Alice Freeman, Alias “Faith Fenton,” Investigative Reporter
In an era when reporting was a man’s job, Alice Freeman adopted an alias and wrote newspaper columns, later becoming one of Canada’s first female editors.
She decided on her future early. Alice Freeman was a schoolteacher in Toronto in 1874, inspiring youngsters to learn their lessons when Freeman herself was only 18 years old. “She was in Toronto, which was part of her dream, and she was embarking on a career that would lead her – however winding the highway – to the most important part of that dream: being a writer,” said Jill Downie in A Passionate Pen: The Life and Times of Faith Fenton (Random House of Canada Ltd., Toronto 1996).
Third in a family of twelve children, Alice Matilda Freeman was one of several daughters of William Henry and Mary Ann Freeman of Bowmanville, Ontario. Moving to the town of Barrie, the family fell on hard times in about 1867 and ten-year-old Alice Freeman was sent to live with Reverend Thomas Reikie and his wife Margaret back in Bowmanville. Completing her elementary schooling, the independent Freeman moved to a boarding house in Toronto when a teenager to attend higher education. At Model School, she studied a full range of subjects from geography and physics to history, maths, art and religion; she also learned the skills of teaching. Freeman also told her friends and family that writing was her passion.
Journalism Not a Job for Women!
While teaching wee children at several schools, including 11 years at Ryerson School, Freeman wrote several articles under her own initials and under the pseudonym of Stella, for the Northern Advance. (Women teachers earned 1/3 of the wages men earned.) Writing under one’s own name was not something a proper woman would do. In the 1880s, “journalism was not quite as suspect as the theatre but, for a woman especially, mixing with ink-stained hacks in office where dubious views that questioned the status quo might be expressed, and in improper language, was unthinkable,” Downie noted. Temporarily dropping the name of Stella, Alice Freeman was about to write under a new nom de plume, Faith Fenton.
Along with articles for The Empire, a new writer began authoring children’s columns in The Globe. In 1887, “Our Young Folks” featured poems, stories with a moral, examinations of distant exotic lands and peoples, with the by-line of Faith Fenton. Columns expanding, the writer branched into investigative work, exposing the difficulties of women’s lives, promoting issues and making political statements. Becoming a renowned name in print, Freeman – now Fenton – was careful to keep her writing career out of sight. Had the school known, she would have been fired in disgrace from her teaching job. For 19 years, Alice Freeman led a double life.
One of Canada’s First Female Editors
“Faith travelled during the summer months to cover stories that covered the interesting people she met on her travels,” according to Cool Canada’s “Interesting People: Faith Fenton (1857-1936). “In 1893, when her true identity was made public, a group of powerful friends protected her from being fired,” added Cool Canada. Fenton left teaching a year later to take up journalism as her full-time career. And what a start she had! In 1895, Fenton took a post as writer and editor of the Canadian Home Journal, one of the first female editors in Canada.
Fenton With VON in the Klondike
The Victorian Order of Nurses sent four nurses to the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898 to tend to the sick
miners. Faith Fenton accompanied two of nurses on their gruelling trek to the Yukon with the North West Mounted Police, according to John Murray Gibbon in Victorian Order of Nurses for Canada: 50th Anniversary 1897-1947 (Southam Press, Montreal 1947). Sending her reports to The Globe, the correspondent wrote about the duties of the nurses before they even reached the town of Dawson. “The fame of these two cheery nurses, their skill, their prompt kindness and willingness to aid has spread up and down the trail so that the sick man’s first thought is to reach them,” wrote Fenton on September 3, 1898.
Reaching Dawson, the Klondike Nugget newspaper announced Fenton’s arrival, said the Yukon News in “Canada’s First Top Female Journalist had a Secret Identity,” calling her “a brilliant Canadian writer of magazines and newspaper fame.” Fenton continued to submit regularly to the newspaper in Toronto, giving the east a glimpse of the frustrations and successes of gold miners, dedicated nurses and life in Canada’s far north.
Faith Fenton Married Yukon Doctor
Focussed on her careers, Fenton had not spent much time searching for a spouse. In Dawson, she met Dr. John Brown, the Medical Officer of Health in the Yukon Territory. The pair married in 1900 when Fenton was 43 years of age. Enjoying the northern life for four more years, the Browns moved back to Toronto in 1904. Continuing to write occasionally, Fenton was more interested in being wife to her husband than pursuing her career. The pair had no children but was very close to young relatives.
Faith Fenton – Alice Matilda Freeman – died on January 10, 1936 of pneumonia, only four days before her 79th birthday. Her husband Dr. John Brown died in 1943. A pioneer in writing, Fenton was a shining leader in her era, and is still a fine example of women’s drive for success and equality against many societal odds.
- Downie, Jill, “A Passionate Pen: The Life and Times of Faith Fenton,” Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto 1996
- Cool Canada’s “Interesting People: Faith Fenton (1857-1936) Accessed May 11, 2011
- Gibbon, John Murray, “Victorian Order of Nurses for Canada: 50th Anniversary 1897-1947” Southam Press, Montreal 1947
- “Canada’s First Top Female Journalist had a Secret Identity,” MacBride Museum, Yukon News, November 25, 2009 Accessed May 11, 2011
This article first appeared on Suite101.com in May 2011. (c) Susanna McLeod