Before Thelma and Louise there was…

Anna Brown, Helen Salkeld, Audrey James and Rosemary Gilliat below an ore dock, Port Arthur, Ontario. August 1954. Source: Library and Archives Canada.

In the summer of 1954, these four women took a road trip across Canada: Anna Brown, Helen Salkeld, Audrey James and Rosemary Gilliat (the photographer featured in my last post).

Sounds simple enough. But this was the 1950s. Feminism was barely a whisper. Ozzie and Harriet reigned supreme on TV. In North America, the middle class was flocking to the suburbs to live in shiny new houses with shiny new appliances. While more and more women were working, the media continued to portray women as happy homemakers, like this:


Rosemary Gilliat’s photographs tell a very different story: four adventurous, independent women heading out across Canada in a station wagon. Not a skirt, modern appliance — or man — in sight.

In just over one month (July 31-September 5), they drove from Ottawa to British Columbia and back (that’s close to 5000 km).

The Trans Canada Highway, designed by Priscilla Li (Source)
The Trans Canada Highway, illustrated by Priscilla Li (Source)

This road is a big deal. It’s not just any road — it’s the Trans Canada Highway — the first highway to join Canada from coast-to-coast. It had huge social, political and economic implications for the nation, and Canadians were excited to travel “the highway to adventure” in their comfortable new automobiles. Construction began in 1950, and lasted twenty years. When Gilliat took the trip, parts of the highway were unpaved, and significant sections were not yet built.

Audrey James by the Trans Canada Highway. 1954. Credit: Rosemary Gilliat. Source: Library and Archives Canada

I’ve read much ado about the first men to make this journey — but precious little about women making the trek. I’d venture a guess that cross country, all women trips like this weren’t very common. Perhaps this was a first (on the Trans Canada, anyway).

Thankfully Gilliat documented the whole adventure — taking more than 800 photographs (all beautifully preserved by Library and Archives Canada).

They roughed it most of the way, camping along the road, in the mountains and in the middle of fields — wherever they could find a spot to pitch their tent (love the glass milk bottle pictured below):


They cut their own hair:

Washed dishes in the nearest lake:

Slept on crowded bunk beds:

Helen Salkeld, Audrey James, Anna Brown and another woman on bunk beds. 1954. Credit: Rosemary Gilliat. Source: Library and Archives Canada

They even brought their own wine:

Helen Salkeld holding a bottle of wine, Portage-la-Prairie, Manitoba. 1954. Credit: Rosemary Gilliat. Source: Library and Archives Canada

Judging by her photography (and her life), Gilliat and friends were ahead of their time — a harbinger of things to come?

Road trip anyone?


Credit for all photos: Rosemary Gilliat/Source for all photos: Library and Archives Canada


  1. Wonderful! The sense of autonomy and freedom just shines from the photos. So inspiring… I love your telling of the story; the chasm between the road trip photos and the 1950s ads highlights so much.

    • So glad you are getting something from my telling of her story. There is more to come. She is new to me, as she is to many. So many wonderful women’s stories buried in boxes, archives, private homes…it’s my honour get it out there for people to appreciate. (My mom is about the age of these women, so that makes it doubly fun for me. She had a great group of women friends (nurses) as well. They are friends to this day!)

  2. I love this. They were about my mom’s age. She was a rabble-rouser in her own right. I wish she could have found these four back then. It would have made things easier, maybe, as she moved through life. That generation of women is one to revere and pay attention to. They had so little comfort in a world that couldn’t abide by their intelligence and independence. Thanks so much for this!

    • I really appreciate your comment David. Your mom sounds wonderful! So many women were ready for change in the 50s, and without their courage, where would we be today?? I wish I knew how these 4 got together. That would be quite a story.

  3. Wonderful! Do you know if all these adventurers are still living? If so, are they still friends? Did they leave families behind when they went on their road trip? Thanks for this, it’s lovely.

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