Ella Smith: Female, Eccentric and Academic
by Sarah LeBlanc
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Ella Lauchner Smith was a lecturer for the History Department at Mount Allison University (Sackville, New Brunswick) from 1940 to 1951. (1) She led an unusual and interesting life both before and during her time in Sackville, and was well known as a colourful character of the Mount Allison community. My paper begins by assessing how Ella Smith was socially constructed as an eccentric because of her non-conformity to expectations of femininity. Secondly, I will examine the development of Smith's academic career in relation to her gender. For this purpose, her employment at Mount Allison University will be analysed in the context of Canadian women in academia in the first half of the twentieth century. Was Ella Smith a completely free agent in developing her academic career as is suggested in the following excerpt from an article published in the Mount Allison student newspaper?
"The course her life has taken (not an accidental one, by any means, but willed and shaped by herself) is astonishing, particularly when one remembers that women have not long had such freedom as they have today." (2)
Ella Lauchner Smith was born May 18th 1884 in Saint John, New Brunswick. She was the first child of James Willard Smith and Frances Louise Smith. (3) Her father was in shipping and well known in the area. Her mother presumably stayed at home and cared for the children. Ella graduated from Saint John High School with an average of 97% (4) and then went on to study the Classics at McGill's Royal Victoria College, where she graduated with honours in 1905. She also obtained a masters degree in Classics from McGill in 1908. She remained in Montreal to teach until she went on to pursue her studies at Oxford's Somerville College between 1911-1914. In 1921 she was the first Canadian woman to receive a Masters degree from Oxford University; the degree was in History this time. (5) Having finished her studies, she spent the next years teaching at Bedales School in England, and then at Smith College in the United States. She became sick with tuberculosis during her time at Smith College and spent the years between 1921 and 1926 recovering at Saranac Lake, New York. (6) However, the illness did not slow Ella Smith down; shortly after her recovery she began travelling as a means to conduct political research. Her most notable travels were to the USSR during the early 1930s, where she informed herself of the realities of Soviet rule. (7) Many of her travels and observations were documented in articles she wrote for the London Times. More of her notable travels were to Spain during 1936-37 during the Civil War. (8)
The archival documents used in my research consisted of a dozen letters written from Spain by Ella Smith to family and friends. These documents were especially helpful in assessing her personality, particularly her fearlessness and determination. (9)
After her time in Spain, Smith lectured internationally until she was hired by the History Department at Mount Allison University (1940). Upon retiring from teaching in 1951, she opened a bookshop on campus. This bookshop acted as a complement to the University Bookstore by supplying high quality literature for readers of all ages, including children. (10) Ella Smith died in Sackville on November 1st 1972, at the age of 88. (11)
Ella the Eccentric
Ella Smith was an especially determined individual. She demonstrated this very early on as she brilliantly pursued her studies. She was also utterly fearless, as her letters from Spain make clear. Between 1936 and 1939, the Civil War was raging in Spain. The parties at war were the Republican government (supported by the USSR) and the Nationalist rebels (supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy). (12) Smith managed to obtain passports for both the government and rebel territories in Spain. (13) It seems appropriate to assume that she was in some danger during this time, as the Spanish Civil War claimed between 500,000 and 1,000,000 lives in three years of conflict. (14) Dangerous situations, however, did not bother Ella at all. On the contrary, she seemed to have found them exciting. In a particular letter she writes: “Especially in the early morning from four to seven am. I would lie awake listening to machine gun fire punctuated on certain mornings by bombing.” Later in this same letter she claims: “Perhaps the most exciting position I occupied was the morning of Aug 20 when a heavy bombing of Simancas was in progress preliminary to its capture the next day....” (15) Yet in other communications, she tries to comfort her family and explain the logic behind her risk-taking behaviour:
"Don't be anxious for me (...) Life isn't so free of problems for me or the future so clear that in the most unlikely chance of accident one should mourn. Mere inconveniences or discomfort as you know doesn't disconcert me if I am getting an ‘Experience'. There is only 1 chance in 1000 of more than discomfort." (16)
It can be assumed that her fearlessness and determination were instrumental in the pursuit of her academic career. The above excerpt suggests that Smith was well aware that the path she was taking seemed strange to many, her family included, and made even stranger because she was an unmarried woman travelling alone in the 1930s. Smith tried to explain to them why she had taken a road that strayed so far from conventional norms of femininity.
