Geneva Misener and W.H. Alexander: University of Alberta Classics Professors and Women’s Suffrage Activists, 1914 – 16
On a cold February evening in 1914 Edmonton at a “rousing” meeting of the Equal Franchise League (EFL), University of Alberta Classics professor Geneva Misener “knocked down like nine pins one of the greatest arguments advanced against equal rights.” Also present that evening as chair and first president of the EFL was another Classics professor, William Hardy Alexander. At that meeting there were many “fine arguments and eloquent pleas made to give the vote to women.” It was reported that even though “Jack Frost and his cohorts seemed to conspire against it, they could not cool the ardor of those who have the subject of Equal Franchise at heart.” While researching a book on the history of the women suffrage movement in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba I was pleased to learn that one hundred years ago members of my own department at the University of Alberta took an active role in the EFL and the cause of women’s suffrage. Their contribution and that of many others in Edmonton resulted in the April 19, 1916 passage of the Equal Suffrage Bill in the Province of Alberta.
Geneva Misener (1878 – 1961) joined the Classics Department as assistant professor in 1913 and she was the first woman member of the academic staff at the University of Alberta. From Welland Court, Ontario, she obtained her BA and MA from Queen’s and a Ph.D from the University of Chicago. At the “rousing” February 5, 1914 meeting, the argument that she “knocked down like nine pins” was that granting votes to women would result in “the increase of illiterate votes.” She argued that in Ontario statistics showed that illiteracy was more common among men than women. Addressing fear of the “foreign vote,” she said that there were more men than women immigrants to Alberta, that the education of these lay in the hands of Alberta teachers, most of whom were women and that “if women mould citizens, why should not the privilege of citizenship be theirs?” Misener’s was a spirited reply to the efforts of a faction of Alberta activists who in 1913 recommended that before women campaigned for their own suffrage they should “first curtail universal male enfranchisement to eliminate the enormous ‘ignorant vote,’” limiting the male franchise to those who could read or write. By early 1914 however, this restricted franchise proposal had lost ground to an emerging province-wide strategy of equal franchise with men. This strategy was reflected in the petitions that were circulated at the February meeting of the EFL in Edmonton.
W.H. Alexander (1878 – 1962), chair and first president of the Edmonton EFL, was head of the Classics Department. He was one of the original four professors at the University of Alberta hired in 1908 by President Henry Marshall Tory. He attended the University of Toronto and completed his Ph.D. in Classics at the University of California, Berkeley in 1906. Alexander often spoke at public gatherings in Edmonton in support of votes for women. In November 1913 he delivered an address on “Why Women Should Vote.” His views reflected ideas about the distinct innate abilities of women and men. He stated that “man had the superior executive ability, as a rule, and women the keener intuitive perception or gift of second sense,” and he believed “the two elements would make an ideal combination in the government of the country.”
Alexander was also active in the “People’s Forums” in Edmonton. These gatherings for lectures, discussion, and debates were first organized by Methodist minister J.S. Woodsworth in Winnipeg’s North End. They were intended to “help in bridging the gap between the Canadian and the foreign-born.” Working men and women met to hear lectures on politics, unionism, history, literature, art, and current events. The “forum movement” grew and branch organizations sprang up in other Canadian cities. At a meeting of the People’s Forum in Edmonton on February 2 1914 the topic was “Equal Suffrage,” with a lecture by Jennie Avery Smith. Alexander took part in the discussion that followed, stating that “democracy is [a] necessity of the age, and that it cannot be secured by the disenfranchisement of one-half of the intelligent people.” In Edmonton the People’s Forum was organized by the Unitarian Church and Alexander was a member of that congregation.
Alexander was instrumental in the 1914 province-wide campaign that focused on a petition to the Alberta legislature. When the petition with 44,000 supporters was presented to the legislature on October 10, the reply of Premier Arthur Sifton was tepid. He stated that there was not enough support from rural Albertans. To drum up the needed support, Alexander spoke at a January 1915 meeting of the Women’s Parliament of the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) annual convention in Edmonton when the Women’s Auxiliary of the UFA was formed. He “gave a brief history of the progress of the Woman Suffrage movement during the past year.” He said that “the expression of opinion from the farming women was very small indeed,” and he “urged the women from the farms to form some organization whereby an expression of opinion from the country people could be placed before the Premier.”
