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People

a person of the world Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman

by Jude MacDonald | November 25, 2005

Mary Coyne Rowell
134 Crescent Rd.
Rosedale, Toronto, Ont.
Canada
North America
Western Hemisphere
New World
The World

— Flyleaf inscription from a travel diary, July 1913

Mary Coyne Rowell was nine years old when she wrote those details down. Even then, her place in the world was on her mind. She was on a trip to England with her family. While there, she made a drawing of suffragettes being arrested in Trafalgar Square.

Mary Coyne Rowell was the daughter of lawyer Newton W. Rowell who, in 1929, represented Canada’s Famous Five in the Persons Case.

As a 2005 documentary about her makes clear, Mary was a person in her own right. She was also a passionate Canadian whose interests took her around the world, into the arts and through a long involvement with family and church.

As the 19th Century was that of the United States, so I think the 20th Century shall be filled by Canada.

— Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier, addressing the Canadian Club in 1904

Mary Coyne Rowell was born the very year Wilfred Laurier made his grand statement, and lived through much of that century. It was a century of great excitement and evolution for this country, but it was also one marked with two world wars and the Great Depression. Throughout childhood, Mary had been educated at private schools, and had enjoyed extensive travels. She graduated from the University of Toronto’s Victoria College. Because of her involvement with the Student Christian Movement, Mary met people of faith from around the world. For about a year, she worked for the organization as the women’s secretary at the University of Toronto. The office was located on the south-east corner of Bloor and Avenue Road. The SCM office for men was located in Hart House. Hart House at that time still did not admit women.

She married in 1930; one year after the Depression began. For her wedding, her mother, Nellie Langford Rowell, presented Mary with a copy of Virginia Wolf’s recently published long essay, A Room of One’s Own. It was an interesting choice for a gift. Once again, Mary was reminded of her place in the world – and reminded too that she needed to make room for herself in it.

This gift inspired a lasting passion for the author's writing, as well as for the Bloomsbury Group and Hogarth Press. Later in life, Mary felt that students should be able to see the resulting books she had collected over the years, including first editions of Woolf’s books. She donated them to the Victoria College, where she had studied German, English, French, Italian and Spanish. Mary offered the works in honour of her mother and aunt. This collection is now housed at the E J Pratt Library.

In 1994, Hilary Clare (formerly C.M. Donald) wrote The Beginnings of a Biography about Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman’s life. It includes details about the nursery school she founded in an impoverished area of Toronto, which continues to care for children to this day. The biography also details her travels in Europe and Asia. It talks about the artwork she bought – the purchasing of which often drove her husband mad. Many of the pieces ended up being very valuable, in spite of his doubts. It describes her commitment to the Metropolitan United Church. It discusses her progressive politics and belief in the human capacity for good. It tells of both the pains and joys of her life as a daughter, wife and mother.

But, for this piece, let’s insist that Mary Coyne Rowell Jackman was her own person, making difficult and creative decisions in a changing world. It was a world that still held a lot of power by dictating roles according to gender and class. For many of us, it’s not too far from the world of our own. And, if you are like Mary, you want to do something about it.

She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.

— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

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

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