Margaret Charlotte Fisher Mahood (1918-2013): Musings on a Feminist Foremother

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63676741_fc78976f47I was reading the obituary column in the Globe and Mail recently (17 May 2013) and noticed a fulsome account of the life of Dr. Margaret Mahood, a name I did not know, even though she had been involved in feminist and progressive causes most of her long life. Born at the end of World War I in Saskatchewan, just at the moment when most women obtained the vote in federal elections, she, like many other ambitious young women who needed to earn a living, became a teacher in small town Saskatchewan where she met and later married Ed Mahood. With two small children to care for and a supportive husband, she studied medicine at the University of Saskatchewan and McGill University, one of very few women in the graduating class of 1955. While women practitioners had been fighting for a place in Canadian medical schools since the 1870s (Strong-Boag; Warsh), a woman doctor and one who specialized (in psychiatry) was highly unusual in the 1950s.

When Margaret and Ed returned to Saskatchewan, they became involved in the battle for Medicare in Saskatchewan, a sure sign of their progressive politics. The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation government had passed the Medical Care Insurance Act in 1961 which provided a universal and compulsory health insurance system, administered by the newly-created Medical Care Insurance Commission. Most doctors in the province, led by the College of Physicians and Surgeons which refused to send representatives to the Commission, opposed the new system. In July 1962 most physicians, with the exception of a skeletal staff in the major hospitals, went on strike. Dr. Mahood was one of the minority who did not participate; instead she helped organize a community clinic in Saskatoon that still exists today (Rands). There, according to the obituary, she “helped establish a group of progressive physicians from far and wide…”. As oral testimony and the historical narratives tell us, many of these doctors came from England where doctors practiced under the National Health Service system, a state-based health insurance plan. Those participating in the community clinics were often labelled as “communists”, a label that persisted into at least the 1970s, as Dr. John Bury, an English doctor who emigrated to Saskatchewan in 1963 to join the Saskatoon Community Clinic, made clear (Bury). In the era of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union, state funding of health insurance was highly suspect in more reactionary circles.

Margaret was part of a small band of progressive Canadian physicians who challenged such orthodoxy. In contrast, as the obituary proudly notes, she “emphasized the community, cultural and social determinants of health in general, and mental health in particular.”. Her activism was not restricted to the province. A strong supporter of women’s rights and reproductive choice, she participated in the Abortion Caravan of 1970 (Rebick). The Caravan began in Vancouver and travelled to Ottawa to protest a 1969 abortion law passed by Parliament. While it legalized abortion, the law limited the procedure to accredited hospitals where a therapeutic abortion committee of four doctors had to agree that the woman’s health was in danger. Often women turned to psychiatrists like Margaret Mahood for help. It took long years of trials and protests before abortion was removed from the Criminal Code in 1988.

Margaret had many and varied interests—art, opera, travel, to name a few and was hailed as a woman of strong opinions, “engaging, intellectually curious, and formidable.” a “woman of her time, and of our time, right to the end.” At her death, admirers were directed to her many political causes, including Canadian Physicians for Medicare, community clinics, peace and justice in the Middle East, Palestinian refugees and the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. While I did not have the pleasure of her acquaintance, Margaret and her progressive feminism provide a role model and an inspiration for women young and old. Her obituary offers an important reminder of Canada’s history of feminist activists, a story that began in the 19th century and that continues today in movements such as Idle No More .

Resources:

Bury, John D., “A Physician on the Front Line of Medicare,” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, v. 26, no. 2, (2009), 534-38.

“Margaret Charlotte Mahood,” Globe and Mail (17 May 2013).

Rands, Stan. Privilege and Policy: A History of Community Clinics in Saskatchewan. Saskatoon: Community Health Cooperative Federation. 1994.

Rebick, Judy. “The Women Are Coming: The Abortion Caravan” in Gender and Women’s Studies in Canada: Critical Terrain, eds. Margaret Hobbs and Carla Rice. Toronto: Women’s Press, 2013. 464-72.

Strong-Boag, Veronica. “Canada’s Women Doctors: Feminism Constrained” in L. Kealey, ed., A Not Unreasonable Claim: Women and Reform in Canada, 1880s-1920s. Toronto: the Women’s Press, 1979. 109-29.

Warsh, Cheryl Krasnick. Prescribed Norms: Women and Health in Canada and the United States since 1800. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.

Kealey, Linda

Kealey, Linda

Dr. Linda Kealey (North American/Canadian Women’s History, Canadian Social and Health History) holds her doctorate from the University of Toronto. She is the author of Enlisting Women for the Cause: Women, Labour and the Left in Canada, 1890-1920 (1998); and editor or co-editor of Pursuing Equality: Historical Perspectives on Women in Newfoundland and Labrador (1993, 1999), Beyond the Vote: Canadian Women and Politics (1989), and A Not Unreasonable Claim: Women and Reform in Canada, 1880s-1920s (1979). She has published numerous articles and book chapters, most recently on the history of nursing in New Brunswick. She has extensive editorial experience as a co-editor of the Canadian Historical Review and Atlantis. In 2011 she served as the Academic Convenor of Congress 2011, the annual meeting of the humanities and social science disciplines in Canada. In 2012 she retired after 32 years of teaching, most recently at the University of New Brunswick.