What made Coleman so notable? First of all, there were few women employed by newspapers at the time. The 1901 Canadian census recorded only 50 female journalists in a country with a population of 5 million. Most worked on the “women’s pages,” consisting of household hints, fashion tips, and society gossip. But Coleman also wrote about politics, religion, and social justice issues in an era when it was assumed women took no concern in such things: “I think it is paying us women a poor compliment to imagine we cannot take an interest in the highest and very deepest challenges of the day,” Coleman wrote in an 1892 column.
As the author of the column, the Woman’s Kingdom, she was one of the few women columnists whose work was read by men, and kept up a game amongst her readers to guess her sex as she flitted between traditionally masculine and feminine topics.
Barbara Freeman, author of Kit’s Kingdom: The Journalism of Kathleen Blake Coleman, wrote: “She juggled the androgynous and womanly aspects of her character to invent an intriguing public persona designed to draw readers of both sexes.” Despite being best known for covering the Spanish-American War as the world’s first accredited female war correspondent, Coleman thought war was a terrible thing and “devoted many angry, sad, and blunt words to its evils.”
Kit was really Kathleen Blake Watkins, a single mother of two. She was born Catherine Ferguson in Castleblakeney, Ireland, in 1856, to an educated family. Young Kathleen attended a Catholic school in Dublin and then a finishing school in Belgium. Her interest in social–justice issues was sparked at a young age by her uncle, Thomas Burke, an unusually outspoken and liberal Catholic priest.
When Kathleen was 20, her parents set up an arranged marriage to a man 40 years older. It was a loveless, unhappy union. They lost their young daughter, and upon her husband’s death his family disinherited Kathleen.
In 1884, at the age of 28, Kathleen left for Canada on her own. “She…had a stately air around her and acquaintances were often struck by her intelligence, her warmth, and the musical quality of her accent. They also noticed a quiet melancholia, which never seemed to leave her,” wrote Freeman. Kathleen was well-educated in the classics and music, and also spoke French and Spanish, which would help her in reporting on the Spanish-American War from Cuba.
In Canada, she married again to Thomas Watkins. They moved to Winnipeg and had two children. Watkins turned out to be an alcoholic and serial philanderer. He was rumoured to still be married to a woman in England, so Kathleen left him and took the children to Toronto. Family stories have it that Watkins had been the love of her life. In Toronto, Coleman began freelance writing to support her family, first for Saturday Night magazine, and then The Toronto Mail.
Kit was a carefully crafted persona, claiming to be a descendant of a deposed Irish king and living with a dear friend called Theodocia. She “created a kind of a fantasy background that would be very much admired. She admired it, too. I mean, it’s a persona that’s a bit out there,” says Marjory Lang, author of Women Who Made the News: Female Journalists in Canada 1880-1945. “The notion of coming from this faintly gentry, genteel background in Ireland. That’s part of the fairy-tale kingdom that she created.”
Coleman was outspoken about women’s issues. She fervently believed that women should be able to work if they wanted to, and be paid equally to men. The average male journalist in Toronto at the time made about $35 to $50 a week—Coleman’s salary was estimated at between $20 a month (supplemented by cleaning houses on the side) and $25 to $35 a week at various points of her career.
The plight of the poor was a frequent topic. She advocated for better working conditions, especially for women, such as better pay, fair treatment, and proper breaks. Coleman wrote of being appalled at the low wages and long hours that factory girls endured, trying to draw readers’ sympathy with descriptions like this Dickensian portrait of a “working-girl”: “A slight lame girl in a shabby black gown was toiling wearily up the long staircase after her day’s work was done. Her face was pallid with that grey look upon it that comes from confinement, want of proper rest, and lack of bathing. As she limped past on her way to her room in the roof, one could see what a frail, delicate little creature she was.”
Coleman often disguised herself as a man or a poor woman. Her travels included trips to London, California, Ireland, and the West Indies. This was remarkable and shocking in an era when many women had not been more than a few miles from home, and it was scandalous for women to travel without a male companion. In one series of articles from London, she followed in the footsteps of mid-19th century author Charles Dickens, wandering through seedy neighbourhoods, writing lurid descriptions of visits to “all sorts of queer places, thieves’ kitchens, tramps’ shelters, midnight markets…and other savory spots.”
Journalism in Canada was at a crossroads in the 1880s and ’90s, as Kit Coleman was making her breakthrough. The newspaper industry was moving “from a strictly political press into a more mass press depending on advertising,” says Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star. “This was the beginnings of the business model that we now see has been decimated, building an audience that you could sell to advertisers.” Newspapers quickly discovered the marketing potential of ads targeted towards women, placed in a section in the paper specifically designed to appeal to women.
The stunt journalism of sending women reporters into environments women did not commonly enter was a common technique for papers at the time—used to attract the attention of readers, though frowned upon by more respectable publications. Coleman’s Cuba trip was an example. Sending women into such places was considered “almost offensive, very edgy” and caused a sensation, Freeman says.
Coleman went to London in 1897 to report on Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Her descriptions of the pomp and pageantry, the stately queen, and the processions and military ceremonies appealed strongly to The Mail and Empire’s mostly pro-monarchy readership. On one occasion, she rode in a carriage with then-Canadian prime minister Wilfrid Laurier. A month later, Laurier invited Coleman to accompany him and his wife to watch the Prince of Wales present medals to colonial troops.
Coleman is best known today for going to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War in 1898. Once there, she reported on the human cost and aftermath of the war, the effects on both the local civilian population and the soldiers who fought, and the conditions they were then living under.
On the way back from Cuba, she married her third husband, Dr. Theobald Coleman, in Washington, D.C. “She seemed to be content with him,” says Freeman. “I think his protection was important to her. I think she needed a safe harbour after some very stormy years.”
In covering such a wide range of topics, Coleman often faced opposition from her editors, but stood up for herself and fought for the right to write what she wanted. When she started at the Mail, it was a fairly liberal paper, but became much more conservative when it merged with the Empire. After the merger, her editors told her to write a more traditional women’s page, sticking to recipes and fashion. She asked her readers what they wanted, and was flooded with letters imploring her to keep doing what she had been doing, which she then proceeded to dump on her editor’s desk. The episode is depicted in a clip from CBC’s Canada: The Story of Us series. But despite that victory, Coleman’s relationship with the Mail and Empire had deteriorated after years of disputes over editorial freedom, and she quit in 1910 after being denied a raise. Coleman started syndicating “Kit’s Column” to newspapers across Canada, charging $5 per article, more than she ever made at the Mail and Empire. She refused to let her former employer print it.
Kit Coleman died of pneumonia in 1915, at the age of 59, leaving her husband heartbroken. Her obituary in The Globe contained nothing but praise, saying that one biographer had stated that of all the women writers in Canada, Kit was “the most practical, the most brilliant, witty and kind.”
“Journalists themselves are very forward-thinking and present-minded, and until recently, I don’t think all that interested in their own history,” says Lang. And while Coleman is in the Canadian News Hall of Fame, which even now has mostly male inductees, English says that “we haven’t celebrated the women, the pioneers of journalism really, in any way”—and that includes Kit Coleman.