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Tuesday, September 6, 2022

The Perfects

The Perfects

By C. A. Asbrey

Helen Alling Davis, third from left

Virginia Wolfe's seminal work, A Room of One's Own, didn't only equip many women with the language to articulate frustrations they had felt for decades, it reflected the times in which it was created. It caught a zeitgeist, albeit one growing amongst the increasingly independent and educated women in the upper middle classes. As reflected in the essay, these women had the resources and the space in which to explore their intellects, abilities, and wants, in a way denied to the poorer women scratching for survival, and dependent upon others. But they only had them because they seized the moment and took them in much the same way as men did. Most women were not so lucky.

First Edition Cover

These women felt stifled by the restrictions of Victorian society, and although the advent of the Edwardian period promised change and a new lightness, attitudes were changing slowly. The Americans called this The Gilded Age, with the sombre haughtiness lifting, replaced by a younger and broader outlook. Where the previous era had been an engine for social change based on philanthropism, the new arrivals began to look less at how worthy the poor were, and more about engineering a change in which the poor were better able to advance themselves. It was about breaking down barriers, understanding why some groups were unable to access opportunities. Social agitation against restrictions grew.

The world's largest freshwater archipelago, in Lake Huron's Georgian Bay, is studded with small islands, leading to the area being known as Thirty Thousand Islands, was an unlikely scene for rebellion. It was to this remote and rugged area that women ventured, wearing long skirts, petticoats, and sun hats, to engage with the wilderness, enjoy new freedoms, and establish a community where women struck a blow for their own independence. These intrepid ladies did more than demand a place of their own. They created a community that lasted for at least two decades.   

These free-spirits loved to kayak, fish, swim (often undressed in such a way as to cause shock on public beaches), pick berries, picnic, cook-out, camp, and hike. Nothing too revolutionary there, you'd think. But these women did more than just pass their spare time. They purchased the islands so they could enjoy the freedom of doing things their own way, and without any of the outside rules they felt crushed them.    

The first island was bought in 1902, when the women were surprised to find that they were being sold remarkably cheaply. The going rate was between five and ten dollars. One woman, Helen Alling Davis, was a gymnastics instructor, and after spending an initial seven weeks enjoying the area, she purchased the first island of the community. She called it St. Helen's, saying it was the only way she would ever be sainted. The three acre island afforded spectacular views and, rocks and woods, a jungle, hills and ravines, bays and promontories.” The first summer was spent camping, but the second summer Helen Alling Davis had help from her brother, and cheap local labour to build a cottage. This cottage soon became a haven for this group of single women to gather, along with their family, to enjoy life in the way they wanted to live.

Mary Bragdon's Diary

Another woman, Mary Bragdon, was a stenographer and secretary in Rochester, but she desperately wanted to be a writer and photographer. She was another example of the new woman; the educated, confident, and independent women pushing out without men or permission. Back in Rochester, she was a member of a club called, "The Perfect Little Ladies". This was soon abbreviated to "The Perfects." At first the diaries show schoolgirlish superiority at their cleverness, and enthusiasm at finding like-minded friends. Their stated aim at the start was to find good husbands, but that soon changed as they matured. They soon exemplified the image of the new woman: professional, self-supporting, independent, and intelligent. Furthermore, they were prepared to challenge gender-norms that had been around for centuries. They didn't feel the need to get married for security. They enjoyed not having to answer to anyone, relished their fun with female friends, drank, smoked, debated, and demanded that women be allowed to have their own space to grow. The Perfects made this group of islands their own in a way that changed them forever, and created a new kind of tourism.  

Mary kept a diary of her time exploring these islands. In summer 1903, the sisters hosted fellow Perfects May Bragdon and Mary MacArthur, and another Rochester resident, Marjorie Fowler. Helen’s parents, Oscar and Frances, her brother Hamilton, and her sister Katharine also stayed at St. Helena, along with many other guests who came and went. “Then cots, hammocks and tents overflowed and everyone helped bake pancakes in the morning on the merry little Klondike stove.” The land was described as, ''wild, beautiful and apparently untrodden by the foot of man. . . as they explored the rocky islands and gathered fresh berries. Then there were evenings of reading aloud[,] singing & playing cards or toasting marshmallows."
Charlotte Davis and Marjorie Fowler setting off to pick blueberries for dinner in 1903

The Perfects used St. Helena as a base from which to find other nearby islands to purchase. Bragdon called hers Mandalay after Rudyard Kipling's poem, and referred to Katherine's island as Minnehaha. Katherine also later bought Mary's island, Oneeishta (Ojibway for “Laughing Maiden). Charlotte Davis called hers Wonderland, clearly influenced by J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. Charlotte explored "almost every inch” by herself, but did enjoy hosting other women to take tea and enjoy the stunning sunsets. 

Mary Bragdon on Mandalay

It didn't take long before a lot more women came and joined this summer community to enjoy the emancipation and stunning surroundings. They came from the USA and Canada, and purchased many of the small islands dotted around the bay. Around twenty-five small islands in the area were bought by single, professional women. Hamilton Davis, the elder brother, saw a commercial opportunity in opening an hotel in the area. The Ojibway hotel opened in 1906, and catered for those who loved the outdoor life during the day, but a good meal and comfortable bed when they got back. It closed in 1942 when the islanders bought the hotel and turned it into the Ojibway Heritage Society. It still functions today as a centre for learning, and as a shop, restaurant, and gift shop outside of its social commitments.

