Shanawdithit, the last known Beothuk woman in Newfoundland and Labrador, is considered by a number of people to be the most influential woman in our history.
She was the most frequently named woman when The Telegram asked that very question for an episode of the Barb Sweet Podcast in recognition of International Women’s Day.
Shanawdithit died of tuberculosis in 1829 in St. John’s.
We also asked, “Who is the most influential woman in Newfoundland today?” and “Who is a woman who inspires you?”
It was by no means a scientific poll.
But the responses were eloquent and thought provoking. The third question particularly evoked some very raw and emotional responses. (Check out the podcast and its accompanying gallery for many more of the responses in this project.)
Telegram associate managing editor Pam Frampton said of Shanawdithit, “Without her, and the stories and maps she left behind, we would know far less about the history, way of life, customs and culture of her people, the Beothuk.”
Peter Dawe acknowledged the horrific treatment of the Beothuk people: “I believe she represents something that is now becoming more accepted in this province: Indigenous peoples were here first and they were exploited, abused, mistreated, raped and murdered by our ancestors. And an entire race of people were extinguished.”
But there were many other women that people acknowledged — among them nursing pioneer Mary Southcott, social conscience trailblazers Stella Burry and Vera Perlin, and suffragists such as Fannie McNeil, the first woman to run for political office, in 1925.
Here are excerpts from some of the responses to our questions. (Many more are shared in the podcast “Celebrating Newfoundland Women.”
Who is the most influential woman in Newfoundland and Labrador history?
“I think the nurses of the Grenfell mission, and the midwives in our rural communities, as a whole, deserve a special mention. In the early days of nursing, the women (and men) who served as nurses were not well paid, if at all, often illiterate and uneducated, and yet they made patient care their profession and certainly were involved in the process of making nursing a true, paid profession. When people in our communities were dying of things such as starvation, these women were on the front lines, caring for others as their own family. Their sacrifices must have been great. If I had to pick one, I would suggest Mary Southcott, who founded the first nursing school in Newfoundland in the early 1900s.”
— Dara Squires
“It is only fitting we acknowledge, as a group, all of the earliest nurses practising in Newfoundland and Labrador who were the roots of rural health care. Unsung heroes who sacrificed much and delivered care when needed most to those in need.”
— Dr. Andrew Furey, founder of Team Broken Earth
“History was written by the patriarchy and too many good women have been written out of history. I might say Mina Hubbard, who canoed and portaged across the Labrador interior after her husband failed to finish the route. She kicked ass, in a time when women weren’t expected to do that.”
— Geoff Meeker
“The perception of women and their place in our society has changed profoundly over the last half century. No one thinks it is remarkable or strange that women are doing all sorts of things out in the world, that they hold powerful and influential positions. This is not to say there are not enormous issues, whether it is sexual abuse and harassment or pay, but that the fundamental issue of women being there is not a question. It is not the least bit novel at all. And yet in this province we have this disconnect between what opinion leaders feel is important and the way the rest of the population looks at the issue. When people talk about Kathy Dunderdale, it will not be about the fact she was the first woman premier. She will be assessed as a premier, just as she was assessed that way during her time in office. When people want to talk about influential and competent cabinet ministers in the last part of the 20th century, they will not have a complete list if it does not include Lynn Verge and Julie Bettney. Julie and Lynn will be there because they were competent, influential politicians, not because of how their chromosomes were stuck together. The same is true of Judy Foote, in spades.”
— Ed Hollett
“In terms of historical significance, it’s the obvious answer, but Kathy Dunderdale really deserves a lot more credit than she gets. She was a formidable front-bench minister all through the Williams government, and then she was the first woman ever to be premier.”
— James McLeod, former Telegram legislative reporter
Who is the most significant woman in Newfoundland and Labrador today?
“Up until a few months ago, I would have said hands down that Judy Foote was, by far, the most influential woman in Newfoundland and Labrador right now. With her finger on the pulse of the federal government, Foote was playing an integral role of advocating for our province.”
— Deb Thomas (who also named a number of public servants and activists, including Jenny Wright).
“Gerry Rogers and Katelyn Osmond. Gerry has made huge headway in political office, has been a powerful activist for the marginalized and forgotten, is an LBGTQ leader, an outspoken champion for Newfoundland and Labrador and a role model for many women. She is smart, she is a leader, she is a go-getter and she is wonderful. Katelyn Osmond is an Olympic medallist. She has shown on the world stage what girls can do who are from this province. She is strong, she is powerful, she is graceful, she is humble and she will be a role model for young girls for years to come.”
— Alica Legge
“(Former St. John’s mayor and longtime councillor) Shannie Duff. I recently nominated her for the City of St. John’s Freedom of the City award … and was astounded at her long list of accomplishments and contributions to the city and province. She has been a true mentor to me and so many as well.”
— Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary
“Zita Cobb (founder of the Shorefast Foundation). She has shown that you can move away and do very well for yourself, but can still come home and make home a better place. She has helped Fogo Island see itself in a different way and to identify and value what it has to offer the rest of the world. In doing so, she challenges other people and parts of the province to reconsider their own worth in this world. She also reminds every ex-pat that they may have had very good reason to leave, but may find an even better reason to come back home.”