In February 1915, Alexander was a member of the “largest delegation of men and women that ever waited on [the] provincial government. They occupied the politicians’ seats, refusing to move until they were heard. Alexander spoke, along with Nellie McClung (who moved to Alberta from Manitoba in the fall of 1914) and others. He looked at the matter from an “academic point of view,” saying “women were born citizens and he could never understand why they should not have the privilege of citizenship conferred upon them. This was an era of democracy, and one sex should not be privileged as against another.” Although reluctant, in September 1915, Sifton committed his government to the introduction of an equal suffrage measure in the next session, and the Equal Suffrage Statutory Law Amendment was enacted in 1916.
Alexander’s contribution did not end there; he was once again president of the EFL in September, 1916. While researching in Nellie McClung’s papers at the Province of British Columbia Archives, I found a letter from Alexander dated 30 September, 1916. McClung was speaking at many rallies and conventions in the United States, as representative of the Edmonton EFL:
To Whom it May Concern:
This is to certify that Mrs. Nellie McClung of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada is the duly accredited representative of the Edmonton Equal Franchise League, and she is hereby commended to all leagues, societies and organizations having for their object the political emancipation of women, as we have already achieved it in Canada from the Great Lakes to the Pacific.
William Hardy Alexander, President, 1916
Alexander was not quite correct that the “political emancipation of women” had been achieved from the Great Lakes to the Pacific. There were women (and men), such as First Nations, disqualified under the Indian Act, not included in the “equal suffrage” legislation. Despite the visibility of Indigenous peoples on the Canadian prairies, no attention was paid to this issue by any member of the EFL as far as I can tell.
Geneva Misener had a distinguished career at the University of Alberta, retiring in 1946. She continued to be devoted to feminist causes. In 1915, at a meeting with the all-women student members of the University of Alberta’s Wauneita Society, Misener “outlined a course of study on the status of women, which subject the Wauneitas have decided to take up,” with classes to be held every other Monday.  She was the first advisor to women’s students and was the first live-in “warden” at Pembina Hall, the women’s residence. Misener promoted higher education and academic positions for women, but warned that a woman “must be far superior to the men with whom she competes to be appointed to such posts.” She was a strong critic of the idea that women had to choose between marriage and a career, believing that “marriage and a profession may go hand in hand for a woman as for a man.” Misener did not marry, but she adopted and was a single parent to two young nieces. Misener was an advocate of “an adequate salary schedule” and of the principle of equal pay for equal work. She was also active in peace organizations, and in the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) both in Edmonton and after her retirement, in Vancouver. Misener died in Edmonton in 1961. She is remembered through scholarships in Classics and Modern Languages at U of A.
Alexander remained active in many progressive causes in Edmonton and beyond. He was ordained in the Unitarian Church in 1920. He was married to Marion Kirby Alexander, from California and they had a son Lawrence. She was vice-president of the Women’s Alliance of the First Unitarian Church, one of the many groups in Edmonton that supported women’s suffrage.  Alexander wrote a column for the Alberta Labour News in the 1930s and was also a supporter of the CCF, attending the 1932 founding meeting in Calgary. He returned to Berkeley in 1938, and retired from teaching in 1948. But he returned to Edmonton where he died at the age of 84. There is a W.H. Alexander Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at the University of Alberta, and a W.H. Alexander Library in the Department of History and Classics. Yet I don’t think most of our students, and even many of the faculty today, know much about Alexander and his colleague Geneva Misener who contributed so much to the cause of women’s suffrage in Alberta.
1. Photo of Geneva Misener (1878 – 1961) , University of Alberta Archives, Misener, Geneva biographical file
2. William Hardy Alexander (1878 – 1962), Edmonton Bulletin 29 June, 1914
 “Equal Franchise League Complete Organization,” The Edmonton Bulletin 6 Feb., 1914: 3.
 “Equal Franchise Supporters Hold Rousing Meeting,” The Edmonton Capital 6 Feb., 1914: 6.
 See http://www.ualbertacentennial.ca/cgi-bin/people/displaybio.php?bio_id=727
 Bulletin, 6 Feb., 1914: 3.
 Marjorie Norris, A Leaven of Ladies: A History of the Calgary Local Council of Women (Calgary: Detselig Enterprises Ltd., 1995: 87.
 See http://www.ualbertacentennial.ca/cgi-bin/people/displaybio.php?bio_id=574
“Do Women Now Exercise Right They Have to Vote In Municipal Affairs?” The Edmonton Bulletin 3 Nov., 1913: 10.
