Lady in Control

She’s beautiful and charming — and a crack economist doing one of Canada’s biggest jobs

THELMA LECOCQ August 1 1942

Lady in Control

She’s beautiful and charming — and a crack economist doing one of Canada’s biggest jobs

THELMA LECOCQ August 1 1942

Lady in Control

She’s beautiful and charming — and a crack economist doing one of Canada’s biggest jobs


PHYLLIS TURNER is different from most women in public life in that she leads with a smile instead of with her chin. Men—and she deals almost entirely with men—discover first that she’s charming, and when they find out that she’s clever as well, it upsets them only a little.

It takes more than charm to qualify as Canada’s Administrator of Oils and Fats, and Phyllis Turner has those qualifications in good measure. Four universities in four different countries have provided her with an excellent background of economics and political science. Eight years as economic adviser to the Tariff Board in Ottawa have given her a broad knowledge of the needs and workings of Canadian industry. Yet Phyllis Turner never got so deep into her books as to forget that looking her best is no drawback to a woman.

In spite of the fact that a certain Mr. George Denny broadcast to a whole continent at least four times within an hour (on America’s Town Meeting of the Air) that Mrs. Turner is a very pretty woman, one is still unprepared. Even in the middle of a busy day, Phyllis Turner presents a flawless, highly polished look that’s apt to make another woman wonder what’s happened to her back hair, and whether her slip is showing.

The effect she has on men might be described best in the words of one of her assistants. “Men, even those who’ve made millions, go into her office scared stiff. They come out looking as though they’d like to toss their hats in the air.”

To describe Phyllis Turner piece by piece would be like listing the measurements of the ideal Canadian woman. She has a figure that makes short skirts seem like a good thing. Her face is delicately and beautifully modelled. Her eyes are blue with straight brows, and no shadows under them. Her complexion has a clarity and freshness that most women begin to lose shortly after the age of two. Most noticeable beauty is her hands. They’re calm, quiet hands with no fidgets to them, and no gestures except a careful placing together of the finger tips in emphasis of a well-considered point.

These hands, you realize after you’ve been talking to her for a time, are an expression of Phyllis Turner’s character. As Administrator of Oils and Fats under the Wartime Prices and Trade Board

she has one of the key war jobs in Canada. Since our supplies in that line are down to fifty per cent of normal, she should also have one of the country’s biggest headaches. But, in spite of a working day that runs frequently to twelve hours, in spite of hurried calls to Washington and elsewhere, she manages to remain cool and self-assured.

Greasing the Wheels

TO THE general public her job as Administrator of Oils and Fats means very little. Most people don’t realize that certain oils and fats are needed to grease the wheels of almost every industry and that the health of a nation depends largely on the supply of other oils and fats. They don’t know that the German fat plan is one of the most successful and important preparations to support the Reich through a long war. They’re not aware that the providing of a score of wartime essentials that range from glycerin for explosives to cod-liver oil for children is a national problem and the responsibility of a pretty woman named Phyllis Turner.

But if the general public is unaware of the power she holds, industry stands in proper awe of Phyllis Turner. Oil is needed for everything from cutting steel to making chocolate bars. It’s needed for making tin plate, for tanning leather, for foundry

work, for textiles, for paints and varnishes. Makers of these goods get their supplies only through Phyllis Turner’s say-so.

Probably one of the reasons that she has this job is that she regards it not as a power to be wielded but as a problem to be solved. “My problem,” she says, “is trying to find enough to go round.” Reduced to those simple terms, Phyllis Turner’s task is similar to that which confronts every housewife and she goes at it like a good manager.

She knows to a drop Canada’s income in the way of vegetable oils, vitamin oils and animal fats. She knows which needs must get first consideration. She knows how she can make a little extra on the side by encouraging farmers to grow more soybeans and flax and by getting householders to salvage their grease in tins. She’s neighborly enough to realize that both our situation and that of the United States, in the matter of oils, can be bettered by an exchange of products. She understands that we have responsibilities beyond our home borders and that Britain depends on us for vitamin oils to fortify her margarine.

To find enough to go round she must of necessity cut down the oil supplies of less essential industries. She has set a limit to the number of colors of paint we may have, because fewer colors mean smaller stocks on hand, less scraping of the pot, and fewer tins on retailers’ shelves. Gradually, and as painlessly as possible, she is taking the cocoanut oil out of shampoos and chocolate bars and saving our unreplenishable stocks for glycerin. Already she’s limited the number of shades in rouges and lipsticks. In time she may deprive herself and the rest of her sex of nail polish and the frothier kinds of cold cream. Asked how she feels about that she smiles and says she doesn’t worry, manufacturers are so ingenious.

Nor is she unnerved by these same ingenious manufacturers in committee. She looks amused at the suggestion that having a woman administrator makes any difference to their procedure. They may modify their language, she thinks, but they have no hesitation about speaking their minds or fighting for what they want. She admits she’s not the best Continued on page 29

Lady in Control

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judge of what effect her presence may have on these meetings. “I really couldn’t say,” she refuses to take the question seriously. ‘Wou see, I’ve never been at a meeting that was all men.”

