Robertine Barry opened doors for female journalists

By Jesse Robitaille

This is the fourth story in a multi-part series highlighting the shortlist of nominees for Canada’s new $5 banknote.

Robertine Barry, an early feminist who became the first female French-Canadian journalist despite widespread backlash from her counterparts, may see her colourful literary legacy championed on the face of Canada’s new $5 bill.

Born in 1863 in L’Isle-Verte, Qué., about 200 kilometres northeast of Québec City, Barry developed keen writing senses at a young age. The ninth of 13 children, she enjoyed a privileged upbringing with “a wealth of books and music,” according to Merna Forster’s 2011 book, 100 More Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces.

“Unlike many children at the time, she received the best education available despite frequent visits to the Mother Superior for bad behaviour,” wrote Forster, who added Barry “loved to learn but felt stifled in the strict convent schools she attended.”

An interest in journalism followed her schooling with the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Trois-Pistoles, Qué., and then the Ursulines, a Roman Catholic female religious order, in Québec City. In the last two years of her studies, she wrote six pieces for her school newspaper L’Écho du cloître (The Cloister Echo in English, referencing the ornate covered walkways in convents, monasteries and cathedrals). Upon graduating in 1882, she was “thrilled to regain her freedom,” according to Forster, and eager to pursue a career in the male-dominated profession of journalism.

“I am not among those who consider marriage as the goal to which must be devoted a lifetime of noble efforts,” Barry is quoted as saying in the article, “Robertine Barry: la rebelle,” in La Gazette des femmes, a feminist magazine.

After her fiancé showed a lack of support toward her literary goals, Barry called off her engagement plans and began pitching stories to several publishers, wrote Sergine Desjardins, an award-winning author who received the Jovette Bernier Prize for her 2010 biography, Robertine Barry: On l’appelait Monsieur.

The year Barry graduated, the Globe (now the Globe & Mail) became the first newspaper to include a women’s page with a section edited by Kathleen Coleman, an Irish-born writer living in Hamilton, Ont. Coleman was the first female journalist in Canada charged with managing her own section of a newspaper. At about the same time, other newspapers, including the Montréal Herald, began publishing content directed towards women.

As Barry pitched stories through the 1880s and early 1890s, she was determined to join the ranks of Canada’s few female journalists but mostly encountered rejection.

“While awaiting a more favourable response from other publishers, she suggested to her sister Évelyne that they write a novel together, but Évelyne chose to become a nun instead,” Desjardins wrote for the Canadian Encyclopedia. “Robertine, on her parents’ advice, began teaching music at a convent in Halifax to see whether she wanted to enter holy orders too. But that proved not to be the case, and she returned to Trois-Pistoles.”

Inspired by early French journalist Caroline Rémy de Guebhard (known by her literary pseudonym Séverine), Barry persevered through many years of repeated attempts to convince an editor to publish her stories.

Finally, on April 30, 1891 – nine years after graduating – her first published piece highlighted the importance of education for young women on the cover of La Patrie, a radical newspaper edited by Honoré Beaugrand in Montréal. Writing under her literary pseudonym Françoise, she suggested radical education reforms to remove the Catholic Church’s control for schools. In both her writing and perseverance, she “showed remarkable courage as her first major piece challenged the majority of Quebec’s popular, including the powerful clergy, ultramontanes and anti-feminists,” Forster wrote in her 2011 book.

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