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Emily Kerby — 100 years of influence
In 2010, two important Calgary institutions — the YWCA of Calgary and Mount Royal University — celebrate their centennials. But they have more in common than just their age.
Both were shaped by the contributions of one remarkable woman — Emily Spencer Kerby.
Kerby was a talented social activist, writer and educator. A progressive thinker, she worked to improve the lives of women across Canada.
Born in Ontario in 1860, Emily Spencer trained as a teacher and served as the principal of a girls’ high school. An early feminist, she saw the importance of education for women.
In 1888, Emily married the Reverend George Kerby, a Methodist minister. Over the next 15 years, George built a reputation as a charismatic church leader, serving congregations in five cities across Ontario and Quebec. In each city, Emily joined local organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).
In 1903, George and Emily Kerby moved to Calgary so he could become the minister of the Central Methodist Church.
At that time, Calgary was a flourishing prairie city, establishing itself as a hub of Canada’s ranching and cattle industries and welcoming settlers from around the world. When Emily realized that it did not yet have a YWCA, she marshalled her organizational skills and began working with three prominent Calgary women to raise the funds to create one.
True to the social norms of the times, the founding members were listed in early YWCA minutes under their husbands’ names — Mrs. George Kerby, Mrs. John McDougall, Mrs. G.S. Jamieson and Mrs. Thomas Underwood.
The YWCA was founded in Dec., 1910, and the Chief Executive Officer, of today’s YWCA of Calgary, Jill Wyatt, says its early purpose was to provide safety for women coming here from somewhere else.
“It also offered English instruction to new settlers and, during its first decade, petitioned the Alberta government for a minimum wage of $12 per week for women in the workforce,” Wyatt says.
To learn more about Emily Spencer Kerby, look for the book A new day for women: life and writings of Emily Spencer Kerby, 1859-1938, published by the Historical Society of Alberta in 2004.
By 1911, the YWCA had expanded to provide a hostel in Banff for women working and travelling in the mountains.
“Housing and opportunities for women to create their own future have always been foundational to our mission,” Wyatt says. “The legacy of Mrs. Kerby is that, for 100 years, women and their families in Calgary have been able to rely on the YWCA to be responsive to and supportive of their needs for stability and safety.”
Dec., 1910 was also a milestone in George Kerby’s life when he became the founding principal of the city’s new Methodist college — Mount Royal College.
The Director of the Archives at Mount Royal is Pat Roome, PhD. She has researched Emily Kerby’s life, and the vision that drove her.
“Emily and George Kerby believed that, as Christians, they must lead moral and social reform causes,” Roome says.
“Dr. Kerby’s principalship of Mount Royal College allowed the couple to educate young Christian leaders, both male and female, to share their vision.”
Emily Kerby taught classes at Mount Royal, initiated cultural and social events, and organized a club to educate women about current events.
“Emily Kerby was always more than a minister’s wife,” Roome says. “In today’s world, she might have become the President of Mount Royal, but in 1910, she had to be content with a supporting role.
“It is ironic that, while Dr. Kerby received a salary, Emily Kerby’s work was unpaid and viewed as simply part of her role as wife.”
But those closest to Emily Spencer Kerby, and those whose lives she helped improve, were quick to acknowledge her many talents and her many achievements.
When she died in 1938 at the age of 78, her husband of nearly 50 years, Dr. George Kerby, said, “No man could have had a better partner than my wife … In all my work, both of church and college, Mrs. Kerby has been a great factor.”
— Nancy Cope, May 7, 2010