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social activist Flora MacDonald Merrill Denison

by Betty Tennant | January 9, 2003

Flora MacDonald Merrill Denison was born during a raging snowstorm in a logger’s cabin where her mother had to take shelter. The cabin was situated somewhere between Actinolite and Flinton, Ontario. Flora was the sixth of eight children born to George and Elizabeth MacTavish Thompson Merrill. Her grandfather was a pillar of society, and her uncle, like his father, was a judge. Flora’s mother, who had been a wealthy woman owing to extensive real estate holdings, soon became destitute when George Merrill left a secure teaching post to embark on a fraudulent land and mining deal on a bronze mine. He had been duped into believing that bronze could be mined. Unable to find suitable employment, Flora’s father turned to alcohol.

The following years in Flora’s life were difficult and unsettled. She was educated at home during her early years, and later was sent to live with her aunt in Picton, Ontario, where she attended high school. Not having the opportunity to attend university, Flora became a teacher at the age of 15. She earned $350 a year and managed to save enough to move to Detroit to live with relatives. There she worked as a secretary and freelance reporter. She met and married Howard Denison in 1892. She later stated, “The only good thing to come from that marriage was my son Merrill.”

The first 20 years of Flora’s life set the pattern for her choices in later life. Since her family had sustained a substantial loss of social status and thus were excluded from the benefits of middle-class society, it became easy for Flora to turn her back on family and start to live as a totally independent young woman. As Flora said, “Girls took their position from what their fathers were, [and] women took their position from what their husbands were. As long as they had a brother or husband to support them, they were respectable.”

Soon Flora moved to Toronto, where she became a designer of fine ball gowns and customized trousseaux at the Robert Simpson Company. It was during this time that she became embroiled in the women’s rights movement. Although Flora was a descendant of the Loyalists and was highly self-educated, she suffered from the snobbery of the upper-class women whose wardrobes she designed. “Real ladies do not work for a living.”

Flora was indignant when the Simpson Company management installed punch clocks in 1905. This was the final straw. Flora resigned because she refused to “punch in” on the grounds that it fostered class distinction. After leaving Simpson’s, Flora took up the cause of working-class women, especially those in the garment industry. She began writing a regular column extolling women’s suffrage for the Sunday World of Toronto. To illustrate the plight of the needle workers, Flora wrote the following poem for Saturday Night magazine:

Pale blue lips – a ghastly picture
Stitching she to dress a world
That, perchance, does not dress her
Nor indeed but barely feeds her,
Hardly gives her bread enough
To keep soul and flesh together
This “The woman with the needle.”

Flora also used her column to advocate birth control, divorce and pacifism. She felt very strongly that everyone should work and that people should develop mutual respect for one another. They should see each other as comrades and companions and recognize the unique importance of each individual. She said, “I despise the spirit that makes people apologize because they have to work – workers are necessary but servants are a disgrace.”

Flora’s democratic philosophy came mostly from the writings of Walt Whitman and she became enamoured with the Walt Whitman Society – a mystical quasi-religious organization.

She believed in the supernatural. Several members of her family believed in parapsychology. Many felt that they had psychic abilities, but they hid these ideas from the public. She admired her older sister, Mary, who apparently had extraordinary psychic powers.

Flora rejected orthodox Christianity because “Women have no place in the sacred portals.” She became involved with the Theosophists, who professed to achieve knowledge of God by spiritual ecstasy, direct intuition or special individual relations. It was a modern movement following the Hindu and Buddhist teachings which seek universal brotherhood. Flora had always believed in the existence of a bond of comradeship among the peoples of the world. Although she was not a radical socialist, she did hold strongly to the idea that all individuals, male and especially female, had the right to the pursuit of happiness and financial stability.

In her dogged desire to help the cause of women, Flora eventually became the president of the Canadian Suffrage Association. Women were no longer to be treated as chattels, to bear many children and to be subservient to men. With little financial help, she spent her own money to bring Emmeline Pankhurst to Canada for a speaking engagement. Flora herself went on several speaking tours to Berlin, Vienna, Prague, and Budapest where she spoke to overflow audiences – an unusual feat for a woman at that time.

Flora was one of the few Canadians of her era who described herself as a feminist. In 1914, she was forced to resign from the Canadian Suffrage Association because of her support of suffrage through violence. She continued to support the suffrage ideals through her writings about the plight of women whom she called “house slaves.” She stated that, without democracy in the home, there would be no democracy in the nation.

