On May 19, 1863, Mount Allison College held its first Convocation. Each year since then, this event has become as firmly fixed in the local calendar as the passage of the seasons. The actual date fluctuates within the month; and the size of the graduating class has grown upward, from single digits to the hundreds; yet its significance remains.
Although an element of predictability continues, it should not be overlooked that each convocation has its own distinctive characteristics. This certainly held true for the Mount Allison closing exeRCIses on May 25, 1875 — 125 years ago. For the very first time, a woman was listed among the graduates.
There is always a danger that we may be tempted to look at such past events through twenty first century eyes. History must be viewed through the prism of it’s own day. Certainly, in 1875, the idea of women graduating from university was considered by many as
The stage was set three years earlier, by James Robert Inch (1835–1912), principal of the Ladies Academy. In 1872, as a member of the College Board, Inch moved that
ladies having matriculated and completed the course of study prescribed… shall be entitled to receive the degrees in the arts and faculties upon the same condition as… imposed upon male students of the college.
The motion was carried and the way opened for the granting of degrees to women. Inch, who later became Mount Allison’s third president, was justifiably pleased with his success. He quickly staked the claim that
by this liberal policy, Mount Allison now leads all the seminaries in these provinces.
The first to qualify under the new regulation was Grace Annie Lockhart (1855–1916). A native of Saint John and daughter of Susan Whittiker and Edward Lockhart, she studied at the Ladies Academy, qualifying for a liberal arts diploma in 1874. However, it was her achievement of the degree, Bachelor of Science and English Literature, on May 25, 1875, that propelled her into the history books. Not only was this a
first for Canada; Lockhart became the first woman in the then British Empire (now Commonwealth), to receive a university degree.
At the time, the event did not receive much local attention. Even the Argosy was modest in its assessment:
We believe she is the first lady in these provinces to receive a college degree. There were reasons, bound up in the society of the day, for this low key approach. Let’s take a closer look.
In presenting this motion to the College Board, Inch was revealed as a good academic politician. Recognizing that there was
reluctance among some faculty members, his motion focussed on the academic side of the debate. As principal of the Ladies Academy, he knew that academically, many of his students were the equal of their male counterparts. If this was the case, and they passed the same examinations, why should they not be admitted to the same degrees?
Although the concept was approved by the Board in 1872, there remained an undercurrent of
doubt concerning the idea. Dr. John Reid, in his well researched history of Mount Allison points out that the position of the President Dr. David Allison was not entirely clear. Although he was on record as stating that
Education that differentiates between the sexes is wrong, he lacked Inch’s enthusiasm for the move. In fairness to Allison, Reid concludes that
although [Allison] believed that relatively few women would ever desire… to go to college, he gave
no support to those who might obstruct the plan.
In addition to looking at this question within the university, Inch and his supporters had to consider the wider audience of
those who might obstruct the plan. How would this move be viewed
beyond the small academic circle of Sackville? In common with academies and colleges both within Canada and abroad, Mount Allison was then governed by a strict moral code.
Significantly, the Mount Allison of that era was in reality, three separate, yet related institutions. The oldest was Mount Allison Wesleyan Male Academy dating from 1839. Next in line was the Mount Allison Wesleyan Female Academy — to be known later as the
Ladies College. Finally there was the newest creation, Mount Allison Wesleyan College. It was organized in July, 1862, in accordance with a charter approved by the New Brunswick legislature.
official title of all three included the word
Wesleyan, as befitted a Methodist foundation. It is then, not surprising to find scattered throughout the 1875 calendar, inferences that parents
need have no fear in sending their sons or daughters to any of the three institutions. The Mount Allison Wesleyan academies and college could always be counted upon to act in loco parentis —
in place of parents. Both the social and academic
requirements listed for prospective students were explicit. For those who did not concur with the strict moral code of the day,
expulsion would quickly follow. This was Victorian Canada.
Tho people who opposed, or were lukewarm to the idea of admitting women to degrees need not have worried. Seven years were to pass before another woman achieved similar status at Mount Allison. This was to be Harriet Starr Stewart (1862–1931), who graduated in 1882. She was the daughter of Dr. Charles Stewart and his wife Harriet Starr. It is worth noting that her father had seconded James Robert Inch’s historic motion ten years earlier. Harriet Starr Stewart also made history in her own right. She was the first woman in Canada to receive the degree, Bachelor of Arts.
One question remains. What happened to Mount Allison’s first woman graduate after May 25 1875? Details are sparse; however, we do know that she taught school for a time in her home city, Saint John. On June 23, 1881, she married a classmate, John L. Dawson (1851–1918), by this time an ordained Methodist minister. This marriage of two Allisonian classmates, began a tradition that undoubtedly will be repeated many times over, by members of the Class of 2000.
For the next 35 years, the Dawson’s served churches throughout the Maritimes; including a stint (1906–10) at Sackville Methodist (now United) Church. This was in keeping with the Methodist tradition, of moving to a new congregation, at approximately three year intervals.
These many moves did not interfere with the education of their three sons, all of whom were academic achievers. Following graduation from Mount Allison, Kenneth ’15 and Chesley Dawson ’24 found careers in science and engineering. The third son, Wilfred, was named a Rhodes Scholar and studied at Oxford, following graduation from Mount Allison in 1914. He later emigrated to the United States, finding his life’s work as a university professor. Grace Lockhart Dawson died in Charlottetown on May 18, 1916.
In the 125 years since that memorable convocation on May 25. 1875. Grace Lockhart Dawson has been honored many times. The centennial of her graduation was appropriately marked on Oct. 17, 1975. Special ceremonies were held at the fall convocation, when Dr. W. S. H. Crawford was installed as Mount Allison’s eighth president. On Sept. 25, 1993, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada unveiled a monument marking her achievement. It is located adjacent to the University Chapel.
The featured speaker at the unveiling was Mount Allison’s Chancellor, Margaret Norrie McCain, a trail blazer in her own right, as the the first woman to hold this post. She was later to add the distinction of being the first woman named lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick. In her speech the Chancellor summarized in one sentence, the legacy of Grace Lockhart Dawson:
She has become a symbol to all women… to be defined not by society, or societal forces… but according to their own capabilities. This journey, for the women of Canada and the Commonwealth, began on the Tantramar 125 years ago!