 Olive Ziegler, Woodsworth: Social Pioneer: An Authorized Sketch (Toronto: Ontario Publishing Co. 1934): 47.
 “Says Women Should Vote to Regulate the Liquor Traffic,” The Edmonton Capital 2 Feb., 1914: 5.
 David Hall, “Arthur L. Sifton,” in Bradford J. Rennie, ed., Alberta Premiers of the Twentieth Century, (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 2004): 35.
 “Alberta Women’s Parliament,” The Grain Growers’ Guide 27 Jan., 1915: 14.
 Hall, 35.
 “Women’s Suffrage Before Legislature Next Year,” The Edmonton Bulletin 27 Feb., 1915: 1.
 British Columbia Archives, Nellie McClung Fonds, Box 11, File 21, William Hardy Alexander
To Whom if May Concern,” 30 Sept., 1916.
 “Ladies” The Gateway 23 Nov., 1915: 3.
 Katie Pickles, “Colonial Counterparts: The First Academic Women in Anglo-Canada, New Zealand and Australia,” Women’s History Review vol. 10, no. 2 (2001): 289; and Mary Kinnear, Margaret McWilliams: An Interwar Feminist (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press,1991): 76-7.
 There is a plaque installed at Geneva Misener’s former home in Edmonton on 90th Ave. unveiled in 2013, through the work of the Canadian Federation of University Women. (Although at a recent visit the plaque is not visible – perhaps hidden by snow.)
 Canadian Women’s Press Club, Edmonton Branch (Edmonton: Canadian Women’s Press Club,1916): 84.
 Tom Monto, Old Strathcona: Edmonton’s South Side Roots (Edmonton: Crang Publishing, 2011): 265. The W.H. Alexander House at 7425 Saskatchewan Drive is a Designated Municipal Historic Resources Site.
In 2001, when Never Far Away: The Auschwitz Chronicle of Anna Heilman was launched in Ottawa, Heilman said her “older sister Estusia” was:
not only my sister and my best friend. She is also my hero. But who she was and what she did have meaning for more than me, her sister. As a Jew, she was a hero for all Jews. As a woman, she was a hero for all women. As a human being, she is a hero for all of us. Though she is known to history for her part and her fate, Estusia’s story has never been told. It is time.
Estusia Wajcblum, Ala Gertner, Roza Robota, and Regina Safirztajn were hanged by the Nazis on January 5th 1945 in Birkenau, a sub-camp of Auschwitz, a huge death factory and industrial complex. The Nazis accused them of supplying gunpowder for the October 1944 Uprising of the Sonderkommando (special squad), male prisoners who were forced to work in the gas chambers, burning pits, and crematoriums. The four women were arrested because Estusia, Ala, and a small group of Jewish women including Anna and Rose Gunapfel had carefully smuggled a little bit of gunpowder at a time out of the Weichsel Union Metalwerke munitions factory, in which they were slave labourers. Anna and Estusia gave the gunpowder to Ala who passed it to Roza. Roza “deposited” it “at the wires near the crematorium” for her contact in the Sonderkommando. The Nazis also arrested Regina, the supervisor of the Pulverraum, a secure room in the Union factory where Estusia and Rose worked with gunpowder. Anna’s book reveals the courage of this small group who dared to defy the Nazis during the greatest crime “in human history,” the “genocidal” “murder” of “six million European Jews” (Evans “The Anatomy of Hell,” 1.).
The Wajcblum sisters were born in Warsaw Poland to a family of middle-class partially assimilated Jews. Jacob and Rebecca Wajcblum had three daughters, Sabina, Esther (Estusia), and Anna. The girls’ parents and their nanny were deaf, as were the workers in Jacob’s thriving factory that produced wooden handicrafts. Sabina, four years older than Estusia and eight years older than Anna, was her parents “spokesman to the outside world.” Anna and Estusia were best friends. In September 1939 the German army invaded Poland ending Anna’s happy childhood and the “vibrant dynamic community” of “Warsaw Jewry” in which the Wajcblums lived (Davies, Rising ’44 The Battle of Warsaw, 82).
