(11 October 1863–3 May 1933)
This first female member of the British Columbia Legislature and the first female cabinet minister in the British Commonwealth has often been overlooked by both the public and by scholars. She should not be. In many ways Mary Ellen Smith is the archetypal political representative of Canada’s first feminist movement, revealing its strengths and its weaknesses. Her near oblivion until her designation as a National Historic Person in Canada in 2006 only confirmed the need to recover the activist generation that substantially enlarged the Canadian electorate and put so-called ‘women’s issues’ legislatively centre-front in the 1920s. That time would not come again for more than half a century.
Mary Ellen Spear was born to a family of Methodist miners in Cornwall, England. The 1881 census identified her as a dressmaker, a typical occupation for a working-class woman, but she also worked as a teacher, a familiar career path for an ambitious Methodist girl of her class. In any case, she had little formal education. Her marriage in 1883 to miner, union activist, Methodist preacher, widower and father of one daughter (b 1883), Ralph Smith (1858-1917) soon made her a mother of four sons (b 1885-1893). England’s conservative southwest provided a difficult environment for her husband’s activism in unions and sympathies for the Liberal Party. By 1892, such hostility combined with his health problems to encourage them, like many others, to explore opportunities in lands the British Empire had recently seized from Indigenous populations. They joined Mary Ellen’s parents and brother who had emigrated in 1889 to Nanaimo, British Columbia, to coal mines first owned by the Hudson Bay Company and then largely controlled by the powerful Dunsmuir family. The demands of hard-pressed British miners for a fair deal, that included efforts to exclude the Asian workers employed by mining barons Robert and James Dunsmuir to break unions, provided an influential backdrop to the politics of newcomers Ralph and Mary Ellen. The former soon became a leading champion of Canadian unions in the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada.
Representative of the British Liberal-Labour tradition of alliance, Ralph Smith was elected to the BC Legislature in 1896 (where he moved the second reading of a suffrage bill in 1899) and to the Canadian House of Commons in 1900. He remained a staunch critic of Asian immigration, which he feared as undercutting British workers’ rights to a decent living and an equal advocate of woman suffrage and old age pensions. He was defeated in the 1911 election that overturned the Laurier Liberals. In 1916 a provincial election saw him return to Victoria as part of a Liberal majority government. That election also occasioned a referendum asking the all-male electorate to determine the enfranchisement of women. So much for Liberal commitment to the principle of equality. No wonder feminists who had been promised the vote were outraged. Fortunately, the province’s men proved better than the Liberal Party, voting two to one in favour of women. Ralph Smith himself soon became Minister of Finance in the new government but died in February 1917, leaving only a limited estate.
While initially heavily preoccupied with childbirth and child-rearing, Mary Ellen had proved herself a critical part of a marital team. Their political partnership, much like that of many feminists of their generation such as the Aberdeens (see on this site) and the Pankhursts, was crucial to mutual success. Not untypically, she was known to write some of her husband’s speeches. In the 1890s in Nanaimo and after 1900 in Vancouver, Mary Ellen also built up an impressive independent record in the women’s movement, in organizations such as Nanaimo’s Hospital Auxiliary and Laurier Liberal Ladies’ League and Vancouver’s Local Council of Women, Women’s Canadian Club, City Creche, the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, and the Political Equality League. She also championed the University of British Columbia, old age pensions, and health insurance. Like many other activists, she believed that women with resources of time, money, and education had a special duty to improve the world and in particular assist their own sex and children.
Like Nellie McClung, Canada’s best-known suffragist, and Lady Aberdeen, founder of the National Council of Women of Canada, Mary Ellen Smith was what has been termed a ‘maternal’ feminist. That ideological orientation, with its premise of special biological and/or social sensibilities, has never been restricted to middle-class settler women but it was the dominant strain in the first feminist movement. Mary Ellen was also typical in regularly drawing on the liberal philosophical tradition of equal justice to demand the franchise. Political pragmatism in face of widespread misogyny demanded a judicious mix of justifications. Ultimately, however, she proved unable to extend her egalitarian vision to include the First Nations and Asians of Canada. They, not newcomers such as herself, were to remain outsiders to the evolving democratic project.
When her husband died, Mary Ellen benefitted, just as he had, from their close association. The provincial Liberal Party, which had added woman suffrage to its platform in 1913 (decades after its embrace by socialist legislators in Victoria), now listened to the Champion (the magazine of the Political Equal League) and petitions and marches involving thousands of both women and men who demanded the enfranchisement of White (not Asian or First Nations) women. It also suggested sympathies by passing an Equal Guardianship Act and a Deserted Wives’ Maintenance Act, all very much on the agenda of provincial feminists. The Liberals then turned to Mary Ellen to hold her husband’s seat in a by-election in January 1918, less than a year after the first women (Louise McKinney and Roberta MacAdams), had been elected to a Canadian legislature in Alberta. This ploy of replacing a husband with a wife would become familiar, returning for example the Conservative Martha Black (1866-1957) to her ill husband’s federal Yukon seat in 1935. Unlike Black, however, the BCer would prove an active legislator. Running as an Independent Liberal, and invoking the same vision of non-partisanship embraced by Nellie McClung as a candidate in the 1921 Alberta provincial election, she campaigned on a platform of ‘women and children first.’ Her large majority seemed to confirm her confidence in the new age of female enfranchisement.
