This series traces CFUW historical highlights and its movers and shakers decade by decade to provide insight into the scope of CFUW as an important voice for women in Canada and abroad. 


Titles for each of the Decades

The Roarin’ Twenties 

 Heroine of the Twenties: Dr. Margaret S. McWilliams 

The Depression Years: the Thirties 

CFUW Heroine of the 1930s: Mrs. Douglas J. Thom 

War and Peace: the Forties 

 CFUW Heroine of the 1940s: Dr. A. Vibert Douglas 

The Fifties 

 CFUW Heroine of the 1950s: Dr. Marion Elder Grant 

The Sixties 

 CFUW Heroine of the 1960s: Dr. Laura Sabia 

The Seventies 

 CFUW Heroine of the 1970s: Dr. Ruth M. Bell 

The Eighties 

 CFUW Heroine of the 1980s: Linda Souter 

The Nineties 

 CFUW Heroines: National Life Members 

The New Millennium: 2000 and beyond 

 CFUW Heroines: National Honorary Members  

The Roarin’ Twenties 


 On August 26, 1919 University Women’s Clubs from Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton and Victoria met in Winnipeg for the inaugural meeting of the “Federation of University Women in Canada.” 

Dr. Winifred Cullis of the United Kingdom had urged immediate formation of a National Federation so that Canada could become one of the founding members of the newly proposed International Federation of University Women (IFUW) in 1919. Dr. Virginia Gildersleeve of the United States had reinforced this idea and had offered the alternative of joining the American Association of University Women (AAUW). The Canadians attended the first IFUW meeting in 1920 as the Canadian Federation of University Women, a charter affiliate committed to encouraging international understanding and peace. 


1919 – 1923: Dr. Margaret S. McWilliams, First CFUW President

1919 – A Vocations Committee is set up, showing CFUW members’ concern for the vocations of women.

 1920 - First CFUW “Triennial” in Toronto 1921 – The 12 CFUW Clubs, with 1300 members, designate fellowships: one to McGill, one to Radcliffe and a third of $1000 to the University of Toronto for a woman graduate to research the early history of Canada at the Sorbonne. 

1921 – CFUW joins AAUW in presenting $100,000 to Madame Marie Curie for the purchase of radium for her research work. (A photo of this gesture at Niagara Falls shows the face of Madame Curie obscured by her hat and bouquet, causing some to say that the lady was probably her daughter who frequently took her mother’s place when she was worn out!)

1923 – Second CFUW Triennial in Minaki, Ontario – emphasis on the work of individual Clubs and individual members who are pioneers across Canada 

1923 – 1926: Mrs. Walter Vaughan, Second CFUW President 

  • Mrs. Vaughan makes Club visits a priority, travelling widely across Canada. Mrs. Vaughn’s lectures raise about $5000 to support the Crosby Hall Fund. (Crosby Hall, once Sir Thomas More’s residence, was a friendly place for IFUW members to stay while in London, England.)
  • CFUW surveys on education, libraries and vocations evaluate women’s place in Canadian society.

1926 - Third CFUW Triennial in Montreal; 38 delegates 

1926 – 1928: Dean Mary L. Bollert, Third CFUW President 

  • Mary Bollert makes education a priority:
  • Raises concerns about unemployment among university women and inadequate salaries for teachers Urges the appointment of deans of women in secondary schools because of “the declining influence of the home”
  • Represents CFUW at international meetings; speaks at the International Congress of Women in Chicago.
  • Urges the appointment of women to boards and commissions of the League of Nations.  Disbands the Vocations Committee due to lack of funds.

1928 - Fourth CFUW Triennial in Vancouver (held a year early to avoid a conflict with the IFUW meeting); 61 delegates 

CFUW Heroine of the 1920’s: Dr. Margaret S. McWilliams 

 Dr. Margaret McWilliams, the first CFUW President, was one of the most dynamic Canadian women of her time. An 1898 graduate of the University of Toronto, she worked as a newspaperwoman before marrying and moving to Winnipeg. There, she served as 

an alderman from 1933–1940, lectured in world affairs and wrote several books. She took leadership roles in many organizations including the Red Cross, National Council of Education, National Council of Women and the Women’s Canadian Club. Active in CFUW for over 50 years, she also served as first Vice President of IFUW. In 1948 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of her graduation, she received an honorary degree from her alma mater. Dr. McWilliams had a keen curiosity, a deep interest in the political struggles of humankind, a fine intelligence, a vivid sense of perpetual crisis, physical beauty, impeccable taste in clothes, and a contagious sense of humour. She did not suffer fools gladly and was a trifle addicted to having her own way! In 1952, Dr. McWilliams was honoured posthumously for her vision of international friendship and co-operation with the naming of the CFUW Dr. Margaret McWilliams Pre- Doctoral Fellowship. 


