I’ve mentioned before that my dad had seven sisters. On International Women’s Day, they march across my memory: Maddie, Kay, Martha, Helen, Millie, Lou, and Madge.
To my knowledge, none of my aunts ever marched in support of women’s rights and none called herself a feminist. Yet each in her singular way was a powerful force and a role model for her daughters and nieces. Collectively, they taught me to be resourceful, independent, outspoken, playful, hospitable, inventive, industrious, resilient, practical, generous, inquisitive, strategic, frugal, discerning, caring, and strong.
Maddie was the oldest and I knew her best. In 1951, she was one of five women in a class of 107 students in UBC’s new CGA program, and one of only three who completed the program in 1956. She was intelligent, endlessly curious, and owned tall shelves full of books. She designed and sewed her own clothes, even tailored suits. A spinster by choice, she lived in a chic apartment in Vancouver’s West End overlooking English Bay. Spending occasional weekends with her there was a highlight of my teenage years.
Growing up, Kay worked on the farm with the men, and although she chose a career that was strictly for women in the 1950s—nursing—she worked hard to advance to supervisory positions and eventually became a nursing instructor at BCIT. When she retired in 1978, the nursing department head acknowledged that Kay (Hankinson) had “made a major contribution toward the success of the BCIT nursing program and, in fact, to nursing education in British Columbia.”
Martha (Sundberg) raised two children and was a passionate, dedicated schoolteacher. She taught in challenging situations in northern Saskatchewan and Alberta, often in one-room schools with grades 1 through 12, including her own two kids. She took a real interest in her students and stayed in touch with many of them. Like her sisters, being raised in the Depression made her frugal and resourceful. She saved and repurposed everything and wasted nothing.
Helen worked as a fitter for Boeing during WWII and then trained as a psychiatric nurse. Like most of her sisters, she could cook, knit, and sew like a professional, and there was nothing she wouldn’t try her hand at—and then do it well. She maintained high standards for household chores and sorted the garden peas by size before blanching and freezing them. She ironed everything, including her husband’s boxer shorts. Helen and Sonny Tomlenovich raised six kids on a farm in central Saskatchewan, not far from the one where Helen grew up.
Having entered the convent at 15 and then deciding a nun’s life wasn’t what she wanted after all, Millie married, and with her husband, Lyle Armstrong, raised three sons. She was the matriarch of our family after my grandmother died. She kept track of everyone and kept in touch with all of us, and it wasn’t the least bit unusual for her to invite 60 people to her small house for dinner. A professional seamstress, she was a supervisor in a clothing factory in Saskatoon. She was the quintessential Type A personality. She rarely sat still. Like her sisters, Millie had a strong work ethic, superlative organizational skills, and a talent for making something from nothing. Like her sisters, she liked to have fun, and she made life fun for others.
Lou was closest in age to my dad, and the two of them were close friends throughout their lives. When my grandparents retired from farming in the 1940s and moved to the coast, Dad and Lou moved with them. They graduated together from Richmond High School in 1948. Lou went on to normal school and taught for several years before she married John Goodwin and raised four kids on the Sunshine Coast. She almost always worked outside the home as well as in it. Her family was the focus of her life. Lou always looked for the best in people, and made an effort to find out how they saw the world. Like her sisters, she had a wonderful sense of humour and was highly creative.
Madge was the youngest of ten, and in many ways had a different start to life than her older siblings. More of her childhood was spent in Richmond than on the farm in Saskatchewan, and her oldest siblings were busy with their own lives by the time she came along. Madge returned to Saskatchewan after her mother died and went to work as a teller at the Bank of Montreal in Saskatoon. She was BMO’s first female branch manager in Saskatchewan, a pioneer in a male-dominated industry who paved the way for other women. With her husband, John Sulz, she raised three kids, and even as a “career mom” she was phenomenal at gardening, cooking, canning, and sewing.
My aunts may not have called themselves feminists, but each of them, in their own way, lived boldly and courageously, with spark and with strength. Each added texture, depth, and breadth to what it meant to be a woman in her time.
I loved them. I admired them. And today I honour them.