Ella was perceived as eccentric by most people who came in contact with her, and there are many extraordinary tales from her life. As one of her friends said: “I would like to write a book about Ella, but nobody would believe it.” (17) One tale related in a article published about Smith in the Mount Allison Record of Winter 1973 explains how she would try to get into Sackville's movie theatre without paying: “I have no money with me,” she would say, “but all these seats are vacant and nobody else will be coming; I'll just sit here.” When this failed to convince the clerk, she persisted by saying: “All right, I'll bring the money later, and I'll leave my hat with you as security.” As the Mount Allison Record states, “at one time the manager had three of her hats in his office!” (18) If Smith had uncommon manners, we also know that she had very little money. As will be discussed later, faculty women at Mount Allison received meagre salaries compared to their male counterparts. (19) In addition to this meagre salary, Smith also had many travelling ambitions which she prioritized over everyday comforts. (20)
Another story concerns moving Smith's Mount Allison campus bookstore from Orthona Hall to another campus building. Old Orthona Hall was scheduled to be destroyed, but Smith had delayed her move to the very last minute. When the power was shut off in the building, she kept working and selling books by candle light. She was in fact still in her bookstore when they started demolishing the building on the opposite side! (21) Smith didn't seem to care much about respecting the “rules of the game”. Perhaps it was because she had learnt early on that the institutions with which she was dealing were not particularly friendly to subversive women like herself. If Smith were to have “played by the rules” all her life, it is doubtful whether she would have been able to achieve so many of her goals, namely in academia and in travelling research.
More than merely anecdotes, these stories reveal Ella Smith's perceived eccentricity. She clearly did not fit many of the expected societal moulds. She was unusual as a woman because she chose to pursue an academic career, and she was unusual as an academic because she was a woman. These factors most likely contributed to her perceived eccentricity.
Many Canadian women academics during the first half of the twentieth century felt that they had to retain a strict division between their professional and personal lives. Carol Baines details this phenomenon in an article entitled “Professor Elizabeth Govan: An Outsider in Her Own Community”. (22) The title of the article itself speaks of a widespread experience for female university faculty in the first half of the twentieth century. While men often established informal relations with their colleagues, women academics did not. They regularly strictly separated their personal lives from their academic careers. In the case of Elizabeth Govan, her academic work absorbed her personal life. She writes: “I seem hard because I do not show people that I am really soft and feminine. I am neurotic in that I escape social relationships by working too hard - every night.” (23) This parallels the experience of female university history students during the same period who felt unwelcome in informal male student circles, and it was often explicitly so. (24)
However, it is my understanding that Ella Smith did not strictly separate her private life from her professional life as, for example, she often slept in her office and was not shy to engage with people. (25) Of course, Sackville being a small town, it is much more difficult for faculty members to retain privacy in their personal lives. Similar to Elizabeth Govan, it may be that Ella's academic work took over her personal life. There may have been few options with which to fill professional women's personal time during this period, especially if they were unmarried. Certain social constructions prevailed, such as that of the male academic. Falling outside of the expected categories guaranteed an unusual lifestyle for female academics.
An interview with Frances Read Smith, a long-time resident of Sackville and Ella Smith's niece, furnished possible explanations for decisions concerning her personal life. According to Mrs. Smith, it was a conscious decision on her aunt's part not to get married or have children. That was fine for other women, she felt, but she was an intellectual and had to put her mind to work. (26) The choice seemed to have been between a career and family life. According to Mrs. Smith's account, combining career and family life did not seem to have been an option in Ella's mind. This also reflects the norms of the time: for women, the choice had to be made between family and career; the two seemingly could not be reconciled. (27)
Teaching at Mount Allison University
Ella Smith was a lecturer for the Department of History at Mount Allison University from 1940 to 1951. She was hired as acting head of the History Department to provide a wartime replacement for Dr. George Stanley. (28) Her employment was due to the Second World War (1939-45) and the departure of male faculty overseas. Stanley and Smith were friends and it was he that had recommended her as his replacement. (29) She remained Head of the department until 1946, at which point Stanley returned to his position. Ella Smith then continued on as a lecturer in the department until her retirement in 1951.
