Looking Back at the First Women of Distinction Awards

A look back at YWCA Toronto’s first Women of Distinction Awards in 1981

The Aggie award given to the Women of Distinction

Now in it’s 32nd year, the Women of Distinction Awards is a gala event that celebrates the achievements of Toronto women, raises critical funds to support YWCA programs, and brings people together to network and be inspired.

I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to be at the inaugural awards ceremony back in 1981. How did it all begin? Who were the first award winners and what were their stories?

Well, according to a Toronto Star article published October 29, 1981, Toronto’s first Women of Distinction Awards was a night of pomp, glitter and anticipation.

Held on a chilly evening in late October 1981, the event was a sold out affair hosted by Adrienne Clarkson. More than 600 women gathered in a crowded ballroom at the Royal York Hotel to break bread and celebrate the efforts and achievements of Toronto women.

Guests dined on roast duckling and sipped red wine as they anxiously waited for the awards presentation to begin. 69 women had been nominated, and only six would end the night as honorary Women of Distinction.

Women were nominated for their achievements in six categories: the arts; community services; communications; health; business, professions or labour; and public affairs. Each winner would go home with the coveted Aggie, a shining bronze statuette named for Agnes Amelia Blizzard who founded the first Canadian YWCA in 1870.

When it came time to announce the winners, the following six names were called:

Eleanor Koldofsky (Arts) – Koldofsky grew up in a family that valued the arts. At age ten, she sold her only pair of shoes to buy a ticket to see violinist, Fritz Kreisler, play at Massey Hall. Koldofsky is credited with pioneering the Canadian jazz and classical music recording industry, and has been praised for her work as a philanthropist and patron of the arts.

Mildred Redmond (Community Services) – As a social worker, volunteer and community organizer, Redmond was the driving force behind many clubs and services for Toronto’s Aboriginal community; including one of the first Native centres in Toronto. Redmond’s efforts to improve the lives of women and families include fighting for the existence of a hostel for Native girls in Toronto, and helping to establish and run the Council Fire Native Cultural Centre.

Jane Gale Hughes (Communications) – During her time as editor-in-chief of Homemakers magazine Gale Hughes gained a reputation for hard-hitting editorials addressing national issues. Under her leadership, the magazine tackled issues such as wages for housework, sexism in advertising, teenage suicide and abortion (despite threats of a boycott on products advertised in the magazine).

Dr. Helen Morley (Health) – When Morley graduated from Oxford University in 1943 with a Bachelor of Medicine, she was one of four women in a graduating class of 60. She immigrated to Canada ten years later, and was shocked to discover that birth control devises were illegal, as was the teaching of family planning. Despite controversy at the time, she went on to open one of Toronto’s first birth control information centres.

Laura Sabia (Public Affairs) – As a high profile feminist and social activist, not to mention politician and writer, Sabia made major strides to advance the status of women in Canada. Among her many achievements, Sabia played a key role in the development of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, and was a rallying force in the lobby for women’s rights.

Maria Scarpelli Iori (Business, Professions or Labour) – As founder and president of the Canadian Textile and Chemical Union’s local at Puretex Knitting Co., Scarpelli Iori led a three-month strike in 1979 that resulted in the removal of management cameras that were monitoring women’s washrooms.

A special award was also presented to Marilou McPhedran and Linda Palmer Nye for political action. Both McPhedran and Palmer Nye were part of the Ad Hoc Committee of Canadian Women on the Constitution which fought for (and won) stronger equality provisions in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.


The achievements of these eight women alone are so immense they could fill a textbook, yet they are merely eight among countless Toronto women who have made incredible contributions on a local, national and global scale.

It just goes to show the importance of celebrating and remembering the role that women have played in improving life in Toronto and around the world.

Since 1981, YWCA Toronto’s Women of Distinction Awards has honoured over 200 women and raised millions of dollars to support programming for women and families. Visit womenofdistinction.ca for more information.

Becky Thomas is YWCA Toronto’s Part-Time Volunteer and Special Projects Coordinator.