From 1939 to 1941 German-occupied Poland was the “key ‘laboratory’ for Nazi experimentation in racial persecution.” (Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution, 169.) In 1939 Sabina and her fiancée, Mieczyslaw Zielinski, fled eastward, were arrested on the Soviet border, and held separately in the Soviet Union. The rest of the family stayed put, their lives increasingly restricted within the Warsaw Ghetto, which the Nazis sealed on October 16th 1941. Joseph’s factory was confiscated and the Ghetto, which at its peak confined 380,000 Jews, deteriorated into a “sea of starvation and misery” as the Nazis began to deport Jews to concentration camps. (Davies, 99.) Estusia and Anna knew their parents would not approve, so they secretly joined the Hashomer Hatzair, “a Zionist youth group” that “had a distinctly socialist orientation. Its goal was to establish kibbutzim (collective settlements) in Palestine,” a British Mandate. The sisters and their “comrades in the Hashomer Hatzair” were active in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that erupted in April 1943.
The next month the Wajcblums were one of the last families to be deported from the Ghetto. Anna and her family were among 170 Jews crammed into a cattle car; only 120 were alive when they reached the Majdanek Concentration Camp. Upon arrival Anna and Estusia were separated from their parents who, unbeknownst to the girls, were sent to the gas chamber. In September 1943 the sisters were shipped to Auschwitz “the centrepiece of the Nazis Final Solution machinery” where a million Jews were murdered. (Buse and Doerr, “Introduction” to Never Far Away, xviii.) They were always hungry living in subhuman conditions in the women’s camp, brutalized by the Schutzstaffeln (SS) and kapos, prisoners who were given privileges for co-operating with the SS.
Anna and Estusia were befriended by Marta Bindiger, a resourceful Slovak Jew. They were saved from certain death when they “volunteered” to work as slave labourers for the Union factory in Birkenau (Auschwitz II). As “essential workers” they were not subjected to the routine selections that sent those who were weak and unable to work to the gas chambers. In the factory they were to stay at their own work station, but eventually Anna found a way to move about. The sisters made friends with women who worked near them and a few from their barracks. This small circle gathered and visited late into the night, giving one another much needed “warmth and closeness.”
By the autumn of 1944 the Russian army was moving westward toward Auschwitz. The Sonderkommando, who were routinely murdered by the Nazis and replaced by incoming prisoners, knew their time was almost up so they planned an uprising in which outside resistance fighters would simultaneously attack the camp. Hearing about the planned revolt Anna suggested she and Estusia smuggle gunpowder out of the factory for the Sonderkommando. Estusia was aghast, but Anna convinced her. Since they were going to die in any case rebelling against the Nazis would give their deaths meaning. The Sonderkommando planned to blow up the five Auschwitz-Birkenau Crematoriums. On October 7th, 1944, the men in the Sonderkommando staged a spontaneous unco-ordinated revolt at Crematorium IV, which they blew up with the gunpowder. The men at Crematorium II also revolted and some escaped. Immediately “a whole detachment of SS men drove in armed with machine guns and grenades” (Gilbert, The Holocaust, 745). They rounded up the escapees and killed some 460 rebels.
When the SS discovered the gunpowder had come from the Union factory they arrested Estusia, Ala, Roza, and Regina and tortured them for months. The only names they gave were those of men in the Sonderkommando who were dead. When the four women were released more dead than alive Anna and Marta nursed Estusia, but suddenly they were arrested again and sentenced to hang. Marta cared for Anna who “went mad” after Estusia and the other three were hanged. Marta also cared for her during the Nazis’ brutal final evacuation of Auschwitz on January 18th and as the Nazis forced thousands on a 700 kilometre death march. Those who collapsed were shot or froze as the prisoners were pushed toward the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp north of Berlin. Marta “bodily took” Anna and “dragged” her along. They were moved to Neustadt-Glewe, a sub-camp, where they were liberated on May 2nd 1945 by the Russians who turned them over to the Americans.
The Red Cross flew Marta and sixteen-year-old Anna to Belgium to recuperate. They were moved to a recuperation camp where in June Anna rewrote from memory a diary she had kept in Auschwitz. Anna and Marta found jobs, but after a year in Belgium Anna managed to get into Palestine, a British Mandate. Sabina and her husband Mieczyslaw, who were already there, later settled in Sweden. Anna married Joshua Heilman in 1947. She had two daughters, completed high school, and did a social work degree while working full time. They moved to the United States in 1958 and settled in Ottawa in 1960 where Joshua was the principal of the Hebrew school and Anna was a social worker for the Children’s Aid Society.
