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B.C.’s long-suffering suffragists

BCBookLook interviews Lara Campbell, author of A Great Revolutionary Wave, one of the books in a series about Canada's suffragist movement.

April 28th, 2020

B.C. suffragist Helena Gutteridge (right) at a CCF picnic in the 1930s, was a labourer and counted socialists as her colleagues and friends.

In 1917, B.C.’s women were finally allowed to vote but not until after Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta got the franchise in 1916.

A Great Revolutionary Wave: Women and the Vote in British Columbia (UBC Press $27.95) by Lara Campbell

BCBookLook: I was amused that you used this quote from an anti-suffrage speech by Mrs. Homan Childe, reported in Champion magazine, October, 1913: “Woman’s place is in the home and every woman should have one. It is her business to get one. They can all find some kind of man to make a home for. Anyway, the more I see of the men God put into the world, the more convinced I am that God did not intend us women to be too particular.” Why did you use it?

Lara Campbell: Champion was a leading suffrage journal based in British Columbia, and one of the few such journals in Canada. Writers for the magazine loved to poke fun at anti-suffrage men and women by writing satirical plays, short stories, jokes and columns. They sometimes performed these original pieces at suffrage meetings, as well. They clearly loved to laugh and poke fun at their opponents. They knew the issue of political equality was serious, but laughter was one way to relieve the burden of oppression and to enjoy themselves while they continued the political battle. I don’t think they get enough credit for their creativity and sense of humour.

BCBookLook: Who were the prominent suffragists in B.C. and were they mostly middle-class and elite women of privilege?

Lara Campbell: Many prominent suffrage supporters in the province were indeed middle-class or elite women, and historians know a fair bit about their lives.

Helen Gregory MacGill, for example, was university-educated, worked as a paid journalist, and took legal training when she lived in California. She became a prominent provincial Liberal Party supporter and ultimately was appointed to the position of Juvenile Court judge.

Mary Ellen (Spear) Smith was also a prominent and well-known suffrage supporter. Born in England, she trained as a teacher, married coal miner Ralph Smith, and moved to Nanaimo in 1891. He soon became a labour leader and a provincial and federal politician; Mary Ellen joined multiple women’s organizations, co-founded the Liberal Women’s Association, was a popular speaker on issues pertaining to women and children, and ultimately became the province’s first elected female MLA in 1918.

Helen Gregory MacGill, a judge and Vancouver’s 1st female councilor.

Many leading society women, such as Marie McNaughton, Lily Laverock and Ethel Cody, were educated women who were members of the Local Councils of Women or the University Women’s Club, and who were prominent writers and speakers for the suffrage cause.

But quite a number of suffragists did not have such storied backgrounds. Helena Gutteridge immigrated to Vancouver in 1911 from London, England. She was a skilled tailor who worked for a living, had strong ties to organized labour, counted leading socialists as her friends and colleagues, and was a labour organizer.

Bertha Merrill Burns was one of Gutteridge’s colleagues and friends. Born in Ontario, Burns worked as a teacher, then moved to Nelson with her widowed mother, where they opened a boarding house. She became a Socialist Party member and journalist, and married Ernest Burns, a socialist labour organizer from Birmingham. Burns wrote for numerous newspapers and helped found the Social Democratic Party of British Columbia in 1907. Quite a number of suffrage women were married to skilled working-class men and were involved in labour or socialist politics. Some of these women appear only briefly in local newspaper coverage of suffrage events – people like Victoria-based Helen Christopher, who was married to a shipyard machinist and who joined the Political Equality League (PEL) alongside her daughter and her daughter-in-law, or Victoria’s Ada Clayton, an active member of the PEL and the Socialist Party of Canada.

Helena Gutteridge addressing the “Post Office riot,” 1938.

In Vancouver, which was the largest city in the province by the time the suffrage movement was more established, so many working women were interested in suffrage that Helena Gutteridge formed an organization designed to appeal to working-class women. The first such organization was the Evening Work Committee, established as a caucus of the more mainstream Political Equality League. But it became so successful that Gutteridge declared autonomy and created the first working class women’s suffrage league in Canada, the B.C. Women’s Suffrage League (WSL), followed by a sister organization, the Mount Pleasant Women’s Suffrage League. Both organizations held weekly evening meetings, welcomed children and supported not only suffrage but government interventions to lower the cost of living, a minimum wage, workplace safety regulations and increased unionization for working-class women.

