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Miss Mary MacMahon and the Making of a Professional Network of Mobile Businesswomen in Early 20th Century Canada – Kirsten Widdes

Advertisements, such as this one, were placed in trade journals and emphasized the importance of properly trained, competent typists, highlighting both commercial training and the effectiveness of the United Typewriter Co.’s Employment Department.

Born in Hamilton Ontario Canada on September 4 1877, Mary MacMahon was the middle child of six and eldest daughter of Bernard and Ann, who emigrated from Ireland in 1874. [i] Like many women of her time, Mary was actively involved in many social organizations; St Joseph’s hospital auxiliary, Toronto Catholic Women’s League and the Toronto Granite Curling Club, to name a few.ii] It is perhaps, however, her career at Toronto’s United Typewriter Company Limited (becoming a subsidiary of Underwood Elliott Fisher Company, Ltd. in 1927), for which she is most recognized.

At a young age, MacMahon sought a career in business, beginning her career as a bookkeeper. While enrolled at Hamilton Business College, with aspirations of becoming a chartered accountant, a visit to her class from John Joseph Seitz, the president of United, would change this. Seitz, who was looking for typewriter operators at the time of his visit, would later offer MacMahon the position of Employment Officer within the company. [iii]

Established in 1902, United Typewriter’s employment bureau opened in 1906, providing stenographic services free of charge for various businesses and professional people that required temporary help. [iv] The bureau, which was headed by MacMahon from its inception until her death in 1955, sought to maintain high standards through its policy of placing employees because of their proven ability, rather than by reference. Before being considered suitable to recommend for employment, applicants had to meet the ‘rigid requirements of the company’ and were tested for speed and accuracy in both shorthand and typing.[v] In an interview with Canadian news magazine, Maclean’s, MacMahon stated that, ‘it is the typewriter that has put the business woman where she is to-day’ although when the department first opened, ‘the typist was considered a part of her machine. She was put away out of sight somewhere in a little dark corner.’ In MacMahon’s view, stenography provided a platform for advancement. Through taking correspondence, the stenographer was ‘able to learn the basic principles of the business, benefit by mistakes and obtain a general working knowledge of the whole organization.’ [vi]

Outside of employment services, the occupation of stenography both helped to build organizations and was supported by them. This support created a network in which women could develop their careers. A significant number of members of the Canadian Women’s Business Club (CWBC) was made up of ‘girls who fill office positions’ which offered its members ‘opportunities for study and self-improvement, for outings and social enjoyment.’[vii] When formed in 1910 in the city of Toronto, the club consisted of 20 members, and by the following year its membership had risen to 350. [viii] Within a decade, the CWBC expanded to include four new branches, with one outside of the province of Ontario in Calgary, Alberta. [ix] The number of branches continued to grow following a name change in 1921 to the Canadian Business and Professional Women’s Club (CBPWC), whereby it joined with the American Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs. The formation of a network was additionally aided by affiliations with other social organizations, including the National Council of Women of Canada. The Toronto branch, for example, is indicated as being affiliated with the Toronto Council of Women in 1912.[x] In creating a network of businesswomen, clubs sought to create a cooperative effort between the branches, resulting in visits and the exchange of ideas.[xi]

The CBWC sought overarching reforms for professional women including, pay equity and standardization of professional requirements and seeking a larger role in government bodies, however many issues on which members chose to focus, where branch specific.[xii] As with a number of other social organizations at the time, it did not seek to change, or even at times, acknowledge ideologies that predominated this period, including those that promoted systemic exclusion and discrimination. Club members, who were white, largely middle class women, ‘were an odd amalgam of progressive political action and social conservatism…While clubwomen supported equality in the work world, they did not…suggest a radical overhaul of society.’[xiii] A caveat to this support was the right of married women to work, which was the subject of much debate. A debate reflected in the Business Woman, the club’s magazine. For example, an article entitled, ‘Can the ‘Two Job Woman’ Succeed at Home and Business?,’ defends married women who work, citing modern convivences and labor-saving technology and the implementation of scientific management (which aligned with the office environment) as reasons why married women succeed in their careers and home life. [[xiv] However, for many members, women were still seen as solely responsible for maintaining the home and working outside of it would take away from fulfilling duties within the home. When defining rights, the club only accounted for gender, not race or ethnicity, a viewpoint that would not start to change until after Second World War.[xv] However, through a shared objective, narrowly defined as it was, the CBPWC helped to build a network for women to hold discussions regarding their professions. This created an opportunity for mobility beyond the space of the office.

