Sunday, September 22, 2013

Amelia Le Sueur Yeomans: Pioneering Physician & Social Reformer

Amelia Le Sueur (1842-1913), physician, social reformer and devout Christian, was born in Quebec City, province of Quebec in Canada on March 29, 1842 to Peter and Barbara Le Sueur. Her father was a civil servant and, for a time, served as secretary of the Civil Service Commission. Her parents made sure that she and her brother, William, received a good education both at home and in what was known as the Provincial School. William went on to become president of the Royal Society of Canada and a well-known writer.[1]
Marriage & Family
On October 16, 1860, at the age of 18, Amelia married Augustus A. Yeomans, a physician from Belleville, Ontario. Shortly thereafter they moved to Calagry, Alberta where Augustus practiced as a surgeon and where their first daughter, Lilian, was born the following year. When the Civil War broke out in the United States in 1861, Augustus decided to respond to an urgent appeal from the Union Army for his expertise as a surgeon. This required a move to the United States, including a brief time in Washington D.C.  After the war ended in 1864, Augustus continued to serve as a military surgeon in the U.S. Army. This meant that the family, which now included a second daughter, Charlotte, spent much in the United States where they had legal residence. Their first love, however, was always Canada.

She Pursues Her Dream

When Augustus died in 1878, Amelia decided to pursue her dream of becoming a physician. Because no medical school in Canada would accept women students, she joined her daughter, Lilian, at the University of Michigan School of Medicine. Upon her graduation with an M.D. in 1883, she joined Lilian who had preceded her to Winnipeg, Manitoba. In Winnipeg they practiced together specializing in midwifery and diseases of women and children. They were the first women physicians in Winnipeg.[2] In 1890 Charlotte, who was now a registered nurse, joined them in Winnipeg.

Involved in the Suffrage Movement

In her medical practice in Winnipeg, Amelia observed first-hand the plight of women because of their degradation and marginalization in society. She also personally experienced discrimination because of her sex and because, as a doctor, she was functioning in a role that had traditionally been reserved for men. As a result, she became convinced that only by obtaining the right to vote would the discrimination against women be alleviated. She thus became a champion of equal rights for women and a leader in the suffrage movement in Manitoba and Canada. A tireless worker, she helped found the Winnipeg Humane Society in 1894 and the Equal Franchise Association, which was committed to empowering women.
Not everyone appreciated her efforts. In fact, there was much opposition.  Not only were most men opposed to women’s suffrage and convinced it would cause the disintegration of the family, most women were apathetic or hostile to the concept. This, however, did not deter Amelia. She continued relentlessly in her efforts to convince both men and women of the advantages that society would accrue when women were given the right to vote. 
On February 9, 1893, Amelia served as premier of a mock parliament at the Bijou Theatre in Winnipeg. This staged parliament was organized by the suffragists of Manitoba for the purpose of bringing the suffrage issue to the attention of the general public and the Manitoba legislature. During the proceedings, Amelia argued that the right of women to vote was necessary “for the sake of both justice and expediency” as well as “the best progress of the commonwealth.” For a time it appeared that they had effectively influenced the provincial legislature when a resolution, giving women the vote, was voted upon and declared to have passed. The recorded vote, however, fell short of the needed majority.

She Tackles Other Social Issues

Winnipeg was booming when the Yeomans settled there in the early 1880s. Everyone traveling west stopped in Winnipeg and many decided stay. Between 1881 and 1901 the population increased from 8000 to over 42,000. This sort of growth also brought with it the sort of vice that seems to go with boomtowns. At one time, it seemed there was a saloon on every corner and houses of prostitution abounded. As a result, Winnipeg was known as one of the wickedest cities in Canada.[3]
Observing first-hand the domestic violence perpetrated on women and the role of alcohol in this abuse, Amelia came to see alcohol as the symbol of the deterioration of the home and society. She, therefore, joined the Christian Women’s Temperance Union of Canada and served as vice-president of that organization. She saw the success of the temperance movement closely linked to the success of the suffrage movement because women, “the protectors of community morals, would vote against the liquor traffic.”[4]
Amelia’s social activism was not limited to the temperance and suffrage issues. She forcefully addressed the problems faced by non-English-speaking immigrants, the wretched state of prisons and the deplorable conditions in the clothing factories where women worked for a pittance. She also confronted prostitution and excoriated the men who kept the vice going by their participation. One daily newspaper reported her speech to a gathering for “men only” in which vividly described the ravages of venereal disease in women patients whom she had treated; “Young women made to suffer through the wickedness of men, their young lives ruined, while their betrayers moved untarnished through the ranks of society.”[5]
Amelia believed in reform in all areas including the home. Although she was not anti-male and reached out to both men and women, she obviously felt that men had relinquished their responsibilities at home, being led away by alcohol, prostitution and other social ills and distractions. As far as she was concerned, this made them ill suited for provincial or national leadership. “If men spent more time at home,” she said, “they would be more fitted to remedy the social ills of the nation.” But as things stood at present, “it was women who were most suited to govern the nation.”[6] These were strong words for the 1890s.