Some of the earliest and most well-known suffragists had complicated lives, such as Maria (Pollard) Grant who was the daughter of a prominent Methodist family. She was politically inspired by the visit of American suffragist Susan B. Anthony, who spoke in Victoria in 1871, and American temperance activist and suffrage supporter Frances Willard, who visited in 1883. Grant had a hand in organizing almost every women’s organization in the province: the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the Local Council of Women and the Political Equality League. She was also an early municipal voter: municipal voting was limited to those who held a certain amount of property in their own name and Grant had been gifted property from her father upon her marriage. For many years, she lived a comfortable, middle-class life. But after she was widowed, she lived in straightened economic circumstances, struggled to make a living for herself and her youngest daughter, and died with no money or property to her name.

BCBL: At the time of early suffragist movements around the world, B.C. suffragists were not as well-known as those in Ontario and the prairie provinces – for instance, we didn’t have someone of the stature of Nellie McClung. This has led some historians to believe that women in this province were insular or backward with regards to suffrage. Can you comment on why B.C.’s women suffragists had a low profile – if, in fact, you believe that? And did this hold them back?

Mary Ellen (Spear) Smith

LC: This is a great question, and a tough one to answer! Women like Helen Gregory MacGill and Mary Ellen Smith had national profiles, though they didn’t undertake the same level of cross-country engagement as did McClung. Suffrage women east of the Rockies probably found it easier to travel more widely, and those in Ontario had access to highly populated and neighbouring American states. Perhaps women in B.C. were more limited by the geographical barriers to cross-country travel. I do think it would make a great future project to explore in detail the careers of B.C. suffrage women like Maria Grant, who did travel to other provinces and was probably more well-known than historians realize. Similarly, Florence Hussey Hall was well-respected in her time – she was a former teacher and a Methodist with roots in the Salvation Army. She was married to Rev. William Lashley Hall and she travelled widely across the province to organize local Political Equality Leagues. She also wrote regular “Suffragette Sermons” for the Western Methodist Recorder.

I do think that previous historians concentrated on the most visible women with national profiles, but this may have been because earlier histories were written without access to wide-ranging digitized resources, like local newspapers. With access to such documents it is easier to trace the activism of women in B.C. I would also say that B.C. suffragists were quite attuned to political developments in Canada, the USA, China and Great Britain. Many had close connections with famous British suffragettes like Emmeline Pankhurst, as well as Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence. Suffrage groups often hosted them for extensive visits and public talks. And B.C. suffragists worked very hard to establish thriving suffrage groups outside of Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, sending paid organizers to connect with interested women and men across the province. After 1912, local suffrage groups were quite active in the interior, especially in towns like Greenwood, Kelowna, Revelstoke and Summerland. There’s much more for historians to know about how suffrage worked at the local level across the province and I hope future historians might take up this work!

BCBL: What kind of tactics did B.C.’s suffragists use and, in your opinion, which tactics were the most effective? Which tactics did little good?

LC: B.C. suffragists tried to persuade politicians and the voting public by organizing petitions, writing newspaper columns and letters to the editor, and holding public talks and debates. They started their own suffrage journal called the Champion published out of Victoria. It is now available to view at the British Columbia Archives. They also lobbied male politicians and convinced sympathetic MLAs to introduce private members bills in the legislature.

The most animated debate was over whether militancy was necessary to force governments to introduce women’s suffrage. Militant direct action – such as mass parades, targeted property damage and hunger strikes while imprisoned – were tactics most famously used by suffragettes in Great Britain. Suffragists in B.C. debated the question of militancy – and although they never engaged in it, they were often quite sympathetic to militant suffragettes. It’s not clear that militancy actually worked, however – British women ultimately waited longer for the right to vote than did women in Canada.

