receive the distinction of life membership both provincially and federally, and was also named Honorary Vice-President of the Quebec Women’s Institute.
Abbie Pritchard was a true pioneer for Women’s Institutes in Pontiac and across Quebec. She believed and lived by the motto “For Home and Country” by promoting agriculture, education and cultural activities, health and community living and publicity locally and around the world.
As editor of The Equity for over three decades, Rosaleen wrote thoughtful, persuasive articles. Fiercely independent, she was at ease with everyone, powerful or poor: royalty, politicians, truck drivers and foresters. She was dedicated to her husband and six children, while always working to improve her many communities. She managed a hockey team, taught children to square dance on horseback, hosted radio shows, and became the first woman to sit on Town Council in Shawville, championing seniors’ residences and improving town water.
As chair of the Hospital Committee of the Ottawa Citizens’ Committee on Children, Rosaleen, along with a number of other women, petitioned for a children’s hospital in the region, the first steps of a long journey towards the creation of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO).
In her ‘retirement’, Rosaleen volunteered at the National Press Club, taught writing at Ryerson University, and, at the age of 81, earned a Master’s Degree in Journalism. In 1982, she was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. Rosaleen embraced life with unapologetic enthusiasm.
In 1953, a mere 13 years after women gained the right to vote in Quebec, Elsie became the first female mayor in the province. She served two terms as mayor of Portage-du-Fort, with her most ambitious project being the construction of a water distribution system in the village, a feat many deemed impossible. In addition, during her administration, a new fire hall was built, and many roads were paved. Her handwritten journals during her time as mayor are still housed at the Pontiac Archives in Shawville. In a 1960 interview with a journalist, when asked about women in politics, Elsie stated, “Women should take centre stage and stop hiding behind their husbands. They have the ability and are quite capable.”
Elsie’s many roles included becoming the first female Warden in Pontiac County, Chair of the School Board, President of the Rebekah Lodge, and church organist for 60 years. A pioneer in Quebec politics, Elsie Gibbons paved the way for women in municipal affairs. In 2015, the Province of Quebec paid posthumous tribute to her, and in 2017, the Fédération Québécoise des Municipalités created the Elsie-Gibbons Award in recognition of women’s contributions to municipal politics.
Married in 1903, Adelaide had her first child at the age of 15. She had a total of eleven children, and also fostered a grandchild at her log house in Thorne. When her husband was away in the winters at logging camps, it fell upon Adelaide to take care of the homestead, farm, and children. To cash her husband’s paycheck, she walked the 24-mile (38.6 kilometre) roundtrip to the bank. As was typical of that time, the older children helped with chores, from tending livestock to cutting wood to looking after younger siblings. Without electricity or indoor plumbing, water for bathing and laundry had to be fetched from the well and then heated on the wood stove. Adelaide spent long days cooking, sewing clothes, making butter, putting up preserves, and tending large gardens and livestock.
Somehow, Adelaide also found time in her busy days to contribute to her broader community. A skilled seamstress, Adelaide sewed wedding dresses for many neighbouring women. Adelaide was also a proficient midwife, a skill she learned from her mother. It wasn’t unusual for someone to come in the middle of the night to take her to a birth. Sometimes she stayed for a week, until the new mother could get back on her feet, without charge (although she received a sack of potatoes as payment one time).
Generous and spirited by nature, Adelaide loved hosting house parties with live music and dancing. An avid storyteller, she could captivate an audience for hours.