When Marta visited Anna in 1988 she said the information about the Sonderkommando Uprising was so “incomplete and distorted” it did not even give the names of all the women who were executed. Anna later recalled that “Marta’s mission was to see justice done, and to have all four girls take their place in history.” Marta persuaded Anna to join her and a small group of women who had worked as slave labourers in the Union factory to lobby for a monument honouring the four women. Anna went to Jerusalem in 1991 when a monument, with all four names inscribed, was unveiled in the Memorial Garden of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. Sabina and Anna lit the eternal flame during the ceremony.
When Anna accompanied a group of young people on a tour of Majdanek in 1993 she stood by a collective grave that was the final resting place of her parents and countless other victims. At last she was able to say a Jewish prayer of blessing over her parents. She had a vision of them and thousands of other victims urging her to tell their story. She did so from then onward, even though she felt guilty about surviving. In 1994 Estusia was posthumously honored by the Polish government with the Cross of Auschwitz. Anna did a lengthy interview at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which posthumously awarded Estusia the Medal of Resistance. Anna also gave interviews or made speeches to other organizations such as the Shoah Foundation and the Wiesenthal Center.
In Canada in 1991 during a casual conversation with Sheldon Schwartz, her son-in-law, Anna mentioned her Auschwitz diary. He urged her to translate it into English so her family could read it and convinced her to write about the events before and after the period covered in the diary. He worked with her for three years as she grappled with extremely painful memories while writing and he edited her manuscript. When publishers claimed Anna’s manuscript was one among many Holocaust memoirs they rejected it. Anna Feldman, a friend of Sheldon’s mother, put him in touch with me. I recognized that the manuscript was historically significant and suggested Canadian historian Alvin Finkel also read it. Knowing it was both a diary and a memoir, we had Sheldon contact the University of Calgary Press and we suggested an introduction by a historian who specialized in the Holocaust. Dieter Buse and Juergen Doerr, the Holocaust experts who wrote the introduction, say that Heilman’s book is valuable because it gives “information on how women witnessed a different world than males in the ghetto and especially in Auschwitz” and because it describes in detail how the women smuggled the gunpowder out of the factory for the Sonderkommando. (Buse and Doerr, xxiii-xxiv). Anna dedicated her book “to Marta, who saved my life, and Sheldon, who saved my story.”
Anna’s social and political activism continued until the end of her life. In May of 2010, even though she was not well, with the backing of the Canadian Jewish Congress, she lobbied a parliamentary committee to take action on the genocide in Dafur Sudan. She died of cancer on May 1st 2011 and was buried on May the 2nd, the 66th anniversary of her liberation in Europe.
Unless otherwise noted the direct quotations are taken from Heilman’s book, her 2001 speech, and her video-taped interviews held by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and the Shoal Foundation. I am grateful to Sheldon Schwartz for reading earlier drafts, making helpful suggestions, and agreeing to be interviewed.
** “About Anna Heilman;” Anna Heilman, “Never Far Away,” a speech delivered in Ottawa, 27 November 2001; <http://annaheilman.net/About%20Anna%20Heilman.htm>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
** Anna Heilman, Never Far Away: The Auschwitz Chronicles of Anna Heilman, edited by Sheldon Schwartz, with an introduction by Dieter K. Buse and Juergen C. Doerr and an afterword by Joel Prager (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2001).
** Anna Heilman, video-taped interview, Shoah Foundation Institute, <http://www.ovguide.com/anna-heilman-9202a8c04000641f8000000000f11207>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
** “Oral history interview with Anna Wajcblum Heilman,” 10 August 1994, USHMM oral history collection, RG-50.030*0258, a four hour video-taped interview, <http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn504752>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
Christopher R. Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazis Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942 ( London: William Heinemann, 2004).
Judy Cohen, an interview with Rose Grunapfel Meth, “Women of Valour: Partisans and Resistance Fighters” 2001. <http://www.theverylongview.com/WATH/valor/rose.htm>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
Norman Davies, Rising ’44 The Battle of Warsaw (Toronto: Penquin Books, 2003).
Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt, Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1996).
