It's been a while coming but here is the first official author interview of 2015! I met Dr. Crystal Sissons at a book launch she shared with my daughter Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail last fall at the Canadian Aviation Museum. She introduced the packed room to a relatively little known Canadian phenomenon named Elsie MacGill. But let's let historian and author Crystall Sissons tell this fascinating story!
What gave you the idea to research the biography of Elsie MacGill?
I was doing my teaching placements as part of my degree requirements for a Bachelor of Education at
Lakehead University in , and I
was teaching about the Second World War. Elsie’s name came up in the range of
historical personalities to introduce to the Grade 10 students. Initially, to
them, she was just another name in the maze of facts they were trying to sort
out related to the war. But, when I noted that she worked only blocks away from
the high school where we were sitting that got their attention. Elsie had local
ties – and while the name of the plant was no longer Canadian Car and Foundry,
the students knew the Bombardier Inc. plant and wanted to know more about her. Thunder
Shortly after that time, having decided to pursue a Master’s degree at the University of Ottawa I received a phone call from Dr. Ruby Heap. She was responding to my interest in pursuing a topic related to women’s history and she asked me if I knew the name Elsie Gregory MacGill, as she was having her records at the Library and Archives of Canada catalogued.
Having only a basic knowledge about Elsie from my teaching experience and being intrigued by this possibility I told her I was familiar with the name and interested in knowing more – the rest is history as they say!
What interested you most about her – personally and professionally?
I think the key features of Elsie’s personality that make her fascinating are passion, determination and perseverance. Once she latched on to an idea or a cause she put all she had into it and moved steadily forward even if that had to be at a slower pace than she wanted. She was also a problem solver – challenges were simply something to overcome – and as a trailblazer in women’s education and engineering, a polio survivor and a prominent Canadian feminist she knew the power of combining these aspects with teamwork to effect change.
How long did it take you to conduct all the research and interviews that fill this book?
If we count all my graduate work, which set the foundations for this work, the full duration is 11 years.
What anecdote would you like to share about that research process?
Elsie Gregory MacGill was a key member of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (est. 1930). She ended up as the Provincial President of
and the National President
(1962-1964). As I followed her progress with this organization through her
papers I found that I agreed with many of their aims and objectives and I asked
my supervisor if joining this organization would be a conflict of
When I found out it was not, and that it might actually help me obtain some interviews I joined and attended the national convention in
. Right away I understood what drew
Elsie to this organization – and I did indeed obtain some interviews. Not too
long after I also had a chance to attend the meetings of the United Nation’s
Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) as the Canadian Federation of Business
and Professional Women’s Clubs is a founding member of the International
Federation of Business and Professional Women (IFBPW) which holds consultative
status at the UN. Toronto
I loved and still love the look in the eyes of members when they ask me where I learned about the club and I say in the archives! This experiential learning was something I had not anticipated as part of the historical process, and it is something which still enriches my life.
I have also been fortunate to connect with the incredibly rich world of women engineering organizations and explore the various possibilities offered by aviation. During my graduate work I was able to spend some time in a flight simulator, and since the publication of the book I have been fortunate to have my first orientation flight where I was allowed to take the controls of an aircraft under the instructor’s guidance. I look forward to seeing what new heights that will lead to!
Do you have any idea how many hours it took to produce this history book?
Research is a funny thing – you never know where it will take you. On account of my research I have read countless books, spent many, many hours in archives and as noted above been blessed with incredible life experiences. Counting hours is impossible, and I have no desire to do so, because even at the most frustrating moments when I was sure I would give up, the goal of sharing Elsie’s story and the support of an incredible range of friends and family pulled me through. This has been a real labour of love – and while I never met Elsie – through my research and her family, friends and colleagues I feel like I have come as close to meeting her as history will allow.
Elsie MacGill was one of many women in her day who made a difference in the status of women both in
and around the world. What made her really stand out for you, as a researcher
and as a feminist? Canada
From my perspective as a researcher and feminist Elsie stands out for many reasons. As noted above, she had incredibly strong personality traits. She faced a wide variety of challenges and somehow always pulled through, like a pilot focused on the horizon. She was always able to see it, and recognize the potential it offered. She knew that the only way to make progress was to move towards it, even if that meant facing seemingly impossible odds.