Helen didn't have children of her own, she became a leading light in the YWCA, and worked with her sister Katherine to reform women's corrections, education, suffrage, social science, and women's rights. Both were dedicated, respected and overlooked by history. But the family's descendants still use the rebuilt cabin on St. Helena as a holiday home.

Georgian Bay Islands Today

This story may not sound like much, but a mere fifty years before, it would have been unthinkable for a group of single women to go off hiking, camping, fishing, and holidaying without men.—especially for the whole summer. Most Victorian women didn't see free time as their own. It was time to repair or create things for the home, improve themselves, or to do things for the family. The idea of them buying up a collection of islands to keep indulging themselves would have been unimaginable. The Perfects were a small act of revolution that rang down the years, creating a wake bigger than their ripples.

These women all made a difference to those who came after, either as examples of women doing work they previously were denied, or by teaching or campaigning for those less fortunate than themselves. They are largely forgotten by history, but made an enormous difference to people's lives in a myriad of small acts. These women changed society in each woman they helped educate, in every stand they made against inaction, in the families they helped leave abusive homes. They were stealthy mutineers.

The Ojibway Club Today

On Katherine Davis Death, Rockerfeller's letter of condolence to her sister read:

" . . I found her [at first meeting in Bedford]. . . a plain work-a-day woman who deeply loved her fellowmen, who strove in her relations with them to do as she would be done by, and who applied in her work the ordinary principles of common sense and humanity, the value of which her unusually fine mind and trained intellect had long since made clear to her. She was always kind, unselfish and thoughtful to a degree. On the other hand, no one could take advantage of those qualities to get the better of her or to thwart the end which she was seeking to attain. Red tape, unnecessary motion, indirection, she abhorred, and was never willing to waste time on them. What she accomplished at the Reformatory, and in the laboratory, which I helped her build and operate, was epoch-making . . . Her contribution in [the Mitchel administration] . . . was again outstanding. . .I have always had a feeling, however, that her heart was above all in the work at Bedford . . .The years she spent in the Bureau of Social Hygiene were also productive and fruitful. . . .  Your sister was one of the great women of her day. Her life was a long and useful one, and she leaves a record of devotion and service to humanity which few can boast of. I am proud to have been her friend and often her fellow worker, and mourn deeply with you and yours her going."  



“She hasn’t got the combination to the safe,” said the manager. “You can scare her as much as you want. We all know you’re not gonna use that gun on us.”

Rebecca’s breath halted as she felt a careless arm drape around her shoulder.

“I don’t need a gun to hurt someone. Give us the combination.” The manager remained mute and turned his face away. “Your call, sir.” He pulled Rebecca around to face him as she gasped in alarm. “Just remember who you’ve got to thank for this, ma’am.”

He pointed over at the manager, who refused to meet her eyes. “That man right there.”

“Anything that happens to her is down to you. Not me,” said the manager.

Rebecca felt herself dragged from the room by one arm. She was pulled into the office next door and pushed against the wall. The man walked over and pulled down the blind before returning to her. Her breath came in ragged pants of fear. “Please, no. Don’t.”

He leaned on the wall, a hand on either side of her head, and pressed his face close. “You were gonna hold this place up. Are you some kind of idiot?”

She blinked in confusion. “Huh?”

The man pulled down his mask, revealing the face of the fair man who had walked into her office looking for Fernsby. “Don’t lie to me, honey. You had the same idea as we did— look at Meagher’s bank account to see where he gets his money. We’ve watched you march up and down outside this place all day, like you were on sentry duty, while you built up your courage. You even got in the way of us doin’ it. What the hell is goin’ on in your head? How dumb can a woman get?”

“You? Here?” She couldn’t quite decide whether to stop being scared or not.

“Yeah. Me.” He indicated with his head. “Now, Nat’s in there, and he needs the combination of the safe. It’s too new and sophisticated for him to crack the combination. You and me need to put on a bit of a show to make sure the manager gives it up.”

“You’re not robbing the bank?”

Jake huffed in irritation. “Try to keep up, Becky. I need you to scream for help so the manager gives Nat the combination to the vault. We want Meagher’s records too.”

She shook her head. “Me? I can’t scream.”

“What do you mean you can’t scream? All women can scream.”

“I can’t. I’m just not made that way.”

He frowned. “Look, Becky. If you won’t scream, I’m gonna have to make you. Let’s do this the easy way, huh?”

“Please, help! Noooo.”

Jake frowned. “You call that screamin’? That’s useless.”

“I told you. I can’t.”

Jake flicked up an eyebrow. “Last chance, Becky.”


“Nope.” A gloved hand reached up to her hat as his eyes glittered with mischief. “Don’t say you weren’t warned, sweetheart.” 



  1. Vivid excerpt with a twist, excellent! Makes me want to know what happens next.
    Really interesting article. What amazing women!
    Pity islands aren't still for sale for $5 to $10...

    1. Thanks, Lindsay. Wouldn't that be just perfect? Your own island? I loved learning about these women. They certainly got my plot bunnies bouncing.

  2. This was an amazing time. Thank you for highlighting these women and the stories. Doris

    1. Thanks, Doris. Yes. These ladies truly gave me some great ideas for a story.

  3. I have always liked A Room of One's Own. Thanks so much for introducing these women to me and putting Wolfe's work into real-life context. Loved the excerpt.

    1. Thanks, Ann. I loved researching them. They certainly got some ideas flowing for me.