Richard J. Evans, “The Anatomy of Hell,” a review essay, The New York Review of Books, 8 July 2015, <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/jul/09/concentration-camps-anatomy-hell/?pagination=false&printpage=true>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
Bernie M. Farber, “The heroines of Auschwitz,” The National Post, 27 January 2012, <http://news.national post.com/full comment/bernie-m-faber-the heroines-of-auschwitz>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
Anita Gates, “A Salute to Personal Acts of Resistance Against Evil,” a movie review, The New York Times, September 10, 2004, <http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/10/movies/a-salute-to-personal-acts-of-resistance-against-evil.html>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
Martin Gilbert, Churchill and the Jews (Toronto: McCelland & Stewart, 2008).
—, The Holocaust : The Jewish Tragedy (London: Fontana Collins, 1986).
“Giving Women their Place in Holocaust History,” a panel discussion presented by the American Jewish Historical Society and the Remember the Women Institute, 13 November 2014. <http://www.rememberwomen.org/Events/2014/7oct1944_panel.html>, retrieved 2 December 2015.
Sandra Martin, “Auschwitz saboteur, resistance hero persuaded to tell her story in moving memoir,” The Globe and Mail, 16 July 2011, <http://v1.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20110716.OBANNAHEILMANATL/BDAStory/BDA/deaths/?pageRequested=all>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
Gladys Strum, who made an exceptional contribution to political life in Canada, joined the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) two years after the first convention in Regina in 1933. A down-to-earth farm woman from Windthorst in southeast Saskatchewan, she became a CCF candidate in seven elections, when women politicians were “vastly out-numbered,” between feminism’s first and second wave. In 1945 Strum became the first woman to be the president of a Canadian political party when she was elected to that office in the provincial CCF. She became the first woman Member of Parliament (MP) to sit for the CCF, sitting for the Qu’Appelle constituency from 1945 to 1949, as Canada’s fifth woman parliamentarian. She memorably summed up sitting alongside 244 men as supplying the pork “in a can of pork and beans.” Service in Ottawa was followed by four years (1960-4) as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in Saskatchewan, the fifth woman member in its history. A long-time advocate of better health care services, she voted for the Medical Care Insurance Act in 1961. She described this moment, which established medicare in Saskatchewan, North American’s first universal health care program and the model for later Canadian initiatives, as the high point in her political life. (See Taylor, “Mothers of Medicare” on this site.)
What created this political dynamo? Gladys was born to Sarah and Luther Lamb on a Manitoba farm “almost in the hen house.” Chores were a way of life. A bright diligent student, she was hired in 1922 to teach all eight grades in a one-room rural school near Windthorst. In November of 1929 she married Warner Strum, a farmer who chaired the local school board. This intelligent appealing man was raising his five orphaned brothers and sisters. Warner, who was often very ill with pleurisy and pneumonia, was diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB) when Gladys was a bride of three months. Over the years he faced periodic stays in the sanatorium and recurring surgery. She became his advocate and an avid supporter of the superintendent of the Fort Qu’Appelle Sanatorium and the Anti-tuberculosis League in Saskatchewan.
Because Gladys was very busy with domestic work, including caring for their infant daughter Carol (born 1930), and outside farm work she did not join in the frequent discussions of politics between Warner, whose family had supported the left-wing Non-Partisan League in North Dakota, and their neighbour who was an advocate of Fabian socialism. During the 1930s, however, as their family battled dust storms and barely managed economically, while their neighbours were forced onto relief, she began to show an interest in politics. Much of her activism was channelled through the local Homemakers’ Club, the equivalent of the Women’s Institutes in other provinces. In 1935 when CCF missionary Louise Lucas came to Gladys’s district for a Homemakers’convention she was billeted with the Strums. The Lucas family, who also lived in southern Saskatchewan, faced eight successive crop failures during the 1930s. Regarded by many as the provincial “mother of the CCF,” Lucas toured tirelessly speaking and urging voters to put “Humanity First” by voting for the CCF. An agrarian socialist, she spoke in hundreds of rural school houses and was reputed to have made more speeches than any CCF speaker in Canada. Lucas was so impressed by Strum that she predicted a great future for her. She proved an extremely effective political mentor who taught Strum the “ABCs of socialism.” Later Strum recalled that it was only with this basic knowledge that she could understand Warner’s discussions of socialism. Well before Lucas died of cancer in 1945 she had groomed Strum to contest male-dominated politics.