— Katherine Walters
“Probably someone who plays a background role — philanthropist Elinor Gill Ratcliffe doesn’t get a lot of recognition for the amount of help she gives to arts and women’s projects. Or maybe Michelle Cannizzaro — the government’s communications have turned around since she took over, so she could be said to influencing the whole province.”
— Jean Graham
“Influential is relative, but I am going to say (actress/comedian/author) Mary Walsh. She represents to me the entire arts and culture of the province. Someone who “made it big” and yet kept her roots. Someone who was political, but never made it obvious. She represents inclusion to me. She has a voice that is genuine, as she has dealt with much in her own life.”
— Peter Dawe
“The most influential woman in our province today is actually a mass of incredible women: our female educators, professors and school administrators. They shape our province with their commitment to educating and inspiring the next generation.
The influence and the impact on the future our female teachers have is truly timeless and their value is immeasurable: each generation of teachers cultivates many generations of citizens, learners, leaders.”
— Dr. Andrew Furey
Anne Whalen of Seafair Inc. also came up in some responses, as did respected Innu elder Elizabeth Penashue and Sarah Leo, former leader of the Nunatsiavut government.
Who is a woman who inspires you?
“I am in awe every single day by women who surround me on the all-female volunteer executive board that runs Beagle Paws. These 12 women work so tirelessly to save the most neglected dog breed in the province, relying on fundraising to pay annual vet care bills totalling over $100,000. Despite the continuous stream of abused, neglected dogs that come our way day after day, these women keep going and have now rescued and re-homed over 2,400 Beagles. … Special mention to the organization’s president, Sheila Lewis, who started it all back in 2003 when she became aware of the shocking numbers of beagles in shelters who were being euthanized.”
— Deb Thomas
“My mother, Catherine Boland was the most influential woman in my life. She was a hardworking, caring and compassionate woman who loved her family and community. She had strong faith, was non-judgmental and always reached out a helping hand to those in need. She taught me the value of working hard and treating people from all walks of life with dignity and respect. She encouraged me to reach for the stars, but to never forget my responsibility to family, friends and community.”
— RNC Chief Joe Boland
“On thinking about the word protection and with parenting coming to my mind, and wanting to honour the amazing woman I know, my mother (Joyce Magee) is for so many reasons.”
— Moira Magee
“I just wanted to write and say how much of an amazing person my mother Eleanor Dawson is. She raised two children as a single mother, worked full time and managed to keep an intense schedule of volunteering for her community.”
— Monica Walsh
“My mother had me at 16 years old and still was able to make a career for herself and raise me to be the independent, intelligent career lady I am today.”
— April O’Keefe
“This powerful woman has shown our province that change and justice are possible and necessary. This woman has been connected to my life in so many ways and truly has changed the course of my life, all because she believed in women, thus believing in me and my ability to overcome my circumstances. I grew up in a home environment that did not value education, and in which I entered various social systems, one being children protection. I have witnessed and experienced oppression and the effects of becoming an emancipated youth. This woman had become involved in my life when I was a young child, she was a parent coach for my mom. Since that time, she became woven into my story and my journey. She was my rock, and always in my corner, cheering me on from afar, and having difficult conversations with me, which allowed me to grow into the woman I am today. Through the guidance of this woman and her family, I came to a place in my life that enabled me to pursue social justice and become an advocate for myself and others. I dedicated myself to becoming a social change agent. This woman was not only part of my growth and story, but also part of so, so many others throughout our community. Her name is Susan Shiner and she died suddenly last summer.”
— Nicole Withers (who wished Shiner could see her convocate from Memorial University this year.)
“I would have to go with Dara Barrett (Squires). She is a single mother of three who has not had it easy at all. … She is always giving back, in ways that are tangible (she buys extra Tim cards to give to panhandlers) and intangible.”
— Geoff Meeker
“The most influential woman in my life, both when she was with me as a child, and now as an adult, was my great-aunt Evelyn (Currie, founder of the Port aux Basques newspaper). I still remember the day she saw a man, sitting on the side of the highway by the ferry, dying in the PAB summer heat. She stopped to talk to him, then returned with ice cream and bottled water and helped arrange his travel to St. John’s. That man was one of St. John’s most well-known characters: Hobo Bill, but at the time he was just a man with wonderful stories who sat with a 12-year-old eating ice cream on the side of the highway while a woman he didn’t know and who strangely travelled with a young child attached to her coattails made some phone calls and got him exactly what he needed. She died when I was a teenager and I often, on a near daily basis, think how much I would love to show her who I’ve become and how much she influenced me.
— Dara (Barrett) Squires
“The young woman who influences me every day is my daughter, Madeline. She has the most generous and empathetic spirit! Her sense of self is extraordinary and I am in awe of her focus to reach her goals. She has overcome personal obstacles and has an extraordinary resiliency.”
— Lynn Hammond
“My daughters, Bobbie and Katy Warren, are now 26 and 23 respectively, and they have taught me so much about tolerance, taking chances and being yourself. I love to see the world through their eyes, whether it’s their reactions to ’70s sitcoms or what they think about a current news story.”
— Jean Graham