Persistent and ubiquitous: remembering Abbie Lane

Abbie J. Lane. Photo: HRM Archives

In February 1953, Maclean’s Magazine published a story with the headline “Ubiquitous is the word for Abbie.” It referred to Halifax’s then-deputy mayor Abbie J. Lane, the first woman in Canada to hold that office. It was an apt headline.

Five mornings a week, she did a 15-minute radio commentary on women’s affairs, interviewed visiting celebrities and local do-gooders, and generally lambasted anyone who annoyed her.

An hour later, Lane (who was also an actor) would become all-Canadian farm wife “Mary Gillan” on CBC Radio’s Maritime Farm Family show. She was a household name on every East Coast farm.

An inveterate club member and committee worker, her duties ran the gamut from school boards to a poker club. Her crammed wallet held more than a dozen membership cards. She was proudest of the one from the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire.

She became its provincial president, a controversial appointment, coming a few months after she made a radio broadcast that detractors considered treasonous, as she criticized future queen Elizabeth.  

When the City of Halifax gave a luncheon at the Lord Nelson Hotel for Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh at the end of their 1951 Canadian tour, Lane presented the official gift, partly because she was the only woman on council and partly because she’d helped arrange the visit.

As soon as the presentation was over, the royal tourists hurried on to their next stop, the Camp Hill military hospital. Coming through the doorway into one of the wards the Princess did a double-take. Still wearing her aldermanic medallion, there stood Lane, this time on the business end of a microphone, frankly describing the event for radio station CJCH.

Halifax had an unwritten rule that Catholics and non-Catholics must alternate as mayors, so Abbie, an Anglican, didn’t run until Richard Donahoe’s term expired in the spring of 1955. She was the second woman alderman in the city’s history and had hoped to become the first woman mayor, but the city wasn’t ready for such a break from tradition.

Early in her service, she revealed her formula to get results. She was talking with a man about a request for funds from the provincial government. He reminded her that the city had already asked.  “Well, we didn’t get it, did we?” she said. “And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life it’s that if you want anything you have to nag, nag, nag… Sure, I’m persistent. I don’t mind getting in anyone’s hair.”

She freely shared her opinions on a multitude of subjects, movies among them. She once stormed into the manager’s office of a downtown theatre, demanding he stop screenings of an “interplanetary horror” film. He ignored her. She slammed it on the radio next morning. “It was just too fantastic for children,” she said. “I saw them in a state of hysteria.” The screenings quickly ended.

Her views on a woman’s role in the world were relatively progressive, but tinged with the era’s biases.

“Her place is in the home if her children need her,” she said. “But if she has no children, or if they’ve reached an independent age, she owes it to her community to get out and do something.  Women learned during the war years that they could spare time away from the kitchen for other jobs. Now we shouldn’t allow ourselves to slip back into complete domesticity. Outside interests make a woman more attractive to her husband and they keep her from becoming lonely in old age.”

Writer’s Note: Despite her larger-than-life career, most Haligonians know Lane today simply as a name on a hospital. There are a lot of anecdotes and information about her that aren’t part of the public record. Halifax Magazine would love to hear from you if you have anything to share for a follow-up story.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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