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Fierce: The Secret Life of Miss Freeman

An excerpt from new book Fierce: Women Who Shaped Canada

Book Cover Fierce

Fierce: Women Who Shaped Canada, written by Lisa Dalrymple with illustrations by Willow Dawson, is a collection of fascinating biographical stories about ten women who've shaped the story of Canada. "Often relegated to the sidelines of history, the women highlighted in this book were performed feats that most people would never even dream of. You may not know their names now, but after reading their stories, you won’t soon forget them." This book is geared toward middle-grade readers, but readers of all ages will find much to discover in its pages. 

We're excited to share an excerpt from the story of Alice Freeman, the Toronto school teacher who led a double life...


Alice Freeman

February 1888 Toronto, Ontario

Though the students at Ryerson School loved Miss Freeman, none of them knew her secret. At the end of the day, when they went home to their chores and their beds, she became Faith Fenton, investigative reporter for the Empire newspaper in Toronto, Ontario. She spent her nights doing things that surely no teacher would do—like interviewing famous actresses or visiting jails and homeless shelters, before walking home alone down dark city streets in the early hours of the morning. By the time her students arrived back at school, Miss Freeman was standing by her blackboard and the children had no idea where she had been only hours before.

Leading this kind of double life was not easy for a woman in the 1880s. No lady—and certainly no schoolteacher—would look directly at a man and ask probing questions or dare to form her own opinion. This was a time of rigid rules and restrictions. Women were expected to behave modestly. At teacher-training school, female students were not even allowed to speak to the male students, and when they graduated they earned less than $300 a year—not even half of what a male teacher made.

If the Toronto school board were to hear that one of their women teachers had been walking the streets alone at night, she would be fired. But “Faith Fenton” was not one to keep quiet when she felt that women had no more freedom than five-year-old children, and Alice Freeman was used to doing things alone.

Growing up in a house full of children, Alice stood out in her family—the girl who was not “girly” or “pretty,” the child with no musical talent, the one who was always off on her own thinking and writing.

When she was ten, her family moved from Bowmanville, Ontario to Barrie, Ontario. Then one day Alice’s parents took her to Toronto, put her on a steamer, and shipped her back to Bowmanville to live with a childless couple, Reverend Reikie and his wife. Perhaps the Freemans felt that they were unable to provide for their many children—eventually there were twelve of them. Maybe Mrs. Freeman wanted to give Alice, her smart and literary daughter, access to the best education possible. Alice’s older sister was already missing more and more school to stay home and help with the babies. Mrs. Reikie had the resources and the connections to offer Alice a formal education and to teach her the things she would need to know to succeed in society.

Still, Alice always remembered the day her parents left her at the Toronto pier—how she swallowed her fear as she walked onto the Royal Mail Line steamer, and how once her parents were out of sight, she lay down on a pile of life preservers and cried.

Now, on a cold day in February 1888, as Alice walked past dilapidated wood-framed cottages in Toronto’s poorest quarter, her heart pounded. For two years she had been writing articles for the Northern Advance, a small paper in Barrie. But today she was looking for a story for her second column in the Toronto Empire, the newspaper founded by Sir John A. Macdonald himself.

Of course the respectable Miss Freeman of Ryerson could not be a newspaper reporter, exposed to details of heinous crimes, gritty political discussions and pressrooms full of men using foul language. So Alice had created “Faith Fenton,” a pen name that was unapologetically female. “Faith” would become a voice for the country’s impoverished people. She called them “the submerged tenth” of society as they were seemingly invisible, their concerns often overlooked or ignored by the more affluent.

Alice had heard that on Terauley Street there was a crèche, a place where mothers could leave their children while they went out to earn a few cents. In 1880s Toronto, it was believed that only the poorest, most unfortunate women would resort to such drastic measures, and many viewed the institutions that served them as disreputable. The plight of the poor needed attention and charity, but for the upper classes to respond, a call to action would have to be presented with the proper respectability.

At 260 Terauley, Alice found the matron sitting beside a cradle. As she stood up, the woman pried the fingers of a clinging four-year-old from her dress. She told the reporter that they often cared for between 20 and 30 children per week. Alice pulled out her writing pad and took notes. The crèche was open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and admitted children from infants to age seven.

Image Alice Freeman Fierce

From everything she had heard, Alice had her angle. She knew how to awaken the sympathies of her readers. She would describe her visit in sweeping detail, her style like that of Charles Dickens, a writer whom Victorian readers loved. Alice chose her words carefully. Begging was too crass to appeal to the upper crust of Toronto society. Instead she offered her readers a sense of the warmth that would come from their generosity. She wrote that she had reassured the matron that the people of Toronto were loving enough “to fill these small rooms to overflowing with all that is necessary.”