I do think that a couple of tactics were really important for winning the vote. The development of women-led and suffrage-focused organizations — like the Political Equality League (established in 1910 in Victoria) – brought women of varying ideological, partisan and class backgrounds together to lobby for political reform. Women’s willingness to engage in public debate helped create a vibrant culture of debate and dissent. And because leadership roles in provincial suffrage leagues were reserved solely for women (men could join but not direct), increasing numbers of women grew comfortable with political action, lobbying, campaigning and organizing. By the second decade of the 20th century, suffragists’ willingness to put themselves in the public eye meant that politicians found it much harder to ignore their demands for political citizenship.

BCBL: Who were the B.C. suffragists’ major opponents and what tactics did they use to stymie the movement? Please comment on the fact that it wasn’t just men who opposed suffrage, there were many women who did, as well.

LC: Most opponents of women’s suffrage were in politics, the churches and the media. Regardless of where they were located, anti-suffragists shared a certain set of beliefs about men, women and the family. They believed that men were designed by God and nature to be breadwinners and household heads, and that women were designed to be caregivers with responsibility for the home and the family. Most opponents, whether male or female, feared that challenging those boundaries between defined male and female “spheres” would disrupt the family and the social order, would “de-sex” women by allowing them to undertake male jobs and would feminize men by forcing them to look after homes and children. Anti-suffrage cartoons and propaganda, often originating in Great Britain and the USA but circulated widely in Canada, drew on these assumptions and portrayed suffragists as selfish, unattractive and bitter women willing to sacrifice the well-being of their children and families for their own empowerment.

Sir Richard McBride, the 15th premier of British Columbia from 1903-1915, opposed women having the vote for his entire career.

The most powerful opponents of women’s suffrage were male legislators who consistently voted against suffrage bills even as the movement became more popular around the world. Many politicians stood up repeatedly in the legislature to pontificate about their opposition to suffrage: for example, Conservative MLA A.E. McPhillips warned that politically empowered women would destroy society and blamed them for atheism, infidelity and lawlessness. Surprisingly, his wife, Emily Sophia, was an active suffragist and a member of the Political Equality League. MLA Major James Mutter claimed that women’s brains were smaller than men’s and that voting would cause them harm. But the leading anti-suffrage politician was Premier Richard McBride who remained opposed to suffrage over the course of his career. Once party politics was introduced to British Columbia, MLAs were expected to vote according to the Conservative Party platform which remained opposed to women’s suffrage until 1916. McBride stubbornly claimed that women did not truly want to vote, and that if they were given this right, they would take too much power away from men.

There were also some vocal, anti-suffrage clergy in the province: for example, Father O’Boyle delivered an infamous anti-suffrage sermon at Vancouver’s Church of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in which he denounced suffrage as destroying womanhood and encouraged women to be obedient housewives like the Virgin Mary. His sermon – and refusal to back down when confronted by several women, including Catholic suffragist Ida Douglas-Fearn — culminated in a public debate with Liberal reformer Mary Ellen Smith in the Labour Temple in downtown Vancouver. Newspaper editors did not have a consistent position on women’s suffrage between 1871 and 1917. The Colonist, for example, endorsed an 1885 suffrage bill but in 1899 condemned a similar bill introduced by Ralph Smith (which lost by just one vote) as dangerous and revolutionary. This persistent anti-suffrage rhetoric across all components of society pushed suffrage women to develop their own periodicals and newspaper columns.

Although the most public anti-suffragists were men in positions of power and influence, some women were also anti-suffrage. A small group of about 12 women in Vancouver created the Dolce Donum Club which published an article in a local newspaper stating that women couldn’t get involved in politics without “neglecting” the important duties of motherhood and the home. Similarly, there were occasional letters to McBride or to the editorial papers of newspapers from women who believed that their primary duty was to the family, and that formal politics should be reserved for men.

Some prominent women spoke against suffrage – Mrs. Rocke Robertson of Victoria helped host a leading British anti-suffrage activist at the Women’s Canadian Club in 1909 and agreed with him that women did not need the vote. Leading Vancouver socialite (and novelist) Julia Henshaw claimed that she’d rather stick her hand in a “hornet’s nest” than join the movement. Prominent Liberal Evlyn Fenwick Farris gradually came to support suffrage, but she was uncomfortable with the movement and only offered support once suffrage had become socially respectable.

BCBL: Were B.C. suffragists publicly shamed or in other ways intimidated or threatened?

