YWCA honours great women of Quebec City’s past and present

Eileen Marcil.jpg
Photo: Scott French

Historian Eileen Reid Marcil (pictured) was one of 400 women honoured at the YWCA’s Empreintes d’Elles ceremony.

In the shadow of Quebec City’s great men, many great women have worked, too. The YWCA’s final edition of the Empreintes d’Elles cocktail series, held last Wednesday at the Musée de Civilization, honoured 400 women from the past and present who played integral roles in shaping the city.

“These women, often in discreet ways, influenced history, even if it meant influencing the men around them, since women were often relegated to the private sphere,” said YWCA Executive Director Ginette Defoy.

At least 60 women from the English-speaking community were honoured as well. The names ranged from Marie Ann Davis, who in the 18th century became the city’s first English-speaking Ursuline nun, to Mary Gibbens, founder of the YWCA. Contemporary honourees included – among others – Irish heritage historian Marianna O’Gallagher, The Anglos author Louisa Blair and former QCT publisher Karen MacDonald.

Author and Charlesbourg native Eileen Reid Marcil was delighted to be honoured at the ceremony. “The reason I’m happy is because my work on shipbuilding in the 19th and 20th century is something nobody knows about. I consider this honour a tribute to the shipbuilders.”

In 1987, at the age of 65, Marcil submitted Charley Man: The History of Wooden Shipbuilding in Quebec, 1763-1893 as her PhD thesis to Université Laval.

Given the roles women were expected to perform as mothers at home, Marcil hadn’t even earned a bachelor’s in history by that time. “A book I had written previously, Les tonneliers du Québec, was credited as a master’s degree,” she explained.

Marie-Ginette Guay, the artistic director at Théâtre Periscope, who was also honoured, thought the ceremony was important to acknowledge the early efforts of women like Marcil, “who had to prove they were worth more than just what they did in the kitchen.”

A group of volunteer local historians spent almost a year collecting names and gathering backgrounds of the city’s great women. Historian Lorraine O’Donnell was sought out by the YWCA for her connections to the English community.

O’Donell said the group sometimes found it difficult finding information about the city’s women. “When you do women’s history you are confronted by problems of sources. Written documents often represent one group more than others. Men in power is the traditional group written about most,” she explained.

O’Donnell used a variety of sources to collect information, everything from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography to Blair’s The Anglos to oral histories. “We understand the symbolic nature of our work. It was an exercise in the recognition of women in history.”

A permanent recognition of women’s contributions to the city’s history is in the works at city hall, according to Defoy. Mayor Régis Labeaume has pledged to acknowledge the mark women have left on Quebec City. The mayor will make an announcement in early 2009, Defoy said.