Kathleen “Kit” Coleman: Trailblazing Journalist

Kathleen Blake Watkins during the 1890s. © The Carbon Studio / Library and Archives Canada / PA-164916

For the week of Monday, October 26, 2020.

On October 26, 1889, journalist Kathleen “Kit” Coleman published her first column in the Toronto Daily Mail. She went on to have a prolific career as a trailblazing columnist, reporter, and war correspondent.

Coleman was born Catherine Ferguson in 1856 to landowning farmers of insecure finances in Ireland. Rendered penniless after the death of her first husband and unable to find work, she left Ireland to work as a governess in London and then travelled extensively before immigrating to Canada in 1884. She moved to Toronto a year later and started a family with her husband, E. J. Watkins. After separating from him in 1889, she began to work as a journalist to provide for her two children.

She leveraged her experience as a freelance writer for the magazine Saturday Night to get a job with The Daily Mail, writing her own column, called “Women’s Kingdom.” At the time, newspapers were trying to attract more advertisers by expanding their coverage beyond politics and including pages they hoped would appeal to women. Using the pen name “Kit,” she wrote essays that covered topics that ranged from fashion to legal advice, covered such landmark events as the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and significantly increased the newspaper’s circulation.

In 1898, Kit became the first American-accredited female war correspondent when the Toronto Mail and Empire sent her to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War. She faced discrimination from American authorities and newspapermen, who regarded her appointment as a publicity stunt, and missed the first three months of the war after being prevented from travelling to Cuba with soldiers and male correspondents. Overcoming such challenges, she distinguished herself while covering the war, travelling by horseback to record the aftermath of battles and even slept outdoors in the hills near Santiago. She also uncovered American plans to send a cargo of ammunition and food supplies to Cuban insurgents.

Upon returning from Cuba, she married Dr. Theobald Coleman and moved to the mining town of Copper Cliff, Ontario, after her husband became the doctor for the Canadian Copper Company. In 1904, Kit Coleman served as the first President of the Canadian Women’s Press Club, which supported female reporters with mentorship and educational opportunities before journalism schools existed. She published her final “Women’s Kingdom” column in 1911 but continued to write syndicated columns for different newspapers until her death from pneumonia in 1915.

Kathleen Blake Coleman is a designated national historic person. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic persons—individuals who have made unique and enduring contributions to the history of Canada.

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