Elsie also knew the importance of teamwork. As an engineer, she knew that no project could be completed alone and that each one required a diverse range of expertise. She brought this thinking to feminism as well, along with her belief that nothing could be achieved if men and women worked in silos. Changes, whether technological or societal, required all Canadians to work together, for their mutual benefit, and the benefit of the nation as a whole.
In the midst of all of this Elsie did not take herself too seriously. Her friends and colleagues remember her joking nature and have told me often of her laugh. To be such a trailblazer and still leave the echoes of your laughter warming hearts behind you is a wonderful legacy.
How did Elsie get the name “Queen of the Hurricanes”?
The name “Queen of the Hurricanes” is based on a 1930s comic book story in an American comic book series, True Comics, of the same name. The cover of the book is based on that comic, and since that time Elsie has been associated with it.
This association was simply one of many accounts of her work during the Second World War as being a Chief Aeronautical Engineer in wartime was highly unusual. As a result the media did their best, as they did with other women in prominent non-traditional roles, to “normalize” her. This meant that featuring her in a news story would mean highlighting her femininity at the same time as whatever key point the story was mentioning.
An example would be something to the effect of: “Woman Aeronautical Engineer Advances Plane Designs by Day and Bakes Pies at Night.”
Elsie had many “firsts” for women in
and around the world. Based on your research, what would you say were her most
significant “firsts”? Why? Canada
Elsie’s most significant “firsts” that readily come to mind are those she accomplished in engineering. She was the first woman to graduate in engineering from the
University of Toronto
(1927), the first woman to graduate with a Master’s of Aeronautical Engineering
from the (1929). University
As a result, she went on to become the first Canadian woman professional engineer, and the first woman aeronautical engineer. These early achievements were ground breaking and opened the doors for her to become the first woman to become a Chief Aeronautical Engineer and design and oversee the production of an all-metal aircraft (the Maple Leaf II).
She is therefore a very important role model and historical foremother for women in engineering today. These women are eager to own their history and Elsie’s story is an incredibly important one for them. Her story also challenges the North American literature which has often seen women engineers and feminists at odds because Elsie merged these two diverse worlds into a unified vision of life. They caused some tension in her life, but she demonstrated that it was possible to take the best from both worlds and move forward to effect positive changes in the world around her.
Are you working on another history book? Please tell us a bit about it.
Yes. While working on Elsie’s biography many people asked me if I would write a book that was accessible for young adults. At the time, I was too engaged with finishing that project to give it serious thought, but after a presentation of my book to the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) group in
the question was
raised again. This time, it took hold of me and I had ideas for dialogue racing
through my mind. Ottawa
I am still at the drafting stage, but this project while being based on the biography I’ve just completed, allows me the creative liberty to imagine what Elsie was thinking during her many “firsts”. It opened a whole new range of possibilities for me to explore her engineering, her time as a member of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women and as a Commissioner on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in
Queen of the Hurricanes: The Fearless Elsie MacGill is based on my Master’s and doctoral studies at the
After I graduated in 2008, I continued researching and developing my
manuscript. My book is the fifth Feminist History Society (FHS) book and I am
indebted to the support and guidance of the incredible women within this
organization most notably Dr. Constance Backhouse and Dr. Diana Majury. University of Ottawa
I live and work in the National Capital Region [Ottawa/Gatineau,
] with my
incredibly supportive husband Dr. Teva Vidal. No matter how many times Elsie’s
books and papers have encroached on our living space, or how many drafts I have
asked him to review he has always stood strongly beside me as my number one
cheerleader. His support is a precious and priceless gift. Canada
I am an active member of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Ottawa Club. I love to write and read, usually I have between 5-10 different books on the go and my new Kindle has only enhanced my reading addiction! Depending on the season you can usually also find me snowshoeing, biking and swimming or heading back to my family’s camp outside of Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Social media links:
· Queen of the Hurricanes: The Fearless Elsie MacGill Blog: http://elsiemacgill.blogspot.ca/
· Twitter handle: @CrystalSissons
Links for the Book:
· Second Story Press: http://secondstorypress.ca/books/316-queen-of-the-hurricanes
· Feminist History Society: http://feministhistories.ca/
· Perfect Books,
· Beechwood Books,
· The Northern Woman Bookstore,
Thunder Bay, ON
Bay Historical Museum, Thunder Bay, ON
· Vintage Wings,