Women in Journalism Part 1: Gertrude Balmer-Watt
By: Keltie MacKenzie
At Fort Edmonton Park we need no prompting to explore some of Alberta’s famous historical women. Alberta has an impressive list of valiant women, perhaps most notably the “Famous Five” who were instrumental in the groundbreaking Persons Case and women’s rights in Canada. Edmonton can also lay claim to having the first female police officer in Canada, Annie May Jackson, from whom local roads, schools, parks, and neighbourhoods take their name. There are also a pair of female journalist who we will explore in the next two posts, Gertrude Balmer-Watt and Katherine Hughes, who were incredibly influential on the journalistic and social landscapes of the city.
Gertrude Balmer-Watt, often known as Peggy to her readers, was a journalist and a charter member of the Canadian Women’s Press Club, which grew to eventually include the likes of L.M. Montgomery, Nellie McClung, and Emily Murphy. Gertrude’s father, John Hogg, was a sheriff and her mother was a Spanish flamenco dancer; the two of them had met and married during Hogg’s European holiday. However, the marriage didn’t last as Gertrude’s mother ran away with an Army officer during Gertrude’s childhood. Her father then sent Gertrude and her sister to boarding school where Gertrude grew to love piano, a passion she desired to make into a career until she met newspaper editor Arthur Balmer-Watt at a tea party thrown by a family member.
Gertrude married Arthur in 1900, and he was highly supportive of her career, though it is said that her personal maid felt Gertrude’s job was unsuitable for a woman, especially when there were “cushions to make, and heaps of other things to do.” It seemed that Gertrude was certainly a woman ahead of her time, as it was not seen as all that appropriate for a married woman to have a career such as hers. This can be seen in the fact that some newspapers even refused to pay a female employee if her husband was also on staff, or fired the wives if it were found that two employees had been married in secret. But this neither stopped, nor deterred, Gertrude and her ambitions. She would go on to become Edmonton’s first newspaperwoman.
Despite their prominent place in Edmonton’s journalist history, the Balmer-Watts arrived in Edmonton modestly, with their dog Boozer, who had been cheekily named after his former owner, and young son Frederick in tow. To welcome them, was the frigid cold prairie winter and a good deal of trepidation. Gertrude recalls, “How well I remember that long trip out, the sitting day after day, gazing out at the dead-level prairie, snow covered, desolate . . . Should I like the life? Would the people appeal to me?” But she goes on to convey her love for Edmonton grew, relaying that she had many close friends, enjoyed the society she had founded, and had come to love the prairie lifestyle.
After arriving in Edmonton in 1905, Gertrude published two books: A Woman in the West in 1907, followed by Town and Trails in 1908. Gertrude and Arthur opened a weekly publication, the Saturday News, as well as a daily called, The Capitol.
However, Edmonton’s small size made these publications economically unviable, and they soon went bankrupt. Arthur eventually went on to be editor for the Edmonton Journal, though the Balmer-Watts nearly lost everything once again when Arthur went on to challenge Premier William Aberhart and the press censorship laws. Aberhart threatened to put Arthur in jail, but Gertrude continued to support her husband and defend his work. Then, in 1938, the Edmonton Journal and other outspoken Albertan newspapers went on to win the very first Pulitzer Prize won outside of the United States for their coverage of the controversial laws, thereby solidifying the Balmer-Watts’ legacy in journalism.
Gertrude’s career in Edmonton was highly accomplished outside the world of her husband, which was groundbreaking for the time. She was a staff contributor for The Mirror where she wrote under the pseudonym of “Peggy”, which became a household name, and also went on to become the women’s editor and dramatic critic for the Edmonton Daily Capital and for the Alberta Homestead publications. She desired to share a view on the West from a female perspective, and was devoted to delivering the stories of one who had truly lived there. Along with telling the world about the prairies, she also hoped to show women that there was a world beyond fashion and cooking tips, and she took every opportunity to share her perspective on anything and everything. She and Arthur travelled often, and Gertrude enjoyed collecting antiques, being involved in theatre, and conducting a regular program for CBC on the Pioneer Canadian West. They also went on to have to more children, Naomi and Lois, and called Edmonton home for the rest of their lives. At their 60th wedding anniversary, Hal Straight wrote a tribute in the Edmonton Journal, stating that Arthur and Gertrude simply “were Edmonton”. To learn more about Gertrude, try and find her this summer at Fort Edmonton Park on 1905 street!
We will continue on with stories of female journalists in part 2 of the series.
- Women Who Made the News: Female Journalists in Canada, 1880-1945 by Marjorie Lang
- Edmonton in Our Own Words By Linda Goyette, Carolina Jakeway Roemmich
- The Feminine Gaze: A Canadian Compendium of Non-Fiction Women Authors and Their Books 1836-1945 By Anne Innis Dagg
- The Sweet Sixteen: The Journey That Inspired the Canadian Women’s Press Club By Linda Kay
- Fort Edmonton Park files
Special thanks to Heather Kerr who compiled extensive materials on Gertrude Balmer-Watt for Fort Edmonton Park.