Why You Should Read Toronto Trailblazers: Women in Canadian Publishing

by Lesley-Anne Longo

Published at 2019-10-02

Recently, Beth saw that the University of Toronto Press would be launching a very interesting book in September: Toronto Trailblazers: Women in Canadian Publishing by Ruth Panofsky. She and I were so intrigued, in fact, that we actually contacted the University of Toronto Press to request a copy for review! I was excited to review this book, which covers a topic that has not gotten much focus or recognition over the years: the active role Canadian women played in forwarding and nurturing our culture of publishing and authorship.



Toronto Trailblazers: A Summary

The first-ever study of women in Canadian publishing, Toronto Trailblazers examines the cultural influence of seven key Canadian women who helped advance Canada’s literary culture, despite battling gender bias, discrimination, and the social constructs of their times.


The book features profiles of publisher Irene Clarke; scholarly editors Eleanor Harman and Francess Halpenny; trade editors Sybil Hutchinson, Claire Pratt, and Anna Porter; and literary agent Bella Pomer. These profiles span many years of Canadian publishing, from Irene Clarke launching Clarke, Irwin in 1930, to Bella Pomer launching her literary agency in 1978 and representing clients until 2000. Individually, each woman found her own way to work within the Canadian publishing industry, and each had to adapt to forcing her own agency and expertise with publishers and authors alike. Their collective approach to their work eventually emerged as a feminist practice, as these women disrupted the dominant masculine standard to bring a fresh slant and attitude to Canadian publishing.




Toronto Trailblazers: A Review

Placing and Grounding the Book: The Introduction


The story of publishing in Canada, once you get past the figureheads, is a story of women.

—William H. (Bill) Clarke, Publisher, Clarke, Irwin



The book’s introduction opens with this striking quote, and makes it clear very quickly that women have long been a part of Canadian publishing, though for the majority of that time it would have been behind the scenes, in partnership with their fathers or husbands. The early 1920s saw women’s participation in the industry grow, as they were hired at publishing companies as clerks, secretaries, manuscript assessors, and proofreaders. The true watershed moment for women in publishing, however, was Irene Clarke not only launching a publishing house in partnership with two family members (making her the first female publisher of English-language books) just after the stock market crash of 1929, but assuming even greater responsibility over the company when her husband died in 1955.


The introduction shares this amazing story early on, getting the reader excited to read about Clarke more in-depth later in the book, but the introduction takes a turn towards a more dense and detail-packed history of publishing in Canada. By its very nature, this history is one that features men quite predominantly, because, well, that’s who the figureheads and major players were for a long time — men. However, Panofsky does a good job of working in the achievements of women wherever possible, as well as explaining her approach to researching and writing the book.


Extraordinary Women: The Profiles

After the slightly-dry overview of the introduction, the profiles were, to me, quite different. I truly enjoyed reading them, as they were well-paced, filled with interesting tidbits and facts that kept me engaged, and succeeded in creating a well-rounded account of each woman’s experiences in Canadian publishing, both from their own perspective and the perspectives of others.


One thing that was very clear in Toronto Trailblazers was that these women had to contend with strong gender bias in their workplaces. For many of the women, social norms of their day dictated that they would leave the workforce entirely upon marriage. Their work may have been oft-interrupted by the duties that the men of the publishing world expected them to perform, such as making afternoon cups of tea. Francess Halpenny recounted sharing space with University of Toronto’s Department of History, with whom they always had tea at 4:00 p.m. And, in those days, “the ladies always made the tea. So we in the editorial department were swung into duty to make the tea” (p. 72). Halpenny made light of this ritual, but rather than defy the convention, she purposefully adapted to these expectations to help advance her own career at the University of Toronto Press.


Anna Porter experienced firsthand that the career path for women became especially difficult if one wanted children. Publisher Jack McClelland was, as Panofsky writes, so worried when Porter got married that his wedding gift to her was two large brandy snifters — one filled with birth control pills, and the other with condoms (p. 139). The message was very clear: He did not want her to get pregnant and leave her job. This was in 1972! As it happened, Porter did eventually have children — and when she gave birth to her firstborn in 1973, McClelland dropped by the hospital with a box of manuscripts for her, since she was “sitting there anyway” (p. 139). Through these stories, it is easy to see how far we have come in advocating for gender equality, but also how far we still have to go.


One aspect that all the women shared was a strong belief in the promotion of Canadian culture through writing and publishing. This belief was evident in their choices of which authors to promote (for example, Irene Clarke championed Emily Carr), both as editors and agents, and the editorial decisions that were made. Editor and agent Sybil Hutchinson particularly embraced the newfound emphasis on “material with Canadian setting, written by Canadians” that was seen in the 1960s. Panofsky describes how Hutchinson’s editorial decisions often reflected her sensitivity to Canadian nationalist issues, as well as influenced her directions to her editors: “Just stating a setting as northern Ontario, does not give a story a Canadian identity.”


Similarly, Anna Porter was quizzed directly by Jack McClelland on her knowledge of Canadian authors — when she could only name four, he directed her to “learn about Canada by reading Canadian writers” (p. 133), pointing out that “how the hell would [Porter] manage in the editorial department if [she] knew nothing about the country?” (p. 133). McClelland called it “the price of admission,” and it helped Porter become an “exceptional editor” (p. 138).


Perhaps one of my favourite parts of all the profiles is the correspondence that Panofsky includes to more fully create an idea of who these women were. It’s easy to see how and why their publishers and authors became dependent on them — they provided support, good advice, tough love when needed, and stood their ground when necessary. Sometimes they experienced doubt, but this just made them seem more human, when their achievements at times made them seem larger than life.


Canadian Publishing Today: The Conclusion

Toronto Trailblazers has made it abundantly clear to me just how much publishing has changed in the years since Irene Clarke ran her publishing company. Most of the companies mentioned in the book either no longer exist or were bought out and absorbed into global conglomerates such as Bertelsmann. This has lowered the level of competition, resulting in a current climate that rewards authors with a demonstrated track record, leaving small independent presses to do the work of championing first-time literary voices. However, as Panofsky points out, once an author experiences some success, they often make the choice to move to larger publishing houses — a decision for which they cannot be faulted, as larger houses promise a wider audience and a greater return on investment.


Ironically, as Panofsky explains, many of these changes — Canadian imprints being acquired by larger, foreign-owned companies — are a result of the “successful project” of twentieth-century Canadian publishing, a project that was helped in large part by the roles that several Toronto women played in Canadian publishing. These women truly transformed how publishing was done in Canada, and became examples that others looked to as people who built successful careers in publishing. Without their hard work and championing of Canadian authors, we might be left without the works of Emily Carr, James Reaney, Irving Layton, and many more.


Panofsky ends the book with the hope that this volume will help people see just how much more research must be done if we want to fully understand the complex role women have played in publishing and the vast amount of cultural work they have undertaken.




My Final Take

As a young woman who works in publishing, this book was an inspiring read, and I hope that other young women in publishing are similarly inspired to pick it up and read it. It’s important to know who paved the way for our own successes today, and Toronto Trailblazers taught me a lot about the hard work that these women did to carve out a place in publishing for themselves. I realized that without these women, the face and landscape of Canadian publishing would likely be very, very different today. I can only hope that this book encourages other writers and researchers to take up the torch, delve more deeply into this topic, and write more books that are just as engaging and well-written as this one is.



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