In Canada, many women who had been employed for the first time as a result of the war lost their employment with the end of the war. This was not, however, entirely the case for Smith. Despite her eccentricities, or maybe because of them, Ella Smith seemed to have been well liked within the Mount Allison community. Students liked and esteemed her as a professor, although she perhaps had peculiar ways. When she retired from teaching, members of the community continued to benefit from her expertise through her bookstore (30)
But what of the environment to which Smith was subjected in becoming a faculty member at Mount Allison? The first full professorship to be awarded to a woman at Mount Allison was to Doris Runciman, the head of the Department of Home Economics, in 1938. (31) By 1955, thirteen out of sixty faculty members were female but none of them held a professorial appointment outside of the School of Home Economics. (32) In 1935, only five years before Ella Smith's appointment, there was a position to be filled in the Department of History and G. J. Trueman, president of Mount Allison, stated: “We must have for the position a young man who has a good personality... in other words we want a man who can be a citizen as well as a professor.” (33) This indicates that Ella Smith was not entering a ‘woman-friendly' department. George Stanley, whom she replaced, may have been her only ally.
Throughout Canadian universities, women who were admitted as faculty were not promoted as quickly as men despite their equal or higher levels of education. (34) Similarly, Ella Smith, who despite being an M.A. Oxon and an internationally acclaimed lecturer, was only ever granted the position of lecturer at Mount Allison. Furthermore, even though she was the acting head of the department of history between 1940 and 1946, she was never awarded professorship. Women and men were also paid on different scales at Mount Allison. In a policy committee report this scale was explained as follows: men would be ranked within five categories ranging from instructor to head of department, while women would be ranked as either head of department or as “women with only brief experience”. The report continued: “If women were paid as much as men few women would be employed, as for many reasons men are more satisfactory in most departments.” (35) Ella Smith's work at Mount Allison was, however, recognised in a few other ways. In 1963, the university awarded her an honorary D. Literature, and upon retirement she was granted a pension, however petty, of $200 a year. (36)
While Ella Smith appeared a ‘free agent’ in her life and travels, one wonders if she received as much recognition as she wished in her academic career. Considering her extensive travels and research as well as her international lectures, it seems belittling that she only reached the position of lecturer at Mount Allison, and not that of professor.
In Context: Canadian Women in Academia
Canadian feminist historian Alison Prentice has studied Canadian women in the history profession in the first half of the twentieth century. Her findings indicate that there were many barriers to women's entry into the history professoriate during this period. The most extreme of these barriers was that some history departments simply refused to hire women as faculty. These were for some time the practices of universities such as the University of Toronto and McGill University. (37) Women were welcomed and encouraged to become students, and even to enter the graduate level; universities were interested in getting female students' tuition money but not in hiring them. The women who did reach the history professoriate before 1950 are described as “pioneers” by Prentice. (38) Ella Smith was one such pioneer.
It is important to note that women in the academic profession did organize to counter the injustices they suffered. The first professional women's associations emerged in Canada just before World War I. Also, the Canadian Federation of University Women was an organization promoting women's advancement within the academic world. (39)
In the United States and in Europe there were more positions in the history professoriate available for women. This was largely due to the sex segregation of post-secondary education; women were educated in ladies' colleges, while men went to universities. In Canadian universities, history departments were part of a co-ed system and women were seen as unfit to teach in such a system. (40) Canadian women who did brilliantly as undergraduates were encouraged to pursue studies abroad, in the United States or in Europe, where they could find possibilities of employment thereafter. (41) This is the road Ella Smith took, as she went on from McGill University in Montreal to study at Oxford, England. She subsequently found teaching positions in England and in the United States. It would be interesting to know whether Smith would have preferred teaching in Canada, had she been given the choice to do so at the beginning of her career.
