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This Galway woman became the first accredited female war correspondent

Galway woman Kit Coleman managed to be both a traditional domestic wife and mother and the first accredited female war correspondent.

Ella Hassett

This is the second instalment of NWCI’s “Sharing Stories of Women in History.”

Being a proud Galway woman, I feel obliged to feature a remarkable woman from my home county. So this week, we will focus on the feisty, outspoken journalist Kit Coleman who is recognised as a key figure in the history of Canadian journalism.

Kit Coleman (1864 – 1915) Journalist, war correspondent

Kit Coleman was a newspaper journalist hailed as the first accredited female war correspondent. She managed to be both a traditional domestic wife and mother and an economically independent working woman; she is remembered for being the first female syndicated columnist in Canadian journalism and the first president of the Canadian Women’s Press Club.

On 20 Feb 1864, Kit Coleman was born Catherine Ferguson in Castleblakeney, Co Galway. Her father provided an education for her, first at Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, Dublin and then at a finishing school in Belgium. One of the biggest influences on her was her uncle, a Dominican priest called Fr Thomas Burke. He preached social and religious tolerance, unusual for a clergyman at this time. His impact on her at a young age helped to shape her journalistic style and interests.

A difficult start

Coleman had a difficult start in life, with an arranged marriage to an elderly farmer named Thomas Willis. Their only daughter died at the age of two and when Willis himself passed away, Coleman was left out of his will.

In 1884, after several difficult years alone, she emigrated to Canada and within the year she had married Edward Watkins. Yet again, this proved an unhappy union, as Watkins was an alcoholic philanderer and a rumoured bigamist. The couple separated in 1889 leaving Coleman alone with two young children, a son Thady and daughter Patsy.

From this difficult situation came an urgent need to support her family financially. In October 1889 she took over “Woman’s Kingdom” in the Toronto Daily Mail, a column dedicated to typical women’s issues at the time, cleaning tips, recipes, fashion, etc.

Kit’s Kingdom

Coleman wrote as ‘Kit’, a way to interact with readers while remaining anonymous and the column eventually became known as “Kit’s Kingdom”. In this way she was a dichotomy, with both a public and private persona. Kit was the independent and strident journalist; Coleman was the single working mother.

Because she was the sole breadwinner, she could not afford to be too outspoken for fear of losing her job. However, her feisty nature ensured that she challenged her employers and gave women a chance to read about subjects such as politics, religion, science and business. In a 1892 column, Coleman wrote “I detest fashion and think it is paying us women a poor compliment to imagine we cannot take an interest in the highest and very deepest challenges of the day”. She once wrote a piece about the building of a canal in Chicago, purely to prove that women could be interested in architecture, just like men.

Interestingly, she advocated equal pay for women in 1891 but shied away from supporting the right to vote, until she commented in 1910 “I shall welcome it for women, but I am not a suffragist. I most thoroughly admire the Canadian women who are earnest in the movement, but it does not attract me personally – a small matter, my friend, and one wholly personal”. Perhaps she did not want to put her career in danger by actively participating?

In 1892, Coleman became a travel writer, covering several important historical events, such as the Chicago World Fair in 1893 and Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Her undercover work visiting poor parts of London and San Francisco, while dressed as a man, documented social conditions at the time. Within these articles she displayed intense social concern for the poverty she encountered, an interest introduced to her by her uncle.

The first accredited female war correspondent 

In 1898, the Spanish-American conflict in Cuba dominated headlines. It was unusual – but not unheard of – for women journalists to cover war at this time, although their work was seen as supplemental to male journalists. While Coleman was the first to receive her papers making her the world’s first accredited female war correspondent, two other female journalists were also active in Cuba, Anna Benjamin of Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly and Mrs Trumbull-White of the Chicago Record.

The 1890s were known for being a time of “stunt” journalism, where journalists were sent on exciting expeditions in order to bring back interesting observations and stories. Coleman’s foray into war was not a commitment to gender equality in journalism but a project designed to increase readership.

Her attempts to enter the country with soldiers were consistently blocked by General R.A. Alger, the US Secretary of War. She eventually made it to Cuba, despite arriving after active combat had ceased. Because she was not under the same deadlines as male correspondents, who vied to deliver the breaking news as it happened, Coleman could take time to write exactly what she wanted. Her writings from this time are evocative, emotive and full of pain, as she writes “One is beginning to realise what war means, and I tell you it is poor and squalid and a bit heartbreaking”.

She received praise for her work at the time and was invited to speak at the International Press Union of Women Journalists at Washington in 1898. While in Washington, she married her third husband, a doctor called Theobald Coleman.

Establishing the Canadian Women’s Press Club

After the marriage, Coleman continued to work both in Canada and abroad. In 1904, she helped to establish the Canadian Women’s Press Club, an act fuelled by the resentment shown towards her by male journalists during her Cuban adventure. The club grew rapidly, holding its own conference in 1906 in Winnipeg and it made such an impression (helped along by Coleman’s scolding words) that the women were invited to the Canadian Press Association’s convention in Toronto in 1910, a once all-male affair.

In 1911, after a period of unhappiness at the Mail and Empire (formerly the Toronto Daily Mail) Coleman’s column was discontinued suddenly and she was forced into freelance work selling her syndicated columns to other papers. In these final few years of her life, she became much more outspoken, particularly in religious matters. Coleman contracted pneumonia in May 1915 and died soon after.

Today, we remember Kit Coleman for her unwavering courage to discuss topics deemed unsuitable for women, her willingness to travel abroad to document dangerous and unjust situations and for making a name for herself among her contemporaries, both male and female.

Ella Hassett is a part time library assistant in Trinity College, Dublin, with a master’s in public history and cultural heritage, who devotes much of her time researching remarkable women in Irish history.

This post first appeared on the National Women’s Council of Ireland website and is reproduced here with permission. 

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Ella Hassett

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