LC: There were no direct police actions against suffragists in the province which made the situation different from the one in Britain, where parades and mass protests were met by police violence and where suffragists who broke the law were arrested and imprisoned. In B.C., anti-suffrage politicians and media columnists tried to shame or mock suffrage women by portraying them as unfeminine and man-hating spinsters who were destroying the family.

There were a couple of incidents of what we today might call “fake news”: a couple of newspapers published (untrue) stories that suffragists had burned down a tree in Stanley Park and a local theatre in Revelstoke in 1913. And there are a few recorded incidents of physical violence and vandalism, but remarkably, even these were met with determination and even humor.

In the summer of 1913, in East Vancouver, a group of suffragists – probably led by Helena Gutteridge – took to standing on soapboxes to proclaim women’s rights, and the Vancouver Daily World reported that one woman had been pushed off the box by a group of angry men. This didn’t stop the women, who kept up the tactic throughout the summer. That same year, at the Victoria Fair and Exhibition, the Political Equality League’s tent was vandalized when someone removed the first two letters from the “Woman’s Suffrage” banner so that it read “Man’s Suffrage.” In response, the group took out three more letters so that the sign stayed up but read “Man’s Rage.”

BCBL: Who were important supporters of B.C.’s suffragists?

LC: Suffragists enjoyed some important male allies in the legislature and they spent a fair bit of time in the 1880s and 1890s nurturing those relationships and encouraging supportive men to introduce pro-suffrage legislation. Men like William Fraser Tolmie, John Cunningham Brown, Montague Tyrwhitt-Drake and Ralph Smith were all reform-oriented politicians who held modern ideas about women’s right to participate in public life.

William Fraser Tolmie, an early suffragist supporter, was a member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia from 1874-1878.

Suffragists also had some key allies amongst male clergy, such as Bishop William Perrin and Rev. Henry Edwards. Edwards was an Anglican minster and a fully paid up member of Vancouver’s Pioneer Political Equality League. He even helped raise funds for the militant British Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Some prominent labour leaders and socialist politicians also supported women’s suffrage. Socialist labour leader and publisher Parm Pettipeice, for example, gave Helena Gutteridge a column on suffrage in the BC Federationist and Socialist MLA James Hawthornwaite consistently voted for suffrage. Vancouver suffragists had an ally in politician and newspaper owner L.D. Taylor, who saw himself as a populist reformer. Taylor owned the Vancouver Daily World and he gave suffragist Susie Lane Clark a weekly column in which she promoted the work of suffrage groups in the city. With Taylor as mayor, city council enfranchised married women at the municipal level. Prior to 1910, only unmarried women could vote. But property restrictions for both men and women weren’t removed on municipal voting in Vancouver until the 1950s.

Most important, however, was the support of the official opposition, the provincial Liberal Party. Under the leadership of Harlan Brewster, the Liberals made women’s suffrage part of its official platform. While some suffragists — most notably Helena Gutteridge — remained defiantly non-partisan, this support swayed many to throw their support behind the Liberal party structure. Gutteridge was critical of the Liberals and pointed out that political parties used women’s energy and organizing skill to win elections without following through on election promises. But it does seem that Brewster was an authentic suffrage supporter. He was a devout Baptist and social reformer who attended the same church as leading Victoria suffragist Cecilia Spofford. He also attended the inaugural meeting of the Political Equality League in Victoria in 1910, delivering an enthusiastic speech on the importance of women’s political equality. The Liberals defeated the Conservatives and won power in 1916, and did fulfill their promise to introduce women’s suffrage (limited by race), as well as a minimum wage for working women, equal guardianship rights for mothers, and a mothers’ pension. Mary Ellen Smith became the first woman in BC to win a seat in the provincial legislature and the Liberals made her a cabinet minister, the first woman in the British Empire to hold such a position.

BCBL: While researching and writing this book, what most surprised you about B.C.’s suffragist movement?

 LC: I was quite surprised by the degree of sympathy for suffragette militancy. Historians have played up the supposed politeness or conservatism of suffragists, often contrasting them to the militant suffragettes in Great Britain. But a good number of B.C. suffragists supported the WSPU and spoke of suffragettes as heroic women willing to sacrifice their bodies and freedom for the cause. B.C. suffragists were the only ones in Canada to adopt the WSPU colour scheme of purple, green and white for their banners, ribbons, and propaganda. They also used sophisticated rhetoric, telling politicians that militancy had not yet arisen, and that if British women could be motivated to property damage and arson, something similar might happen in B.C.

