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Publication: Globe and Mail, The add link
Issue: 18 May 2009, page S10
Title: EDITH MCCOOK (Obituary)
Web Link: link


Journalist was interested in equality for women in the pre-feminist era

From the beginning of her career, she noticed that men always got the more important beats


Special to The Globe and Mail

May 18, 2009

Edith McCook (MacInnis) remembered when the Titanic sank. She was coming up the front path of the family farm and heard her horrified mother and a neighbour talking about how this magnificent ocean liner had gone down off the East Coast.

It's easy to imagine how this tragic event may have swayed Ms. McCook toward a career in journalism. She was always collecting facts, keeping a sharp eye on history, and satisfying her curiosity.

Beginning in the 1920s, she was a reporter for The Varsity, The Regina Leader-Post, and the Calgary Albertan. She also wrote a column for The Globe and Mail for several years. Although she was often relegated to the so-called women's pages, Ms. McCook insisted on ignoring tea parties and instead covered important issues relevant to women's equality in the pre-feminist era.

Back in the 1950s, for instance, she wrote about how for the first time in history there were more married women than single women in the Canadian labour force.

"While reactionaries may cry havoc that such large numbers of married women in Canada now work outside their homes, the trend is considerably stronger in both the United States and Great Britain," she wrote. Ms. McCook took a behind-the-scenes look at the wives of cabinet ministers, revealing that most of these women had training in the business or professional world before they married.

Edith MacInnis was the youngest of four children born to Walter and Mary Ann (Routley) MacInnis. Before moving to Ontario, her father had been a coach driver carrying mail and passengers between Swift Current and Battleford, Sask., during the Northwest Rebellion in the 1880s.

As a little girl, Edith was terrified to think that her brother Charlie, an airman, might be killed in the Great War. He was seriously wounded after being shot down over France, but survived. While waiting at home, she escaped into prodigious reading and scribbling. In 1910, she had a letter published in The Globe describing country life through the keen sensitivities of a 9-year-old girl. Edith set her sights on journalism early on.

She completed public school at 11, having skipped several grades. A year later she began high school in the nearby town of Lindsay.

In 1920, Ms. McCook moved to Toronto. She taught in local schools for a few years while saving up for university. She succeeded in putting away only $7.04. Her parents died in 1924 and through a small inheritance she was able to pay tuition at the University of Toronto and move a step closer toward her writing career. Without skipping a beat, she joined the Varsity as a reporter but was chagrined to discover that men were assigned the more important beats.

Spurred into taking action, she organized a club for women journalists and aligned herself with like-minded women who were determined to create a less bigoted environment. During this time, Ms. McCook became inspired by her professor, E.J. Pratt, who fostered in her a lifelong love of poetry. But she always stuck with prose in her own writing.

Ms. McCook graduated in 1927 and immediately took a job at the Regina Leader-Post, where she befriended Kay Kritzwiser, who became an art critic for The Globe. A few years later she moved to Calgary and worked on the women's page of the Calgary Albertan. One day a bet took place in the newsroom: Could she or could she not walk the circumference of the room on the heels of her high-heeled shoes? James McCook, the news editor, got in on the bet and lost his wager of $1. She married Mr. McCook in 1930. He always said he married her to get his money back.

Around this time she met Nellie McClung, the feminist writer and activist. The two women shared common ideals and they decided to establish a chapter of The Canadian Women's Press Club.

"She disliked gossip, took no interest in fashion, and smiled at social pretension," said her daughter, Sheila McCook. She never learned to curl hair, sew beyond a basic level, knit, ride a bike, swim, draw, or sing. She was largely uninterested in movies, pop culture, or sports. What she liked was to write. And one of her most interesting subjects was women.

During the mid-1930s, Ms. McCook took time off to raise her four children. The family returned to Regina in 1936, where her husband joined the Regina Star as an editorial writer.

Ms. McCook found that growing hostilities in Europe sent harrowing reminders to her of the previous world war and, characteristically, took action. Along with other pacifists, she helped organize anti-war speaking tours and attempted to shift public opinion.

In 1941, the family headed to Ottawa where Mr. McCook took a job with The Canadian Press. When the war ended they headed to London for four years where Mr. McCook, universally known as Jimmie, served as bureau chief.

Although she was still busy with the children, Ms. McCook filed freelance pieces to newspapers and magazines during these years, both in England and in Canada.

In 1953, upon returning to Ottawa, she began a weekly column for The Globe called The Ottawa Scene. The column presented a picture of Ottawa at the time, including events at Rideau Hall, volunteer activities, and profiles of accomplished women.

Her children recall this period as being fairly calm during the week and then every Friday afternoon the living room suddenly transformed into a mini newsroom. The typewriter shook the room and crumpled paper littered the carpet; phones rang, dogs barked, and their mother fought to meet deadline.

Quite often a limousine from Government House pulled up and the driver would rush in with a press release. And then by suppertime, all was changed back to the more sedate suburban life.

Elizabeth Hay interviewed Ms. McCook for research on her novel A Student of Weather, published in 2002. She gleaned anecdotes from her time in the Prairie Dust Bowl and found her to be a captivating subject. "[Ms. McCook] had a fine memory and a feel for visual detail, no doubt reinforced by her years as a journalist. She also had a true fighting spirit."

Ms. McCook retired her position at The Globe in 1960 and moved to Victoria with her husband. Later in her life, she volunteered in children's and mental health organizations. Her husband died in 1984 and she slowed things down in order to spend time with her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. "My mother had lived through terrible public disasters in her life, but also great social changes. She had seen progress," said Sheila McCook. One of her last visits with her mother was to celebrate the nomination of Barack Obama.

Edith McCook

Edith McCook was born Dec. 4, 1901, in Cambray, Ont. She died April 28, 2009, in Toronto. She was 106. She leaves daughters Katherine and Sheila, son Robert, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.