By David Town, Historian and Guest Contributor

Harriett Todd, image provided by David Town

Few people have had a greater influence on Orillia than Harriett Todd.  Most of us only recognize her name because a school has been named after her in Orillia, but 100 years ago she was a dominant force here advocating for women’s rights.

In the male-dominated world of the early 1900s, “Hattie” Todd eagerly joined the new East Simcoe Women’s Institute (WI), an organization formed to “improve the lives of rural women.”  Soon she was President of the Institute and advocating for temperance, school vaccinations, first aid training, women’s voting rights, scholarships for farm girls and support programs for rural women – any initiative that could benefit the lives of women. 

A dynamic organizer, she reached out to the 742 other rural Women’s Institutes across Ontario and became the President of the new provincial WI association she championed.  Then, she reached out to WIs across Canada and became President of that new national WI organization, again being the impetus behind its creation. 

Even in her final years of ill health in the late 1920s, she was instrumental in the creation of a Commonwealth WI organization, uniting women in South Africa, Australia and England as well as Canada in the fight for their rights and a better life.  It was all a remarkable achievement, commemorated by the Ontario and Orillia WIs with Honourary Lifetime Presidencies for Harriett Todd.

But it was in Orillia that she really left her mark.  She was the first woman elected to any public office here when she was voted onto the School Board in 1919.  She stayed on the Board until her death in 1933, passionately advocating for school health programs, equal pay for female teachers, adult education and other social justice programs.  Her influence was so strong that 30 years after her death a new school was named in her honour.

Public health was another of her passions.  In an era when child mortality was still very high due to recurrent disease epidemics (measles, Spanish flu, smallpox, diphtheria, mumps, etc.), she aggressively lobbied the provincial government for vaccination programs, making her responsible for Orillia leading the way in vaccinations and reduced childhood deaths. 

Through her positions on the School Board and the Women’s Institute she became a familiar voice at Town Council and at Queen’s Park, demanding school nurses, clean drinking water, school lunch programs, and more, all programs to defeat childhood disease (and make women’s lives easier).

“She wielded a facile and pungent pen for causes of public interest,” remarked the Packet upon her death, regarding her many vitriolic letters-to-the-editor.  When she was campaigning for a cause, she was a formidable force.  

Her passions always revolved around improving the lives of women because she had experienced the era when women in Orillia were afraid.  She came to Orillia as a 16-year-old in the 1870s, when Orillia was a wild, frontier town full of boisterous shanty men (lumbermen) who made it a dangerous place to be a young, upright woman. Men out-numbered women ten-to-one.  She fought for temperance to rescue women from their drunken husbands.  She fought for mother’s allowances and university extension courses in rural areas to give women their independence.  She helped create the Women’s Canadian Club, which brought prominent speakers to Orillia on women’s issues to empower women.  She worked for the Child Welfare Association, successfully campaigning for both a school nurse and a public health nurse for Orillia to reduce disease and help women raise their families. 

During WWI she energetically fund-raised for the Red Cross and led her Women’s Institute to donate an ambulance and two field hospitals for Simcoe County’s two battalions fighting in France.

Harriet Todd was lucky to have the time and wherewithal to immerse herself in all these time-consuming community campaigns.  She had given up her trail-blazing position as Orillia’s first female high school teacher to marry young to a much older man who, when she was just in her 40s, died and left her financially secure.  She did not waste her new opportunity in life, devoting herself to bettering her community.  And rarely was she just a participant in any group, leadership was her talent.  Orillia is still benefitting from the remarkable work she did a century ago.