With Lucas’s mentorship, aided and abetted by Warner, Gladys became a key CCF speaker and organizer in three constituencies. An assertive, forthright, country woman, she never learned to flatter men in the party hierarchy. Some of the organizers were paid, but she was not. In 1941 she told the CCF provincial executive it was “slowly dawning” on her that she was:
practically a full time CCF organizer – without pay…. This morning I am about to do the family wash – which I couldn’t do last week because I spent the entire week in Souris-Estevan … God knows what I am going to talk about [at the meeting in Highview]. Perhaps I’ll warn women to stay out of politics … Somebody is crazy – I’m beginning to suspect its me … I must get busy at the washing – the water’s hot. I’m eating breakfast and interspersing these paragraphs with toast and coffee…. I have … two solid weeks and two days of CCF meetings ahead. I’ll have to be put on as an organizer or quit. After all I have a husband and a family. Yet. Does the CCF ever contest divorce suits as correspondent?
Eventually the executive paid her expenses, but such confrontations offended some male party leaders.
The former teacher was a formidable CCF educator, undertaking youth work, teaching in CCF organizational schools, and speaking frequently. In 1938 Gladys lost as a sacrificial candidate for the CCF against the Liberal premier W.J. Patterson in the Cannington constituency. Warner’s health was so bad they contemplated moving to New Zealand so they cashed in an insurance policy to finance an exploratory trip by Gladys. While there she interviewed MPs and officials in the Labour government, which was establishing a comprehensive welfare state. With the prospect of the Japanese advancing in the Pacific, the Strums decided to stay put, but the experience left Gladys more enthusiastic than ever about democratic socialism.
During the 1944 provincial election Strum toured the province with T.C. (Tommy) Douglas, the CCF’s popular new leader. She also ran against Patterson again, losing by a mere six votes, but her party won in a resounding victory forming Canada’s first democratic socialist government. Strum’s moment to be provincial party president came in 1945 when most of the leading men in the party were in the legislature and the party constitution prohibited MLAs from holding this office. That year she also contested the federal election in a close three-way race in the Qu’Appelle constituency against Ernest Perley, the long-standing Conservative MP, and General Andrew McNaughton, the charismatic Second World War general and the federal Liberal Minister of Defense, who had been parachuted into the riding. Strum later recalled that when she won McNaughton said that he “would rather deal with an atom bomb” than with her.
In Ottawa Strum, the sole female MP, was immediately hailed by the press as a mother and, contradictorily, as a “maid with a million men.” Rejecting the idea that women should go “back to the kitchen” when the war was over, she told the Commons “no one has ever objected to women working. The only thing they have ever objected to is paying women for working.” (Commons Debates, 4 October 1945.) The CCF had anticipated a breakthrough, but Ontario proved a disappointment. There were, however, 28 CCF MPs, 18 from Saskatchewan where strong riding organizers like Strum made a difference. In Ottawa Strum was welcomed by M.J. Coldwell, the CCF federal leader, her caucus generally treated her well, and she was highly visible at party functions. She often spoke on behalf of Canadian women, from whom she received many letters, and she was the CCF MP who met delegations of women lobbying on the Hill. Strum also had support from Yukoner Martha Black, a Conservative MP from 1935 to 1940, who had replaced her husband while he was ill. During Strum’s term he was back in the House and Martha was free to befriend Gladys and give her valuable advice. Strum went down to defeat in 1949 when only five CCF candidates won in Saskatchewan.
She returned to the farm and teaching, attending university when she could to up-grade her credentials thereby increasing their family income. In 1952 the Strums moved to British Columbia where the climate was better for Warner. There she lost again as a sacrificial candidate. She could not find a job teaching in BC, likely because of her politics, so the Strums ran a motel. In 1955 they returned to the farm near Windthorst. Gladys resumed teaching locally and attending university at times in Saskatoon, while operating a boarding house to finance her education.
In 1960 Gladys ran for the CCF in Saskatoon, a three member constituency where each elector could vote for two men and still have a vote left for a woman. This was the only time she was nominated in a seat the CCF thought it could win. She was elected, but her term in Regina was not as pleasant as her term in Ottawa. In 1945 in Ottawa most of the CCF MPs were new and willing to welcome a woman, but 15 years later in Regina most of the caucus had been there a long time and were more rigid and misogynist. Strum was compared unfavorably to Marjorie Cooper, the only other woman in the caucus, who was elected in1952 when a new conservatism was fashionable. Douglas, who had been the premier for 16 years, and the other men in the caucus preferred Cooper’s lady-like accommodation and treated Strum like an intruder. Focused on establishing medicare, they saw Strum, who insisted on raising uncomfortable questions about inequality, as an annoying, trouble-making feminist. Not surprisingly Strum was not given a cabinet post by Douglas or by Woodrow Lloyd, who replaced him as the premier.
