Charlotte Whitton Papers
Charlotte Whitton was born on 8 March 1896 to John Edward Whitton and Elizabeth Langin in Renfrew, Ontario, Canada. John Whitton worked as a merchant and caterer to lumber companies in northern Canada and spent much of the year away from home. For much of Charlotte's childhood, she lived primarily with her mother, siblings, and paternal grandmother while her father was away. Called Lottie in her childhood, Charlotte was an exceptional student and graduated from Renfrew Collegiate Institute with honors before going on to Queen's University in 1914. Coming from a working class family and, particularly as a woman at that time, the fact that Charlotte went on to college was a remarkable achievement.
At Queen's, Whitton was a leader both academically and socially. She was the first woman appointed as editor of Queen's Journal, the student newspaper, and was also a leading player on the ice hockey team. She accomplished these things while carrying an extensive academic load. Whitton graduated from Queen's University in 1918 with an M.A. in English, History, and Philosophy. She received numerous honorary degrees, including one from Smith College in 1955.
Upon her graduation from Queen's University, Whitton took a job with the Social Service Council of Canada (SSCC) in Toronto. Her move to Toronto was important not just for her professional life, but because of the relationships she formed there. While working at the SSCC in 1918, Whitton met Margaret Grier, who worked with the juvenile court. Whitton formed an intense friendship with Grier, who would become her lifelong companion. Whitton left the SSCC and moved to Ottawa for a new job in 1922. She and Grier would live together until Grier's death in 1947.
After leaving the SSCC, Whitton took a job as private secretary to the liberal M.P. Thomas A. Law. Law was a Minister of Trade and Commerce and Whitton traveled with him as his secretary until 1926 when she took a post as the first full-time director of the Canadian Council of Child Welfare. Although generally socially conservative, this was one of Whitton's many acts to promote the welfare of women and children during her professional career. She worked with the council until 1941 when she resigned in order to do independent work related to social services organizations. During the 1940s, Whitton lectured, wrote, and consulted with various organizations. She studied adoption procedures in Alberta, treatment of delinquent girls in Ontario, and social services for all Canadian citizens. Her writings appeared in a number of newspapers and periodicals, and in 1943 she published a book called A Hundred Years A-Fellin' about the Ottawa Valley lumber industry.
In 1950 Whitton was elected City Controller of Ottawa, and became mayor in 1951 after the death of Mayor Grenville Goodwin, making her the first female mayor of a major Canadian city. (There had been one prior female mayor in a small city.) She proceeded to win the 1952 election in her own right, and served as mayor until 1956, when she made an unsuccessful run for Parliament as a Progressive Conservative candidate. After that loss, Whitton again ran for mayor, winning the 1960 and 1962 elections.
Whitton's tenure as Mayor of Ottawa was marked by her fiery and pugnacious personality. Once referred to in a newspaper article as "the only active volcano in Eastern Canada," She frequently engaged in verbal battle with political enemies, as well as one widely remarked upon physical encounter with a male political antagonist. Much loved as Mayor, some said that people in other provinces couldn't tell you who their political leaders were, but they could tell you what Whitton had said at council last week.
One of the most noted events of Whitton's mayoral career was Queen Elizabeth's visit to Ottawa in 1964. Visiting Quebec the day before, the Queen had been jeered by political separatists, but she received a warm welcome from Mayor Whitton as well as the citizens and school children of Ottawa.
After her defeat in the 1964 election, many of Whitton's political opponents thought they were free of her. However, she began writing a popularly syndicated newspaper column and hosting a television talk show, Dear Charlotte, which ran from 1965 to 1966. Through these forums she offered advice and political commentary, and instead of disappearing from the public eye, became even more widely known. In 1966 Whitton returned to the political life, running for and winning a position as alderman for Capital Ward, which she held until her retirement in 1972.
Whitton died on 25 January 1975 and was buried next to Margaret Grier in Renfrew, Ontario. Even after her death, Whitton's particular brand of political leadership and feminism would continue to be examined. In 1987 P.T. Brooke and R.L. Schnell published a biography of Charlotte Whitton, entitled No Bleeding Heart: Charlotte Whitton a Feminist on the Right.