Tilly Jean Rolston

1887 -- 1953

Tilly Rolston At the time of her death on 13 October 1953 at the age of sixty-six, Tilly Rolston had created not only a legacy for women in politics, but she had also created a legacy for the future of "sex education" in British Columbia schools. As the Minister of Education in W. A. C. Bennett's Social Credit government, Rolston approved changes to the Effective Living curriculum guide to include a controversial 1950s version of "sex education."

Tilly Jean Rolston was born in Vancouver. She studied at the University of British Columbia when it was connected with McGill University in Montreal, and she attended the Vancouver Normal School. She was a teacher in a Vancouver school until 1909 when she married Frederick James Rolston. They had two daughters and a son. She was raised as a Baptist, but later joined the Shaughnessy Heights United Church. Rolston worked full-time as a mother, wife and Sunday school teacher until she entered the politcal realm in 1938 on behalf of the British Columbia Council of Women.

Rolston worked closely with many associations and clubs: she was a member of the Parent-Teachers' Association [PTA]; was a director of the Vancouver-based Pacific National Exhibition [PNE]; was Honorary President of the Women's Canadian Club; president of the Oratorio Society, Quota Club, and the Travel Women's Club; was the founding chairman of the Theatre Under the Stars; board member of the YWCA auxilary and of the Vancouver Symphony Society.

Of her many activities, however, none was more important to her than her work as a provincial politician.

Rolston was first elected to Provincial Legislature as Conservative Party member for Vancouver-Point Grey in 1941. She was re-elected in 1945 and 1949 as a member of the Coalition party; and in 1952 as a member of the W. A. C. Bennett's first Social Credit government. In that same year, Bennett appointed her to the position of Minister of Education. She was British Columbia's first woman cabinet minister, and she was the first woman in Canada to hold a cabinet portfolio and an active cabinet post. As Minister of Education, one of her most notable accomplishments was the implementation of a new method of school finance known as the Rolston Formula.

Her tenure as Minister of Education was also notable for the controversy surrounding a school curriculum guide entitled Effective Living (1952). The guide was intended to educate pupils in junior and senior high school in matters relating to health, physical education, guidance, mental hygiene, and home and family living. However, it also included references to teen-age "dating" and because of these references the curriculum guide was denounced as "an immoral book" by Opposition members in the provincial legislature. As minister responsible for the curriculum, Rolston was accused of promoting immoral and promiscuous behavior in provincial schools.

Effective Living was in fact introduced before Rolston took office. It was introduced in 1950 and was authorized by the Minister of Education, W. T. Straith, who represented the provincial Conservative Party in the Legislature. The first edition of Effective Living, published in 1950, was explicitly against sex education instruction. However, the 1952 edition of Effective Living -- which was published with a vibrant red cover -- contained instruction for teachers to discuss teen-age activities, such as "dating," and "modern expressions and practices" -- including blind dates, Dutch treat, going steady, petting, good night kiss, pick-up dates, wearing a boy's (or girl's) school or class pin, cost of dates, etc.

Many parents felt that it was not the role of the school or teachers to instruct on dating, and that they were being denied a parental privilege and responsibility. One parent maintained that "If sex is going to be taught in schools, it should only be taught by a medical practioner." Indeed complaints about the new Effective Living curriculum came from both parents and from teachers who were reluctant to discuss personal and potentially controversial topics with their students.

Rolston's reponse to the new curriculum was, "We want no sausage-machine citizens. We want no tremendous amount of uniformity. We want a measure of individuality and the Education Department is trying to lead the way." She insisted in the legislature that, "the greatest resource in all of Canada is our young people and we in British Columbia want the best for them." Rolston recognized that the changing, post-war society in which secondary school attendance became more common place than ever demanded a broader school curriculum. She believed that the Effective Living currriculum was necessary and that it would properly prepare young Canadians for adulthood. "We must be vitally concerned with the kind of person the pupil is becoming," she said, defending the curriculum in the Legislature.

The 1952 Effective Living Guide remained a part of the provincial curriculum for many years and has since been replaced by numerous sex education programs such as Health and Personal Development, Family Life, and most recently, Personal Planning.

Tilly Rolston was a colourful member of cabinet. Colleagues recall that she had a quick tongue, a ready wit, and the ability to laugh at herself. She was also admired as a political reformer who was a strong advocate of advocate of family courts, free maternity benefits, mother' allowance, and coloured margarine (!). And of course she helped to ensure the future of sex education programs in the public schools of British Columba.

Mrs. Rolston died on 13 October 1953 after a brave two-year battle with cancer. On the day of her death, the flags on the Parliament Buildings in Victoria flew at half mast. She was the first woman in British Columbia to receive a state funeral.

Juliette Proom, "Tilly Jean Rolston: She Knew How to Throw a Party," in In Her Own Right, Selected Essays on Women's History in British Columbia. (Victoria: Camosun College, 1980); Who's Who in British Columbia. Vol. IX. (Victoria: Admark Ltd, 1953); Vancouver Sun (Wednesday, 14 October 1953); Vancouver Province (24 February 1952); British Columbia Provincial Archives Vertical Files on Tilly Jean Rolston.

Researched and written by Geri Itterman, ED-B 423, University of Victoria, June 1998