Stowe, Emily

Emily Howard Jennings Stowe
Emily Howard Jennings Stowe

Emily Howard Jennings Stowe (May 1, 1831-April 30, 1903), a path-breaking Canadian woman physician and suffragist, led campaigns to provide women access to medical schools and other professional education. Her efforts led to the organization of the woman’s movement in Canada and to the foundation of a medical college for women.

Emily was born on a farm in Norwich, Upper Canada (later Canada West, now Ontario), the first of six daughters of Hannah Howard and Solomon Jennings. Solomon became a Methodist, though the rest of the family remained Quaker. In the Quaker tradition of education for women, Hannah had attended a co-educational boarding school in Providence, Rhode Island. She is thought to have been a midwife and healer.

In 1846, Emily, who had been educated at home by her mother, became a teacher at a one-room schoolhouse in nearby Summerville, Canada West. She taught at various area schools for seven years, receiving, like other women teachers at that time, half of the salary accorded to men. During 1853-54 Emily attended the recently built Provincial Normal School in Toronto, the only advanced school open to women in British North America. She graduated with a First Class Certificate. She then worked for the Brantford School Board, 1854-56, perhaps the first woman appointed principal of a public school in Canada West.

Emily married carpenter and carriagemaker John Stowe in 1856. She left teaching and moved to his community of Mount Pleasant, south of Brantford. Their three children, Ann Augusta, John Howard, and Frank Jennings, were born between 1857 and 1863. After John was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanitorium, Emily resumed teaching to support her family, but found it economically unrewarding. Influenced by her Quaker upbringing and having learned homeopathic medicine in the 1840s from a family friend, in 1863 she decided to become a doctor. While she studied, her sister Cornelia cared for the Stowe children and household, just as Quaker women once did for married women who went on preaching journeys.

In 1865 Stowe was denied admission to the Toronto School of Medicine. The Vice-President of the University of Toronto told her, “The doors of the University are not open to women and I trust they never will be.” Stowe replied, “Then I will make it the business of my life to see that they will be opened, that women will have the same opportunities as men.”

Unable to get medical training anywhere in Canada, Stowe attended the New York Medical College for Women, 1865-67. She studied under Dr. Clemence Lozier, a former teacher who had obtained the charter for her medical school with the aid of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Since New York’s Bellevue Hospital welcomed the help of women medical students during the Civil War, Stowe was allowed, despite male medical student displeasure, to participate in its clinics and learn dissection. Two of her sisters, Ella Jennings and Hannah Jennings Kimball, later attended the school.

In the United States, Stowe met and learned fom Susan B. Anthony. A witness to the divisions within the American woman’s movement, Stowe adopted a patient strategy, encouraging gradual progress, when later advancing women’s rights and suffrage in her own country.

After graduating in 1867, Stowe began to practice homeopathic medicine in Toronto. As earlier women doctors Elizabeth Blackwell and Clemence Lozier had done, Stowe stimulated public interest with lectures on women’s health. From that time on, she always had enough patients. She maintained the numbers through newspaper advertisements.

Stowe was disappointed that, even with her degree, she still could not obtain a medical license. Not until 1870 was she allowed to take the courses at the University of Toronto required of holders of foreign medical credentials, and then only by special arrangement. She found the classroom behaviour of a faculty member and some students towards her despicable. She did not get her licence for years afterwards as she refused to take the written and oral exams administered by the men of the Council of the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

The most serious incident of Stowe’s medical career occurred in 1880. An investigation into the death of a pregnant woman revealed that she had taken medicine prescribed by Stowe. Implicit in the subsequent legal proceeding was an old suspicion that all women doctors were abortionists. The trial, however, cleared Stowe. Without her asking for it, later that year she was finally granted a medical license on the grounds that, counting her childhood homeopathic apprenticeship, she had been in medicine since before 1850. She observed, “My career has been one of struggle, attended by that sort of persecution which falls to the lot of everyone who pioneers a new movement or steps out of line with established custom.”

Recovered from tuberculosis by the mid-1870s, John Stowe trained as a dentist. In 1878 the Stowes moved into a Toronto residence with room for both of their offices. Their son Frank eventually joined his father’s practice. In 1879 Emily used her influence with a family friend, Dr. Samuel Nelles, the principal of Victoria College, to have her daughter Augusta admitted to Victoria College and thereby to the four-year program at the Toronto School of Medicine. Upon graduation, Augusta became the first woman doctor fully trained in Canada.