The Depression Years 

 The 1930s:  Following the flapper years of the 1920s with hemlines and spirits rising and the Art Deco period signaling a modernism of both outlook and design, the increasingly sombre decade of the 1930s was ushered in by two events in October of 1929 that influenced the lives of Canadian women: the landmark Person’s Case that gave Canadian women status as persons under the law, and the stock market crash in the United States that sent economic reverberations around the world.  Many Canadians referred to the ensuing decade as “The Dirty Thirties.”  The Great Depression and the years of drought along with the escalating tensions in Europe forced fearful scrimping and saving habits that stayed with many Canadian women for their lifetime.   At the end of the thirties, Canada’s population was just over 12 million of whom half were of Anglo-Saxon stock, one-third of French ancestry, and the other twenty per cent mainly of recent European and Asian origin.  By 1939, Canada was at war.   


1928 – 1931  Miss Laila C. Scott, Fourth CFUW President  

  • University women are urged to take more interest in public affairs 
  • The Vocations Bureau is set up 
  • 1931 Fifth CFUW Triennial is held in Ottawa  


1931 – 1934  Mrs. Douglas J. Thom, Fifth CFUW President 

  • Clubs are urged to send in articles for the CFUW Chronicle  
  • CFUW signs a petition for disarmament CFUW successfully protests, along with other women’s groups in Toronto, against the dismissal of married women from the staff of the University of Toronto 
  • Club meeting topics include “Mussolini,” “Manchuria” and “Social Insurance”
  • 1934 Sixth CFUW Triennial is held in Edmonton; 103 registrants; discussion of the alarming discrimination in Germany and the plight of university women in Europe 


1934 – 1937  Miss Laura E. Newman, Sixth CFUW President 

  • Questionnaires on the status of university women and the status of “gainfully employed” are discussed 
  • CFUW reiterates stand that women be considered for university positions based on their qualifications Lists of qualified women are placed in universities 
  • A study is made of women in administrative positions in Canada 
  • 1936 Clubs are urged to play a part in demanding a peaceful solution to the problems of the nations of the world 
  • 1936 Miss Newman attends IFUW conference in Poland  
  • 1937 Seventh CFUW Triennial is held at Trinity College, University of Toronto; 154 delegates; CFUW deplores the dissolution of the German, Austrian and Italian Federations of University Women. 


1937 – 1940  Mrs. W. J. Melrose, Seventh CFUW President 

  • Refugee funds for displaced graduates are set up 
  • Plans are made to receive children of British graduates into 300 Canadian homes 
  • Heart-rending stories are told of Polish refugee women including IFUW President, Dr. S. Adamowicz who is teaching at the School of Hygiene in Warsaw, now under German supervision.  Message is received from her:  “Home destroyed, health poor” 
  • 1939 CFUW executive plans to spend $400 for an executive secretary to work from her home 
  • 1939 Mrs. Melrose attends IFUW conference in Stockholm but has to sail home as war is declared
  • 1940 Eighth CFUW Triennial is held in Calgary; 73 registrants 


 CFUW Heroine of the 1930s: Mrs. Douglas J. Thom (1879 – 1946) 

 Mrs. Thom, the fifth CFUW President, was just 24 years of age in 1903 when she helped to found the University Women’s Club of Toronto and was installed as its first president.  Born in Elora, Ontario, she was a 1900 graduate of the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Arts degree. After marrying and moving to Regina, she was active in the Red Cross both locally and nationally, the Women’s Missionary Society and the Women’s Canadian Club.  

 When Mrs. Thom discussed disarmament with a prominent member of the Government of Canada, he turned upon her indignantly and asked, “Do women really care to accomplish anything when they remain represented by only one member in the Federal House?”   He went on to tell her that if CFUW wished to support the League of Nations and have an effect on disarmament, there was only one way to do it.  Put women into positions in municipal, provincial and Dominion politics and give them CFUW’s unquestioned support.   

 As CFUW President, Mrs. Thom encouraged Clubs from all localities to write and send in items of interest so that future chroniclers of women’s activities would “do our day and generation justice.”