Making a Difference

The influence of Amelia and other reformers grew until city officials began to take needed action and the police began to make arrests and issue more than token fines. Amelia led the way in this reform. One writer said of her, “She enlisted the help of the city fathers, pressured the police, wrote to newspapers and was always ready to speak to any group that could be gathered to hear her.” Through these efforts the character of the city began to change for the good. As one writer said, “The days of Winnipeg’s wickedness were waning.”[7]
Her Faith in God
Although Amelia did not wear her faith on her sleeve, it was obvious that she spoke and acted from a deep sense of faith in God and from a Christian world-view. A devout Anglican, she believed equal rights for women to be a part of God’s plan for human society. To have the vote was to have a voice in building that society according to God’s plan. She once said, “Christ, when on earth, never gave any example to the men to keep the women silent, for many women followed and helped Christ while on earth.” The respect she gained because of her faith and integrity was highlighted by one newspaper report that a prisoner, condemned to die, had requested “Dr. Yeomans” as his spiritual adviser rather than a priest.[8]
A Powerful Speaker
Amelia was a very effective and popular public speaker. One writer said, “You didn’t fall asleep when Amelia Yeoman’s was giving a lecture. And you weren’t allowed to sleep afterwards either. Dr. Amelia’s speeches were given to stir you into action, and she saw that there was action.”[9] The Calgary Daily Herald called her “a most eloquent and effective speaker “ and declared that to listen to her was to “arouse the intellectual ambition, to enrich the mind and enlighten the life.” She was in much demand as a spokesperson for temperance, suffrage and other issues including her faith in Christ. Her daughter Lilian, who became a popular author and speaker in both the U.S. and Canada, once said, “I can always get a hearing in Canada, for people think I am my own mother and come to my meetings.”[10]
Her Later Years & Legacy
In 1904 Amelia and her daughter, Charlotte, relocated to Calgary, Alberta where she had lived for a short time after her marriage. Two years later, in 1906, Lillian joined them. Both Amelia and Lilian were, by this time, in much demand as public speakers and they set aside their medical practices and concentrated on advancing social issues and their Christian faith. Amelia lived out the remainder of her life in Calgary where she died at the age of 71 on April 23, 1913. Her funeral was held at the Church of the Redeemer in Calgary. At the time of her death she was Vice-President of the Dominion WCTU, honorary Vice-President of the Ottawa Equal Suffrage Society and honorary President of the Calgary Suffrage Association.
Although she did not live to see women obtain the right to vote in Canada, there is no question that her tireless efforts played a major role in the Manitoba legislature, on January 27, 1916, granting women the right to vote. Other provinces followed suit until the enfranchisement of women was a reality across Canada. For this we can thank God and Amelia Yeomans. Upon hearing of her death, her friend and fellow suffragist, E. Cora Hind, declared,
""There should be a life-sized portrait of Dr. Amelia Yeomans placed in the city hall [of Winnipeg] for it is very questionable if any worshipful mayor whose portrait now adorns the walls ever did one tithe as much for the real up building of the city.[11]

[1] The Manitoba Historical Society,
[2] University of Manitoba, Health Sciences Library,
[3] Carlotta Hacker, The Indomitable Lady Doctors, Halifax: Formac Publ., 2001), 91.
[4] Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online,, Amelia Yeomans.
[5] Hacker, The Indomitable Lady Doctors, 89.
[6] Hacker, The Indomitable Lady Doctors, 90-91.
[7] Hacker, The Indomitable Lady Doctors, 91.
[8]  Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online,, Amelia Yeomans.
[9] Hacker, The Indomitable Lady Doctors, 92.
[10] Yeomans, Balm of Gilead, 14.
[11] Hacker, The Indomitable Lady Doctors, 93.