Ella Smith's gender, profession and personality created interesting junctures in shaping her social construction as an eccentric, and in the development of her academic career. It did indeed take courage and fearlessness for a woman to achieve Ella Smith's academic status during the first half of the twentieth century. Furthermore, she was perceived as eccentric as a result of her non-conformity to socially constructed standards of femininity and of the academic profession. Despite Ella Smith's incredible determination, her story highlights some of the structural barriers to women's entry in the history profession during this period. If it had not been for her incredible personality and determination, one may wonder if Ella Smith would have been one of the pioneering women of the Canadian history professoriate.
1. Mount Allison University Archives (MAA), description of Ella Lauchner Smith fonds, 7304, in Ennals, Cheryl. ‘We were here’: A Guide to Selected Women’s History Sources from the fonds, d’Archives, Collections and Holdings of the Mount Allison University Archives, compiled by Cheryl White Ennals, Mount Allison University Archives, 1996.
2. MAA, Ella Lauchner Smith, fonds, 7304/2/5. Ella Smith biography file: Rachel Brown, “Mt. A. Honours Miss Smith,” The Argosy Weekly, Oct. 4, 1963, 1.
3. MAA, Ella Lauchner Smith fonds, 7304/2/5. Ella Smith biography file: The Mount Allison Record, Winter 1973. Note also: Investigating Ella Smith’s childhood and youth would have been interesting as it may reveal the causes of her fearlessness, determination and eccentric personality. However, the research necessitated by this investigation is beyond the reaches of this paper.
4. Interview with Frances Read Smith, Sackville, New Brunswick, March 11, 2005.
5. Ennals, ‘We were here’: A Guide to Selected Women’s History Sources, 1996.
7. MAA, Ella Lauchner Smith fonds,, 7304/2/5. The Mount Allison Record, Winter 1973.
8. Ennals, ‘We were here’: A Guide to Selected Women’s History Sources, 1996.
9. In addition, these documents provided fascinating insight into the organizations and groups involved in the Civil War. These include accounts of interviews, hand-drawn maps detailing military manoeuvres and a host of other information, all complemented with Smith’s personal analysis. Unfortunately, much of this information cannot be used here because the aim of the paper is to assess Ella Smith’s personality and the development of her career rather than shed new light on the Spanish Civil War or to give an account of Smith’s extensive travels. These two last endeavours would however generate very worthwhile results and the Ella Lauchner Smith fonds, (7304) provides documents which could be used to that effect.
10. MAA, Ella Lauchner Smith fonds,, 7304/2/5. Ella Smith biography file: The Argosy Weekly Oct. 4, 1963.
11. MAA, Ella Lauchner Smith, fonds, 7304/2/5. Ella Smith biography file: Telegraph Journal Nov. 1, 1972.
12. “Spanish Civil War” (1998) in Britannica Micropeadia Ready Reference Vol. 11, 68.
13. MAA, Ella Lauchner Smith, fonds,, 7304/2/5. Ella Smith biography file: The Mount Allison Record, Winter 1973, 8-9.
14. “Spanish Civil War” (1998) in Britannica Micropeadia Ready Reference Vol. 11, 69.
15. MAA, Ella Lauchner Smith fonds,, 7304/2/5/3.
16. MAA, Ella Lauchner Smith fonds,, 7304/2/5/3.
17. MAA, Ella Lauchner Smith fonds,, 7304/2/5. Ella Smith biography file: The Mount Allison Record, Winter 1973, 8-9.
19. Reid, 182.
20. MAA, Ella Lauchner Smith fonds,, 7304/2/5/7.
21. MAA, Ella Lauchner Smith, fonds, 7304/2/5. Ella Smith biography file: The Mount Allison Record, Winter 1973, 8-9.
22. Carol Baines, “Professor Elizabeth Govan: An Outsider in Her Own Community” in Smyth, E et al. (Eds.) Challenging professions : historical and contemporary perspectives on women's professional work. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999) 52-54.