Inspired by a woman’s meeting she attended in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1876 Emily Stowe founded the Toronto Women’s Literary Club (in 1883 reorganized as the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association). Members prepared papers on women’s professional achievements, education, and the vote. The Literary Club campaigned successfully to improve women’s working conditions. Stowe lectured on “Women’s Sphere” and “Women in the Professions.” She said that a woman “ought to understand the laws governing her own being.” Because of pressure by the Literary Club, some higher education in Toronto was made available to women—though Stowe protested that the medical course first planned for women was substandard. Stowe campaigned for better medical education for women and influenced several eminent physicians. In 1883 a public meeting of the Toronto Women’s Suffrage Association led to the creation of the Ontario Medical College for Women.

In 1888 Stowe attended an international conference of suffragists in Washington, D.C. Early in the following year, to revitalize the Canadian women’s movement, she invited the prominent American suffragist Anna Howard Shaw to come to Toronto to speak. Shaw contended that if women gained the vote, the whole community would benefit. In the enthusiam aroused, the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association was founded and Stowe was elected president.

As part of a delegation from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, in 1889 Stowe addressed the Ontario Legislature asking for the vote for widows and spinsters. “As educated citizens, as moral and loving women,” she declared, “[we] desire to be placed in a position to impress directly our thought upon our nation and time.” The measure was treated with disrespect by the legislators, but it laid the groundwork for more serious subsequent debate. Later that year Susan B. Anthony (who stayed at the home of daughter Augusta Stowe-Gullen) spoke at the Toronto City Hall and declared that “dis-enfranchisement always meant not only political degradation but social, moral and industrial degradation as well.”

In 1879 Stowe signed the membership book at the Toronto Unitarian Church. In 1891 she and her daughter were founding members in Toronto of the first Canadian branch of the Theosophical Society. This society encouraged universal humanity and brotherhood without distinctions of race, creed, sex, caste or colour and promoted studies of comparative religion, science and philosophy. Later Stowe wrote that she had “outgrown all religious creeds, standing in the broad field of enquiry, a truth-seeker.” She “desired knowledge from the interior life and that truth which alone makes one free.”

Slowed down after breaking her hip in a fall from the platform at the Columbian Exposition’s Women’s Congress at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Stowe retired from medical practice and became less active in the women’s movement. Three years later, however, she and Augusta both participated in a well-attended and highly-publicized mock parliament, Canada’s first. Those who participated pretended to be legislators in an all-woman parliament receiving a delegation of men petitioning the right to vote. Stowe, playing the part of the Attorney-General, evoked general laughter in her speech recommending that the men’s petition be denied.

John Stowe died in 1891. As a widow, Emily listed her address as her summer residence in Muskoka lake region north of Toronto, but stayed most of the year with her son Frank’s family in the city. When she died twelve years later, Jabez T. Sunderland, minister of First Unitarian Church in Toronto, spoke at the service held at her home.


There are Emily Stowe collections at Victoria College and at the Archives of Ontario, both in Toronto, Ontario. Biographies include Fryer, Mary Beacock Fryer, Emily Stowe: Doctor and Suffragist (1990) and two books written for young readers, Janet Ray, Emily Stowe (1978) and Sydell Waxman, Changing the Pattern: The Story of Emily Stowe (1996). There is an entry on Stowe in the Canadian Dictionary of Biography. Among short articles are Joanne Thompson, “The Influence of Dr. Emily Howard Stowe on the Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada,” Ontario History (1962); Jacalyn Duffin, “The Death of Susan Lowell and the Constrained Feminism of Emily Stowe,” Canadian Medical Association Journal (1992); Maureen M. Killoran, Dr. Emily Stowe: A Most Remarkable Daughter, Unitarian Universalist Women’s Heritage Society Occasional Paper (1992); and Irene Baros-Johnson, “Emily’s Eyes: Searching for Emily Howard Jennings Stowe,” Sermon, Universalist Unitarian Church of Halifax, Nova Scotia (2001). For details on the abortion trial consult Constance Backhouse, Petticoats & Prejudice: Women and Law in 19th Century Canada (1991). See also Heather Murray, “Great Works and Good Works: The Toronto Women’s Literary Club, 1877-83,” Historical Studies in Education (1999); Carol Lee Bacchi, Liberation Deferred? The ideas of the English-Canadian Suffragists 1877-1918 (1983); Catherine Cleverdon, The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada (1974); Margaret Gooding, The Canadians: Adventures of Our People, Canadian Unitarian Council (1985); Carlotta Hacker, The Indomitable Lady Doctors (1974); and Veronica Strong-Boag, “Canada’s Women Doctors, Feminism Constrained,” in Linda Kealey, ed., A Not Unreasonable Claim: Women & Reform in Canada (1979).

Article by Irene Baros-Johnson
Posted September 18, 2004