The medicare legislation passed in November 1961, provoking a divisive battle between the government led by Lloyd and the medical doctors who opposed medicare and the Liberals. The doctors withdrew their services and Saskatchewan split into two warring camps. After a bitter battle the doctors grudgingly returned to work at the end of July 1962. In 1961 the federal party had joined with unions to form the New Democratic Party, although the provincial party continued to call itself the CCF until 1967. Douglas, who had resigned as the premier a few days before medicare passed, became the NDP federal leader. During the 1964 provincial election campaign, the CCF was on the defensive so Strum spent time outside of her riding speaking on behalf of desperate CCF candidates. The Liberals led by Ross Thatcher were victorious and Strum went down to defeat after a suspense-filled recount. She was soon scapegoated by the Saskatoon CCF in a blame game that drove her out of politics. The Strums returned to the family farm, new drugs having cured Warner’s TB. Gladys, who by then had a Bachelor of Education and a Bachelor of Arts degrees, was hired as the principal of a nine-room school in a nearby town. In 1968 the Strums retired to Penticton, the home of their daughter and her family.
In 1981 I taped a lengthy interview with Gladys and talked to her and Warner over numerous cups of tea. Feeling unfairly treated in part because she had criticized Douglas, often regarded as a saint, she used the opportunity to tell her side of the story. Gladys had seen herself as a “socialist” during her years as a politician, but by 1981 second-wave feminism helped her identify strongly as a feminist. She concluded that she had been “born too soon.” Warner continued to support Gladys wholeheartedly until his death at the age of 84, just short of their sixtieth anniversary. On February 4th 2004, in celebration of her 98th birthday, Gladys was recognized in the House of Commons for her strong advocacy of women’s equality.
Saskatchewan Archives Board, Women in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation Collection, 32 taped interviews by Georgina Taylor R-5827 to R-5874, R-8130 to R-8166. See in particular the interviews with Anne Blakeney, Frank Coburn, Marjory Cooper, Elsie Gorius, Eloise (Lucas) Metheral, I.C. (Toby) Nollet, Gladys Strum, Pemrose Whelan, and Thora Wiggens.
Unless otherwise noted the direct quotations are from this eight hour interview with Strum or from Taylor, “Equals and Partners?”
Taped interview with T.C. Douglas, 15 June 1982, in possession of the author.
Evelyn Eager, Saskatchewan Government Politics and Pragmatism (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1980).
“Gladys Strum,” Library and Archives Canada, <http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/women/030001-1341-e.html>, retrieved 20 December 2015.
Stuart. Houston, R.G. Ferguson: Crusader Against Tuberculosis (Toronto and Oxford: Hannah Institute & Dundurn Press, 1991).
David McGrane, “A Mixed Record: Gender and Saskatchewan Social Democracy,” Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes, 42 (1) Winter 2008, 179-203.
Thomas H. McLeod and Ian McLeod, Tommy Douglas: The Road to Jerusalem (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1987).
Brett Quiring, “The Social and Political Philosophy of Woodrow S. Lloyd,” Saskatchewan History 56(1) (Spring 2004).
Joan Sangster, Dreams of Equality: Women on the Canadian Left 1920 -1950 (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1989).
Georgina M. Taylor, “Equals and Partners? An Examination of How Saskatchewan Women Reconciled Their Political Activities for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation with Traditional Roles for Women,” M.A. Thesis, University of Saskatchewan, 1983.
—, “Gladys Strum: Farm Woman, Teacher and Politician,” Canadian Woman Studies 7(4) (Winter 1986): 89-93.
—, “Homemakers’ Clubs and Women’s Institutes,” The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, ed. Patrick Douaud, ((Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center University of Regina, 2005): 460-461. <http://esask.uregina.ca/entry/homemakers_clubs_and_womens_institutes.html>, retrieved 20 December 2015.
—, “Mothers of Medicare, ” on this site.
—, “‘The Women Shall Help to Lead the Way’: Saskatchewan CCF‑NDP Women Candidates in Provincial and Federal Election, 1934 – 1965” in Building the Co‑operative Commonwealth Federation, ed. J. William Brennan (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1984), 141-160.