A Brief History of CFUW

The founding of CFUW is intertwined with the founding of what is now Graduate Women International, both arising after the turmoil of WWI.  The remarkable industrial expansion that occurred after the beginning of the First World War opened up many opportunities for women. The increase of urban populations, with its consequent industrial growth, led to opportunities for women in industry and in social work.  At this time women were already well established in the teaching profession and entering medicine, law, journalism, nursing and social work in larger numbers.  In 1918, during the visit of a British universities mission to the United States, Dean Virginia Gildersleeve of Barnard College, USA, met Professor Caroline Spurgeon of the University of London, and Rose Sidgwick of the University of Birmingham, England. They discussed the need for a worldwide organization uniting university women as one way of preventing another catastrophe such as WW1. United globally, graduate women could work for understanding, friendship and foster peace.

Early in 1919, Dr. Winifred Cullis of Britain, who had spent time in Canada during the war years lecturing at Toronto University, suggested that women in Canada might wish to organize a national federation so that Canada might become one of the founding countries of the emerging International Federation of University Women.  A similar suggestion came from Virginia Gildersleeve of the American Association of University Women to the effect that, while she hoped the Canadians would form their own federation, they might if they preferred, be allied with the American Association.

On 11 July 1919, Caroline Spurgeon, Virginia Gildersleeve, Winnifred Cullis and other graduate women from Great Britain, Canada and the United States met in London and founded the International Federation of University  Women (IFUW).  This organization changed its name in 2015 to Graduate Women International, seeking to recognize the contemporary diversity of and need to include members on an international scale, while promoting the focus of education for women and girls.

As some of the leaders among university women in Canada had long dreamt of a national federation, with the formation of the IFUW came the formation of its Canadian counterpart, Federation of University Women of Canada.  In March 1919 at a conference of four of the leaders in university organizations – Mrs. J.A. Cooper, President of the Toronto Club, Mrs. R.F. McWilliams, President of the Winnipeg Club; Miss May Skinner, then representing Canada on the American Association’s Committee on International Affairs; and Miss Laila Scott in Toronto, it was decided to create the Canadian Federation of University Women. A constitution was drafted and the work of getting the approval of the clubs in the establishment of the federation, their approval of a constitution and of a meeting in the coming summer was undertaken. Miss Skinner dealt with the Eastern clubs and Mrs. McWilliams with those in Western Canada.

The various clubs responded enthusiastically to the appeal and the organization meeting took place in Winnipeg in August of the same year. Six clubs – Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton, and Victoria; additionally, McGill Alumnae sent delegates. The delegates adopted the proposed constitution and set the federation on its way by selecting the first officers and Chairs of Committees. Education in all its phases was declared to be the first interest of the new federation. The first matters of business included the plan to set up a Fellowship, to get women to stand for election to the Board, and support for women to engage in politics.

The first Officers of the Federation were:

  • Mrs. R.F. McWilliams: President (Margaret)
  • Miss May Skinner: First Vice President
  • Mrs. Douglas Thom: Second Vice President
  • Mrs. G.L. Lennox: Recording Secretary
  • Mrs. Charles Schofield: Treasurer
  • Mrs. Digby Wheeler: Archives
  • Miss Elsie Moore: Membership.

The rest, as they say, is history.  Check out this federation at https://cfuw.org

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