Flora moved to Napanee to work as a dressmaker in order to earn enough money to send her son Merrill to the University of Pennsylvania. She had hoped that he would become a lawyer and judge like her grandfather. But Merrill, although devoted to his mother, first joined the army, and later became a renowned writer. Flora had been the catalyst that led Merrill to writing. He had grown up in an atmosphere of storytelling, books and authors.

Flora held to the theory that it was better for mothers of young children to stay at home and care for the little ones, and she advocated the idea of paying poor mothers a wage so that they could do so. She also believed that parents should respect the personal rights of children, not in the popular idea that children should, without question,“Honour thy father and mother.” Flora used H. G. Wells’ novel, The Passionate Friends, to express her feelings about marriage: “Because youth inadvertently chooses the wrong mate, Mrs. Grundy or the church or the state should not clamp and rivet them together to the eternal destruction of both. There is more immorality in unhappiness than appears on the surface.”

The war years, 1914–1918, were particularly stressful for Flora. Her biggest and most private worry was that Merrill, her beloved son who had joined the war effort, was in what Flora considered a perilous position. Flora, like thousands of other women, was convinced that “war is hell.” In an article, she wrote: “The male through centuries and centuries has been combative, whereas women’s thoughts and actions have always been constructive.”

To ease her anxieties and stresses resulting from the war, Flora turned for solace to the wilderness. Flora loved the wild north country. She had visited the Bon Echo area and had fallen in love with it. She attempted to buy a large tract of land owned by Doctor Weston Price of Cleveland, who refused to sell the land to Flora. She bought a section of land adjacent to the Price property and built a small cottage there. Shortly thereafter, the ten-year-old son of Dr. Price died and he lost all interest in Bon Echo and the Inn, which had been opened to the public in 1900. In 1910, Flora had the opportunity to buy the land she so loved. Her marriage to Howard ended in divorce at this time. Flora threw all her energies into making the Bon Echo Inn “a gathering place for artists, thinkers, writers and spiritualists, all under the northern lights beside these great cliffs.” Activities included theatre, crafts, canoeing, poetry reading and spiritualist sessions. Flora wrote a novel, Mary Melville, The Psychic, based on the experiences of her sister, Mary, who is profiled in the chapter entitled Spiritualists.

Flora had a mystical attachment to nature. She was one of the first Canadian conservationists. She dedicated much of her time at Bon Echo encouraging the regrowth of forests to restore the land left barren by careless lumbering practices.

Flora wanted to turn Bon Echo into a memorial to her revered Walt Whitman, whom she had never met personally. In 1919 Flora hired two stone-cutters from Aberdeen, Scotland, to carve an inscription into the face of the Bon Echo rock:

My foothold is tenon’d and mortis’d in granite
I laugh at what you call dissolution
And I know the amplitude of time

— Walt Whitman, “Songs of Myself”

Flora MacDonald Merrill Denison died in 1921 at the age of 54. She was spared the devastating news that her cherished Bon Echo Inn burned to the ground in 1936. Merrill announced that he had no intention of rebuilding the Bon Echo Inn. However, after 20 years of negotiations with the Federal and Provincial governments, Bon Echo Provincial Park became a reality, and is considered to this day to be one of the most scenic locations in Ontario – a fitting tribute to Flora.

Her father often said, “Flora was born a hundred years before her time.” She will be remembered as a dedicated mother, journalist, suffragette, feminist, and naturalist – a truly remarkable woman.

end notes
  • Handwritten note, by FLORA MacDONALD DENISON, Tweed and Area Heritage Centre
  • Flora MacDonald Denison: Canadian Feminist, by DEBORAH GORHAM, from the book A Not Unreasonable Claim: Women and Reform in Canada, 1880s to 1920s, Linda Kealey, ed., Women’s Press, Toronto | 1979
  • A Remarkable Woman, by Mr. MICHELE LACOMBE, unknown newspaper
  • The Woman with a Needle, by FLORA MacDONALD DENISON, Saturday Night | 1898
  • address by FLORA MacDONALD DENISON, to the Toronto Progressive Thought Club, Toronto | 1907
  • War and Women, [1914–15], by FLORA MacDONALD DENISON
  • untitled article, by FLORA MacDONALD DENISON, Sunset of Bon Echo | 1916

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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