Eliza Ritchie, 1856 - 1935

Courtesy of Dalhousie University Library Special Collections

Three Firsts ... and Much More

Eliza Ritchie's cleverness was never in doubt. The question was: what could she do with it? There were few paths open to women born when she was.

Eliza grew up in a privileged family in Halifax, and was educated privately. She did not enter a wider world until she started at Dalhousie University in 1882. Women were first admitted only the year before. At Dalhousie, Eliza excelled in philosophy then moved on to Cornell University where in 1889 she completed a doctorate in German philosophy. She was, it is said, the first Canadian woman to earn a PhD. For the next decade, Eliza Ritchie taught at different women's colleges in the USA.

She returned to Halifax in 1899 and from then on led a life of "studious leisure", which she was able to do because of her family's wealth. Yet Eliza was anything but idle. In Nova Scotia, she became an influential intellectual and activist. She continued her philosophical research and writing and did public speaking. As a volunteer or a member of a board, Eliza Ritchie was an ardent promoter of education, art and literature. Her aim, she stated, was to make the Maritimes “a centre for high thinking and for the fostering of art.”

Central to her mission in life was to improve the status of women, all women regardless of social rank. Ritchie was a leader of the campaign to achieve women’s suffrage, which was finally achieved in Nova Scotia in 1918. In 1919, the scholar, author and feminist was appointed to Dalhousie University's Board of Governors, another first for Canadian women. Eight years later, she was the first woman to receive an honorary lld from Dalhousie.

With her brilliance and hard work, Eliza Ritchie had in countless ways made Nova Scotia much better than it was when she was born.