Mary Ellen Smith was immediately identified with the wave of 1920s social legislation that initially promised a new day, even if observers preferred to portray her safely as a vision in “a blue gingham apron” (Lethbridge Herald). In fact, she is better appreciated as a good speaker and careful strategist, the ally of other feminist activists such as the working-class suffragette and Vancouver unionist, Helena Gutteridge (1879-1960). The pioneer legislator’s priorities were clear when she immediately ushered in B.C.’s Female Minimum Wage Bill and the Mothers’ Pensions Bill, both of which, for all their limitations, moved the province to the forefront of social legislation in Canada. The former expressed her lifetime experience and observation of economic injustices and the second her recognition of women’s need for support in parenting. Her insistence that there were no ‘illegitimate’ children also contributed to divorced and single mothers sometimes being eligible for pensions, a provision unique in Canada and unusual anywhere.
Smith proved more popular than her party in the 1920 election when Liberals barely formed the government. She may have hoped to become the cabinet minister overseeing the welfare of women and children but that was not to be. First offered the Speakership of the Legislature, she refused, judging it only a way to be “prettily muzzled” (Norcross, 362). She may have joined the Liberal Party officially in the election year but she was not its pet. In March 1921, she accepted a cabinet post without portfolio (a full eight years before another woman from Britain’s west country, Labour M.P. Margaret Bondfield became that nation’s first female cabinet minister in the government of Ramsay MacDonald). Soon enough, however, perhaps especially when the government reduced Mothers’ Pensions payments, she realized the restrictions of a cabinet post. Less than a year later resigned. She nevertheless remained, as would become familiar to other female legislators, the ‘go to’ person for all matters involving so-called women’s issues or female constituents, a responsibility that her male colleagues happily discarded. In 1928, she achieved another world ‘first’ when she became Acting Speaker in the Provincial Legislature.
If as a legislator Smith championed progressive adoption legislation, town planning, women jurors, juvenile courts, and the registration of nurses, she also demonstrated the anti-Asian and eugenicist prejudices that stained the history of the province. She supported the Women and Girls’ Protection Act of 1923, which restricted their employment by Asians, and advocated the sterilization of the feeble-minded lest their reproduction contribute to ‘race suicide’. She accepted the racial science of her day that justified legislation efforts to “protect our own race.”(qted Kerwin, 95). In her embrace of a politics of racism and eugenics, Mary Ellen Smith typified much of (though never all of) her generation as they sought to guarantee the supremacy of White settler Canada.
Until the end of her life, Mary Ellen remained committed to enlarging prospects for British women in the dominion. When the Canadian Supreme Court decreed in 1928 that women were not ‘persons’ according to the British North America Act (in 1929 the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council rejected that ruling in response to the appeal of the ‘Alberta Five’—Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Henrietta Muir Edwards), she came out swinging: “The iron has dropped into the souls of women in Canada when we heard that it took a man to decree that his mother is not a person” (Hicks). In the 1920s and 1930s her remedy was partisan politics. She became the first president of the National Federation of Liberal Women of Canada (1928-1930) and strove to raise the consciousness of provincial Liberals. Without “constructive” action, she feared that “women were being chloroformed” when it came to politics (Rivers Gazette). Her defeat, along with her party, which had shifted her to a new and much less winnable riding on Vancouver Island, in July 1928, spelled not only her finish as a legislator but the end of the post-suffrage reform period. The death of a son that previous year made life all the more painful. Smith nevertheless continued active politically, now however from the sidelines. In April 1933 she died and was laid in Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery alongside her husband, a fitting joint resting place for a couple who shared so much.
As a heroine, Mary Ellen Spear Smith is flawed. A daughter of her times and circumstances, she held to the causes and the prejudices she imbibed in the hard-pressed mining communities of southwestern England and Vancouver Island. She shared many fears with other British settlers staking a claim to ‘the edge of empire’ (Perry). She cannot, however, be reduced to those limitations. As a working-class dressmaker who became an influential feminist activist, legislator and pioneer of minimum wage and welfare legislation, she enlarged democracy. Though that task remained incomplete, her legacy went substantially beyond that of the vast majority of her contemporaries and the vision she enunciated just after she was first elected—“I hope for the day when women will have a place on the floor of every Provincial House as well as the Federal Parliament, in order that their ideals may be injected into the life of our country, and better, more humane, legislation may result.”(Dodd, 7)—.resonates into the 21st century.
“Mary Ellen Smith is a Home Woman,” Lethbridge Herald, 26 May 1928.
“Nat. Assembly Liberal Women Elect President,” Rivers Gazette, 26 April 1928.
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