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A legacy of fierce females

Mount Allison’s Mary Electa Adams broke through barriers for women pursuing university education
By: Renée Belliveau (’17)

Mount Allison has the privilege to claim the first woman to earn a bachelor’s degree in the British Empire (Grace Annie Lockhart, 1875) and the first female Bachelor of Arts in Canada (Harriet Starr Stewart, 1882).

These historic achievements are largely thanks to Mary Electa Adams, who in 1854 became Preceptress of the newly established female branch of the Mount Allison Wesleyan Academy.

Adams was an early advocate for women’s education and devoted her career to breaking down the barriers that prohibited women from pursuing a university education.

Born in Westbury, QC, in 1823, Adams grew up in Adamsville (Acton), ON. She began her formal schooling in Montpelier, VT, but soon transferred to the Cobourg Ladies’ Seminary in Ontario, where she earned a Mistress of Liberal Arts degree. She worked as teacher and administrator at several schools in Ontario and Michigan before accepting what was at that time the highest administrative office available to a woman at Mount Allison.

Adams arrived in Sackville determined to establish a rigorous academic curriculum for women.

“It would be superfluous to advocate what must now be considered a settled principle: that the introduction of the abstruser sciences into a course of study for females, is of the highest utility,” argued an 1855 editorial in the Mount Allison Academic Gazette likely written by Adams.

Under her direction, the female branch devised three courses of study: primary, intermediate, and collegiate. The collegiate course was modelled on the same course for men, with fewer classical subjects but a strong focus on science and literature. It was this program that allowed Grace Annie Lockhart to transfer from the female academy to the university two decades later.

Adams left Mount Allison to care for her mother after her father’s death in 1856 but found her departure bittersweet. “I have loved my work and loved those for whom I have labored and I should have felt my joy at going home mingled with sorrow at parting,” she wrote in her journal. She did not anticipate coming back but was eventually persuaded by a sense of duty to “the cause of female education” to return to Sackville for another year. Her students idolized her, and her influence endured, as evidenced by the praise they wrote in Allisonia — a publication created by the Eclectic Society of the Ladies College — in 1904.

In 1861, Adams became the founding principal of the Wesleyan Ladies’ College in Hamilton, ON, and in 1872 established Brookhurst Academy in Cobourg. She fostered close ties between her students and Victoria College, which eventually led them to reopen their doors to women. Adams finished her fifty-year career at the Ontario Ladies’ College in Whitby and retired to Alberta. She died in Toronto in 1898. 

Mary Electa Adams had a profound impact on the expansion of educational opportunities for Canadian women. In 2004, she was named a Person of National Historic Significance. A plaque celebrating her achievements will be officially unveiled on campus this fall with a public talk by University Archivist David Mawhinney.

Note: Thanks to Jane Tisdale and David Mawhinney for their insight and assistance.