I wasn’t surprised that suffragists held racist and xenophobic views about immigrants – this has been well-documented in Canadian suffrage history, and anti-Asian beliefs in particular predominated in suffrage, organized labour and all political parties. But I was a little surprised at the extent of anti-European xenophobia. Eastern and Southern European immigration was less prevalent in B.C. than in the prairies, but perhaps B.C. women imagined themselves as part of the “West” more broadly, and feared the presence of non-Protestant and non-English speaking European immigrants. That European men were allowed to vote after meeting residency requirements enraged many suffrage women in the province, because they believed that as educated, literate, respectable, Christian women of British background they were most entitled to vote. These tropes of dissolute and uneducated European men framed suffrage arguments until 1916.

BCBL: Who did the early suffragists leave behind in their fight for political equality?

LC: This is an important question because it asks us to take seriously the fact that suffragists left many people behind in British Columbia and all across the country. Very few suffragists seriously considered the possibility of political equality for racialized women and men, and actively attempted to restrict Asian immigration.

Kang Tongbi, a reformer from China, addressed BC suffragists in the early 1900s.

The way that suffragists understood Chinese women was especially frustrating. After 1900, B.C. women were really interested in the women’s movement in China, and some of those leaders travelled in B.C. and spoke to wide audiences: reformer Kang Youwei, for example, and his daughter Kang Tongbi. Suffragists deeply admired how Chinese women pushed for political equality, access to professional work and higher education. Yet B.C. suffragists did not extend that admiration and respect to the Chinese Canadian women and men living in the province and consistently viewed women and men from China, Japan and South Asia as potential threats to the integrity of the nation.

Suffragists also left behind Indigenous people. Although many Indigenous women shared concerns about maternal and child welfare with suffragists – advocating for access to mothers’ pensions, for example, or criticizing male power over women and children, suffragists did not try to understand the consequences of colonization or attempt to reach out to Indigenous women and their organizations.

In the 1880s, a small group of women of Indigenous maternal descent in Victoria were involved in women’s organizations and supported suffrage, mainly through the WCTU and, later, the Political Equality League. We know some of their stories – for example, May Fraser Tolmie, the youngest daughter of William Fraser Tolmie, remained an active suffrage supporter during her entire life, and Martha Douglas Harris, daughter of B.C.’s first governor James Douglas, was a founding member of the Political Equality League. Similarly, African Canadian women like Corinthia Pierre and Nancy Alexander, both of whom were early immigrants to Vancouver Island, were active suffrage and temperance supporters. In later years, the Vancouver-based Negro Christian Alliance, led by Harriet Blanche Davis, endorsed women’s suffrage. But because racism had a significant impact on the family and work lives of Black, Indigenous and racialized women, community organizations rather than the white-dominated suffrage movement were the main vehicle for fighting inequality.

BCBL: Is there anything else you want to add that is particularly important in the history of women’s suffrage in B.C.?

 LC: British Columbia was the only province in Canada to put the question of women’s suffrage to a referendum. Referendae were quite common in the United States but not so in Canada. After Premier McBride resigned in 1915, suffragists hoped that his replacement, the former Attorney General William Bowser, would introduce a suffrage bill. But instead, Bowser promised suffrage legislation if the majority of the voting electorate — all men, mostly of British background – passed the question in a referendum.

Suffragists were furious at this turn of events and lobbied him intensely to change his mind. But Bowser refused and scheduled a referendum for fall of 1916, during the general election. Many individuals and some local suffrage groups decided to ignore the referendum entirely, claiming that it was an affront to democracy. But most decided to fight hard during the summer of 1916 and convince the majority of male voters to support women’s suffrage. Women and men across the province set up special referendum committees, took out ads in newspapers, travelled to give speeches and spoke at political rallies.

Suffragists were hopeful but not sure how deep the support for suffrage actually was. The referendum did pass with the needed majority and legislation followed in April of 1917, though it was restricted by race and did not guarantee women the right to vote federally.

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