Are you starved, as I am, to read more books about heroic Canadian women? To see movies on the big screen about brave women – from any country – who stand up to oppression and help change the course of humanity? Not many know it, but Canada has such a heroine.
Gert Harding, who grew up on a farm in rural New Brunswick, joined one of the most radical groups of women ever to fight for a woman’s cause: the militant suffragettes of Great Britain (members of the Women’s Social and Political Union were dubbed suffragettes by the press.) When the British Government finally granted women a partial vote in 1918, Gert was one of the longest-lasting and highest-ranking suffragettes. In researching her biography, I came across only one other Canadian who even joined the WSPU, which numbered over 4000 members at its height.
In 1912, aged 23, Gert Harding was invited to join her sister’s family in London, England. Within days, she witnessed her first poster parade of women carrying placards with slogans such as “Votes for Women” and “No Taxation without Representation”. Drawn to the cause (which had begun 47 years earlier), she was soon a paid WSPU organizer, financially independent at last.
Gert’s first big ‘job’ was to stage a midnight attack on rare orchids at Kew Gardens. A dozen newspapers reported ‘the outrage’, two claiming it must have been male sympathizers to the cause, as only men could scale the six-foot wall to escape.
Deciding not to perpetrate the violence anymore, Gert worked on the underground newspaper, “The Suffragette”, eventually becoming its editor; she was private secretary to Christabel Pankhurst, the brains of the organization; and she headed up the secret bodyguard of women assigned to protect their leader, Mrs Pankhurst, from constant re-arrest by Scotland Yard. The bodyguard couldn’t out-fight constables, but they outwitted them on many occasions. Gert worked undercover, sneaking through back alleys at night and wearing disguises by day. Such engagement undoubtedly helped when she later worked as a social worker in the slums of New Jersey and was fondly remembered in her eventual retirement in Rothesay, New Brunswick.
The story of Gert and her comrades should be debated and celebrated. Canadian school books skim over the story of how, through 50 years of ignoring or lying to suffrage activists, jailing militants as common criminals (rather than political prisoners) and force-feeding those who chose to hunger-strike, the British Government escalated the confrontation. Hundreds of women went from every legal means of protest to noisy demonstrations, window-breaking and eventually bombing and burning empty buildings. Such tactics were always used in the past by men fighting for the vote, but with many deaths. The suffragettes never harmed ‘so much as a canary in a cage’. A feminine form of violent protest, if ever there was one.
Gert Harding deserves status as one of Canada’s most exciting political figures, male or female. She risked family support and her reputation, health and physical freedom in pursuit of the basic right of democracy for women. As her great-niece (did I mention that?), I’m proud of this resourceful, passionate, humourous and brave heroine. Some may condemn the suffragettes’ tactics, but without their radical edge of the movement, it might have been decades longer before Canadian and American women were granted the franchise after WWI. Women in France couldn’t vote until 1944.
Does Gert deserve a place in Canadian history books?
Further Reading and Resources
Gretchen Wilson, ‘Gertrude Harding, militant suffragette,’ section 15.ca, http://section15.ca/features/people/1999/12/07/gertrude_harding/
With All Her Might: The Life of Gertrude Harding, Militant Suffragette (Goose Lane Editions, 1996).
Alison Prentice et al, ‘Marching into the New Century,’ chapter 8 of Canadian Women: A History, 2nd ed, (Harcourt Brace, 1996).
Catherine L. Cleverdon, The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1974).