23. Baines, 54.
24. Alison Prentice, “Laying Siege to the History Professoriate” in Beverly Boutilier and Allison Prentice (eds.), Creating Historical Memory: English-Canadian Women and the Work of History, (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1997), 206-207.
25. MAA, Ella Lauchner Smith, fonds, 7304/2/5. Ella Smith biography file: The Mount Allison Record, Winter 1973, 8-9.
26. Interview with Frances Read Smith, Sackville, New Brunswick, March 11, 2005
27. Barry Moody, “A view from the front steps…” in Beverly Boutilier and Allison Prentice (eds.), Creating Historical Memory, 246-247.
28. Ennals, ‘We were here’: A Guide to Selected Women’s History Sources, 1996.
29. Interview with Frances Read Smith, Sackville, New Brunswick, March 11, 2005.
30. .MAA, Ella Lauchner Smith fonds, 7304/2/5. Ella Smith biography file: The Mount Allison Record, Winter 1973, 8-9.
31. Shelley D. Ward, “Women in Higher Education: A History of Women Faculty at Mount Allison University, 1839 to the Present.” (B.A. Thesis, Mount Allison University, 1989), 29.
32. Ward, 34.
33. Ward 29-30.
34. Prentice, Creating Historical Memory, 197.
35. Reid, 182.
36. Ward, 34.
37. Prentice, Creating Historical Memory, 197.
38. Ibid, 197-198.
39. Prentice et al. Canadian Women: A History, 305.
40. Prentice, Creating Historical Memory, 212.
41. Prentice, Creating Historical Memory, 212.
Baines, Carol, “Professor Elizabeth Govan: An Outsider in Her Own Community” in Smyth, E et al. (Eds.) Challenging professions : historical and contemporary perspectives on women's professional work. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 44-65.
Ennals, Cheryl. ‘We were here': A Guide to Selected Women's History Sources from the Fonds d'Archives, Collections and Holdings of the Mount Allison University Archives, compiled by Cheryl White Ennals, (Mount Allison University Archives, 1996).
Interview with Frances Read Smith, Sackville, New Brunswick, March 11, 2005.
Moody, Barry. “A view from the front steps: Esther Clark Wright and the making of a Maritime Historian” in Boutilier, Beverly and Allison Prentice (eds.) Creating Historical Memory: English-Canadian Women and the Work of History, (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1997) 233-253.
MtAUA, Ella Lauchner Smith, fonds, 7304/2/5: Telegraph Journal Nov. 1, 1972 .
MtAUA, , Ella Lauchner Smith, fonds, 7304/2/5. Ella Smith biography file: ““Dr. Ella Smith” The Mount Allison Record, Winter 1973, 8-9.
MtAUA, Ella Lauchner Smith, fonds, 7304/2/5. Ella Smith biography file: Brown, Rachel “Mt. A. Honours Miss Smith” The Argosy Weekly Oct. 4, 1963, 1.
Prentice, Alison, “Laying Siege to the History Professoriate” in Boutilier, Beverly and Allison Prentice (eds.) Creating Historical Memory: English-Canadian Women and the Work of History, (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1997) 197-232.
Prentice, Alison et al. “Chapter Eleven- Proving Themselves in Public Life” in Canadian Women: A History Second Edition. (Scarborough: Nelson Thomson, 2004) 304-335.
Prentice, Allison et al., “Chapter Twelve- Work: From the Bren Gun Girl to the Electronic Scanner” in Canadian Women: A History Second Edition. (Scarborough: Nelson Thomson, 2004) 341-377.
Reid, John G. “Reappraisal: 1941-1948" in Mount Allison University: A History, to 1963, Vol. II: 1914-1963. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984) 163-219.
“Spanish Civil War” in Britannica Micropeadia Ready Reference Vol. 11. (Chicago: Encyclopeadia Britannica, Inc., 1998) 68-69.
Ward, Shelley D. “Chapter II.: Innovation and Stagnation” in Women in Higher Education: A History of Women Faculty at Mount Allison University, 1839 to the Present, Honours Thesis in Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University, (1989) 15-40.