Within the week, Alice saw readers responding. She was inspired to devote future columns to orphanages, homes for elderly women and Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. Two weeks after Alice’s visit to a homeless women’s shelter, she received a letter of thanks saying that the shelter had received donations of money and food, and even the offer of medical care from one of the city’s doctors. Alice’s column, intended to serve as a part of the paper’s “Woman’s Pages,” was eliciting a response from both men and women.

Alice dedicated articles to issues of child abuse and the wage gap between male and female employees. She addressed discrimination against women that ranged from unfair hiring practices to the lack of public women’s restrooms, which made it difficult for a woman to go far from her home, especially with her children. She was disgusted by sexual harassment on Toronto streets, particularly when it was perpetrated by well-dressed, middle-aged men whom she called “vultures.”

Fierce Alice Freeman

As reporter Faith Fenton’s reputation grew so did Alice’s access to politicians, entertainers and great speakers. She met Susan B. Anthony, leader of the American women’s suffrage movement, which eventually won the right for women to vote; Emily Stowe, the first practising female doctor in Canada; and Lady Aberdeen, the founder and president of the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC). To many, those who argued for women’s equality were considered pushy and shrill—and therefore unwomanly—which alienated some women who might otherwise be supporters. So Alice cloaked her arguments in language that allowed her readers to sympathize while retaining their own womanliness and respectability.

While Alice advocated for the rights of all women during her years at the Toronto Empire, she remained particularly concerned about poor women, who were doubly downtrodden, since there were few respectable ways for women to make money.

In January 1895, Alice decided to investigate the House of Industry, a place where women could work in exchange for a meal and a bed. But by then “Faith Fenton” had already visited—and exposed—many of the less reputable institutions in the city. She could not just show up at the door. She needed a disguise.

One night, shivering in a patched overcoat, an old sweater and a frayed black skirt, she pushed open the door to that sombre building and identified herself as Mary Smith from Hamilton. The two men in the office did not look happy.

“Hamilton should look after its own poor,” one grumbled.

He led her to the elderly caretaker, Mrs. Goberly, who muttered that it was past nine o’clock and the shelter was closed. She ushered Alice into a lavatory.

“Get yer things off, an’ take yer bath,” Mrs. Goberly commanded, arms crossed and watching her.

Alice was shocked. When she had toured the Jarvis Street Mission, she had been told that the men were only forced to bathe if they were especially dirty.

“But I don’t need a bath,” pleaded Alice.

Mrs. Goberly would not be moved. “Need it or not, you’ve got to have it!”

She stood on guard while Alice removed her clothes and supervised while she took her bath.

Suffering from a cold, Alice was chilled and coughing by the time she stepped out of the water. When the caretaker handed her a nightdress, she took pity and gave back Alice’s sweater and stockings too. Mrs. Goberly led Alice upstairs to the women’s sleeping quarters. As she opened the door, a wave of hot, fetid air rushed out. Alice thought about leaving while she could, but if she walked out now she would never get the full story.

Six women were resting on camp beds and Alice took the seventh. It was wrapped in a dark blanket with a straw pillow at the head. Mrs. Goberly handed her two covers she swore were “never used afore” and then she left, shutting the door behind her. Alice lay in darkness, listening to a woman sobbing. Others were restless, tossing and muttering. In her head, the reporter began composing her story, referring to herself as “the woman.” Her description of what happened to her next was horrifying…

From Fierce: Women Who Shaped Canada. Text copyright © 2019 by Lisa Dalrymple. Illustrations by Willow Dawson copyright © 2019 by Scholastic Canada Ltd. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.


Book Cover Fierce

About Fierce: Women who Shaped Canada

Discover the untold stories of the fierce women who shaped Canada's legacy!

Celebrate the accomplishments and heroics of the overlooked heroes of Canadian history, with inspiring tales of ten women who were integral to our national legacy, and whose stories have not been told . . . until now!

Often relegated to the sidelines of history, the women highlighted in this book were performed feats that most people would never even dream of. You may not know their names now, but after reading their stories, you won’t soon forget them.

It’s time to hear the stories of Marguerite de la Roque, Ttha’naltther, Catherine Schubert, Charlotte Small, Alice Freeman (AKA Faith Fenton), Lucile Hunter, Ada Annie Jordan (AKA Cougar Annie), Victoria Cheung, Mona Parsons, and Joan Bamford Fletcher!

Author Lisa Dalrymple’s riveting writing, combined with rigorous research, makes Fierce: Women Who Shaped Canada as eye-opening as it is thrilling to read!

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