It’s this sense of humor along with her attitude of cool detachment that enables Phyllis Turner to cope with the most indignant committees. Radio listeners who heard her on “Town Meeting” last May were impressed with the well-reasoned, unemotional manner in which she stated the case for closer co-operation between Canada and the United States. They also were amused by the ready, well-pointed wit with which she answered her opponents.

She follows the same line in committee. She states her case, lets the storm rage around her, then she breaks in with a sure but gentle thrust. “What,” she asks a fractious industrialist, “have you done with your cocoanut oil?” In Oil and Fat circles that’s the equivalent of asking a suspected murderer where he’s buried his rich Aunt Nellie. The committee laughs, the gentleman subsides, and Phyllis Turner scores a point.

Staff All For Her

BECAUSE this sense of humor never fails her and because she has never been known to lose her temper, her staff give the impression of working in a perpetual state of suppressed delight. They get away to an eager start each morning by leaving their office doors open so they can see what hat she’s wearing today. They cheerfully work till midnight and on Sundays at the merest suggestion from her.

To back up their personal liking for her is a genuine and deep-rooted respect for her abilities. They attribute to her personally the fact that we are now processing vitamin oils in Canada for the first time. They say it was her idea, when Canada was short of animal glue, to gather up our bones, ship them to the States for processing; and that she negotiated the deal whereby we received that glue economically, in exchange for the by-products from the bones. They have the greatest

respect for her economic background and her grasp of world affairs.

They appreciate the knack she has for emerging from a cloud of economic theories and statistics to the practical consideration of how the housewife will feel if her supply of floor wax is cut down. They’re pretty proud of the way she’s consulted by experts from Washington, and the smoothness with which she controls the flow of oils between Canada, England and the British West Indies.

The story of how she worked up to be Canada’s only woman administrator is, as Phyllis Turner tells it, an unspectacular one. She liked to study. Because she was born and lived in Rossland, B.C., she began with a degree from the University of British Columbia. She applied for two scholarships, the University Women’s in Canada and the Susan B. Anthony Memorial to Bryn Mawr in the States, and got them both. At Bryn Mawr she had to have both French and German and, having no German, taught it to herself.

“I passed,” she admits, “because my German was hot when I took the exam.”

At the same university she was required to write a thesis on women in industry, so she chose as her subject, “Equal Pay for Equal Work.”

At any time the publication of that thesis for a fee of $300 would entitle Phyllis Turner to write M.A. after her name. She’s never felt that it was worth the money.

Following that, she studied for a year at the London School of Economics and decided to write another thesis, this time on “Communistic Effects in Canada.” This, she explains, was nothing to do with Red Flag Communism but dealt with the communal sharing of means of production as practiced by the Dukhobors who live within thirtyfive miles of her British Columbia home, and of the Hutterites and other such sects who have settled in Canada. Research on this subject took her to the University of Marburg in Germany.

The next few years Phyllis Turner devoted entirely to household economics. She was married in England and, as she says, was too busy having three children to do much else. She

lost one of her children. Then her husband died. And in 1933 Phyllis Turner came back to Canada. The next year she applied for a job as economic adviser to the Tariff Board in Ottawa. Her qualifications were impressive but they were reluctant to take a woman. Playing safe, they wired her—she was then in British Columbia—offered her a three months’ trial and told her not to bring the children. She brought the children and they’ve been with her ever since.

Too Busy To Fuss

TO THE question of how she holds an exacting job and manages a house and family at the same time, Phyllis Turner has a pair of answers that may get her stoned in the village square. As a housewife, she suspects she has less trouble than many a woman who makes a fulltime job of it because she’s too busy to fuss over trifles and cause ructions among the servants. As a mother, she feels she sees more of her children than many mothers do because she has to make a point of seeing them.

Being one of those rare and regrettable people who awake bright-eyed and eager to be up and out at the unheard-of hour of 6.30 or 7, she goes bicycling with John who is twelve and Brenda who is ten. Then they have breakfast together and all three are ready to leave the house at the same time for school and office. Except for those times when she is out of town on business, she has dinner with her children and sees that they are tucked into bed. Sundays,

they go for picnics together. Occasionally she manages to get out to the country club to skate, swim or play tennis with them. She enjoys all these sports but describes herself as just average because she doesn’t get much practice.

Phyllis Turner can cook and she could do an adequate job of sewing and dressmaking if she had to, and she feels that any intelligent woman could do the same. As it is, her housework is mainly a matter of drawers and cupboards which even the best servants don’t get round to doing. And she deals with small sewing matters such as lengthening last year’s clothes and shortening this year’s, as well as with buttons, socks and other small repair jobs.

She enjoys parties and loves to dance but doesn’t get much of either these days. Her greatest weakness is clothes. As for work—she has often wondered how she feels about that. Years ago she decided it was a mistake for a woman to be able to do things because people were only too willing to let her do them.

She made a vow that she would bring up her daughter to be the helpless type, but her plans have not worked out. At seven Brenda could do a neat row of knitting. At nine she was an accomplished horsewoman. At ten she’s following the family pattern by writing essays on codliver oil.

Her mother doesn’t mind. Even with her long hours and pressing problems as Adviser to the Tariff Board and Administrator of Oils and Fats, Phyllis Turner still believes in work.