For her part in the formation of the network, MacMahon was the first elected president of the Toronto branch of the CBPWC in 1921.[xvi] In her role as president and head of United Typewriter’s Employment Services department, as well as a member of Toronto Council of Women, she addressed developments in the occupation of stenography. These discussions were often published, allowing them to reach a wider audience. Topics ranged from raising the standards of the profession, employment trends, advice to young women entering the field and career longevity. In an address given at the Women’s Building of the Canadian National Exhibition grounds located in Toronto, she emphasized the necessity of ‘being fully equipped for modern business life and for keeping up with the times’ through education and seeking career advancement. She maintained that if women constantly supported one another in their business and professional life, it would not take them as long to advance in their career.[xvii] Through many such addresses, Mary MacMahon maintained her authority in the profession. She facilitated the growth of stenography and the active presence of women as experts in the field, placing or giving advice to an estimated 400,000 women in Canada throughout her lifetime.[xviii]

Image credit: Advertisement for United Typewriter Company, Limited. “Underwood” The Canadian Horticulturist, July 1907, viii, Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Kirsten Widdes holds a MA in History from Carleton University, as well as a BEd in Junior/Intermediate Education from the University of Ottawa.  Her research background is Canadian social and cultural history. Her interests in this area of study includes gender history, the examination of consumer culture, teenage and youth culture, as well as space and place. She is currently an independent researcher and is examining the feminization of clerical work in Canada, with emphasis stenography companies and departments, owned and/or operated by women. She is happy to be contacted at Kirsten.Widdes[at]

[[i]] Census Record, “Census of Canada, 1901”, p. 5, 1901, Series RG31-C-1, Digitized Image No. 6556. z000068653, Statistics Canada fonds Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Library and Archives Canada,

[[ii]]“She Found Jobs For Thousands,” The Ottawa Citizen, September 21, 1955, 47,

[[iii]] Jobs for 300,000,” The Financial Post, April 19, 1947, 6,

[[iv]] “John Joseph Seitz – Pioneer,” The Financial Post, May 2, 1936, 10,

[[v]] “Jobs for 300,000, 6.”

[[vi]] Dorothy G Bell, “Miss Mary Macmahon Places Ten Thousand Business Girls Each Year,” Maclean’s Magazine, June 1, 1923, 69-70

[[vii]] Ontario Royal Commission, Report of the Ontario Commission on Unemployment, 182.

[[viii]] Rose Rambler,” The Business Girl,” The Globe, May 13, 1911, 11,

[[ix]] “Business Women’s Club of Calgary Take Out Charter,” The Daily News, July 10, 1919, 4, Queen’s Printer for Ontario, “Full Biographical Sketch or Administrative History for The Business and Professional Women’s Clubs of Ontario,” Business and Professional Women’s Clubs of Ontario fonds, Archives of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

[[x]] National Council of Women Canada, The Yearbook: containing the Report of the Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the National Council of Women Canada (Toronto: G Parker & Sons., Printers, 1913), 19,

[[xi]] Pamphlet, “Histories of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs,” p. 16, 1980, M-8705-2, Series 2, Histories of the Organization, Business and Professional Women’s Club of Calgary fonds, Glenbow Museum and Archives, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Adam Matthew Digital.

[[xii]] Joan, Sangster, Demanding Equality: One Hundred Years of Canadian Feminism, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2021), 126.

[[xiii]] Melanie Buddle, The Business of Women: Marriage, Family, and Entrepreneurship in British Columbia 1901-51 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), 85-86.

[[xiv]] Justine Mansfield, ’Can the Two Job Women’ Succeed at Home and Business?,” The Business Women,  January 1928 Volume 3 no.1, 8,

[[xv]] Joan Sangster, Demanding Equality, 129.

[[xvi]] “Raise Stenographic Standards: Greater Scope for Qualified girls,” The Daily Ontario, January 13, 1921, 4,

[[xvii]] “Business Girls Today are Highly Qualified: Miss Mary MacMahon Gives Thoughtful Address at Exhibition,” The Globe, September 12, 1925, 17,

[[xviii]] “She Found Jobs For Thousands,” 47.