Whitton, Charlotte (1896-1975)

Charlotte Whitton
Charlotte Whitton was an influential social activist and Canada's first female mayor.

“Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”

In 1941, to recognize its 100th anniversary, Queen’s decided to award honorary degrees to alumni it felt had made the university proud. The group was filled with men, but the university also wanted to present a degree to “the most distinguished woman graduate of Queen’s,” an honour that belonged to Charlotte Whitton, MA’17.

Ms. Whitton had many impressive accomplishments at Queen’s and had made a name for herself as a social worker, but she was also a highly controversial figure.

Born in 1896 in Renfrew, Ontario, Ms. Whitton came to Queen’s during the First World War, arriving with scholarships in six subjects and graduating in 1917 with Queen's medals in both History and English. She excelled academically and stood out in every extra-curricular activity she took part in. She played on the women's field hockey and basketball teams, and was the star player on the ice hockey team, reputed to be one of the league’s fastest skaters. She was elected with a running mate as the first woman to hold an executive position in the AMS. Ms. Whitton also found time to be the first woman editor-in-chief of the Queen's Journal.

[Charlotte Whitton from the 1917 Tricolor yearbook]
Charlotte Whitton from the 1917 Tricolor yearbook

After she graduated in 1917, Ms. Whitton became the founding director of the Canadian Council on Child Welfare where she fought tirelessly for better standards in the care of neglected and dependent children and juvenile immigrants. Her fame and reputation as a social worker led her to be an important advisor on federal unemployment relief policy during the Great Depression.

Her greatest claim to fame came after she resigned from the child welfare council and ran for office in Ottawa. Elected Controller of Ottawa's Municipal Council in 1950 (the first woman elected into the Board of Control), she ran for the Ottawa mayoralty the following year and became the first female mayor of a major Canadian city. She was re-elected in 1952, 1954, 1960, and 1962.  She was defeated in 1964, but served as an alderman until 1972.

As mayor, Whitton oversaw the construction of many affordable housing units, transformed an old hospital into a seniors’ complex and helped to balance the city’s finances. Whitton also clashed with many of her colleagues, and was famous for saying, “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”

Ms. Whitton was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1967. She died eight years later of a heart attack and was the first former mayor to be laid in state at Ottawa’s city hall.

Ms. Whitton continues to be the subject of controversy in Ottawa. Some celebrate her as a trailblazer, while others argue that she was a racist who was prejudiced against anyone who was not of British heritage. In 2011, the city planned to name its archives in her honour, but objectors argued that she lobbied against allowing Jewish immigrants, especially Jewish children, into Canada before the Second World War. Others countered that wanted to establish a comprehensive long-term immigration plan first. The debate ended with Ottawa choosing a different name for the archives.

[Charlotte Whitton as Mayor of Ottawa]
Charlotte Whitton as Mayor of Ottawa

Whitton always retained a strong affection for Queen's. She was an active member of the Alumnae Association, a driving force behind the building of Ban Righ Hall, and a member of the Board of Trustees from 1928 to 1940. She received an honorary degree from the university in 1941.

Her sister, Kathleen Ryan, another distinguished alumna, is one of Queen's most generous benefactors.

Charlotte Whitton's personal papers relating to her time at Queen's are located in the Queen's Archives.