An Unrecognized Contribution

Women and Their Work in 19th-Century Toronto
Reviewed by Nelle Oosterom Posted September 19, 2023

This book tackles a familiar issue: the scarcity of historical references to women. As author Elizabeth Gillan Muir concludes in this case, one must piece together many sources, such as street directories, to figure out how the other half of the population of Toronto was contributing to nineteenth-century life.          

It turns out that they were doing a lot more than just rearing children and keeping house. Among other things, women owned businesses, invented things, taught school, provided medical services, wrote books, performed music, created art, preached sermons, and even served as spies.

In An Unrecognized Contribution, Muir references more than four hundred women, some well-known, some obscure. For instance, picture “Mrs. Rowan,” an 1894 toll keeper in Toronto, chasing after a scofflaw teamster in her early motor car. And there is Ruth Fellows Adams, a widow who invented a “reverse cooking stove.” In 1855 she became the first woman to obtain a patent in Canada. 

Margaret Bulkley also made her mark, but not as a woman. She took the name of her uncle James Miranda Barry, graduated from medical school in Scotland, and eventually supervised military hospitals in Canada, all the while posing as a smooth-faced man.

And let’s not forget the early telephone operators — almost all women — who frequently suffered electrical shocks that resulted in hospitalization, heart failure, and deafness.

This well-illustrated compendium of women who made an impact in their time will likely make you curious to learn more about them.

Help keep Canada’s stories strong (and free)

We hope you will help us continue to share fascinating stories about Canada’s past.


We highlight our nation’s diverse past by telling stories that illuminate the people, places, and events that unite us as Canadians, and by making those stories accessible to everyone through our free online content.


Canada’s History is a registered charity that depends on contributions from readers like you to share inspiring and informative stories with students and citizens of all ages — award-winning stories written by Canada’s top historians, authors, journalists, and history enthusiasts.


Any amount helps, or better yet, start a monthly donation today. Your support makes all the difference. Thank you! 

Buy this book at Chapters-Indigo

This article originally appeared in the October-November 2023 issue of Canada’s History.

Related to Books