Rose Henderson

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(1871-1937)

Cover of "Rose Henderson: A Woman for the People" via John Campbell.

Cover of “Rose Henderson: A Woman for the People” via Peter Campbell.

Little is known about the early life of Rose Henderson, who was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1871. Arriving in North America in 1885, she married accountant Charles Henderson and seemed destined to settle into an unremarkable and respectable life in Montréal, Québec. When her husband died suddenly in January 1904 Henderson was still a young woman in her mid-30s, the mother of one daughter, Ida. Encountering poverty-stricken young people during Sunday School visits following her husband’s death, Henderson became committed to improving the lives of disadvantaged women and children. When a juvenile court was established in Montréal in 1912, she was appointed the probation officer for non-Catholic children.

It was also in 1912 that Rose Henderson clearly enunciated her position on women gaining the franchise, choosing to place the onus on women themselves. Henderson’s argument echoed the approach of Socialist Party of Canada members to the working class, which they believed must awaken to its own interests. It was not the attitude of male politicians that was the key to change, Henderson argued, but rather women exercising agency. Men had fought women’s battles long enough.
In the same year Henderson took her fight for women’s suffrage to the annual convention of the Trades and Labour Congress in Guelph, Ontario. As a maternal feminist, Henderson sought to allay the fears of working-class men that the vote would weaken the home, arguing instead that it would strengthen it. There was nothing to fear in women achieving the vote, Henderson argued. She appealed to working-class men as allies in the struggle for the vote; working-class men who opposed suffrage were, she asserted, misinformed and mistaken.

Rose Henderson did play a role in the suffrage movement; in 1914 she was elected vice-president of the Québec wing of the Canadian Suffrage Association (CSA), organized in 1906 by Augusta Stowe Gullen, Margaret Gordon and Flora Macdonald Denison. Little is known about Henderson’s involvement with the CSA, and by the time the federal franchise was granted in 1918 she was more focused on the need for labour organization and protest. What Henderson had to say in 1918 suggests more concern that the majority of women had not actively supported the suffrage campaign than desire to celebrate the achievement of the franchise.

Following the loss of her position at the juvenile court because of her support for the Canadian labour revolt of 1919 and the militant One Big Union, Henderson ran as a labour candidate in the Montreal riding of St Laurent- St Georges in the federal election of 1921. It was the first federal election in which the majority of Canadian women – ‘racial’ exclusions remained in place – were allowed to go to the polls. She was the only female candidate east of Toronto, and her poor vote tally is in part a reflection of lack of support from women and working-class men. It was almost as if, having won the franchise, Canadian women were expected to continue their self-effacing, behind-the-scenes lives, leaving the important work in public life to men. Rose Henderson did not make it to parliament, but she did buttress Agnes Macphail’s more powerful message that the days of business as usual were over.

Suffrage having been achieved, Rose Henderson’s energies in the 1920s were directed to the peace movement as a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Women’s Peace Union. In the 1925 federal election she ran unsuccessfully, but impressively, in the riding of New Westminster in British Columbia as a labour candidate. Her pamphlet “Woman and War,” which sold some 10,000 copies, and a series of articles in the One Big Bulletin between December 1926 and June 1927 kept her ideas before the English Canadian public. She continued her pre-war advocacy of the cause of Canadian labour, and travelled to and fostered closer ties with the Soviet Union.

In Toronto in the 1930s Rose Henderson had a major impact as one of the few female trustees on the Toronto Board of Education. Henderson was renowned for her knowledge of the schools in her ward, her unceasing efforts to improve the lives and education of disadvantaged students, and her ability to unsettle the comfortable world of the Toronto elite. As part of her ongoing campaign against war and imperialism she spearheaded a drive to end cadet training in Toronto schools. She also led a concerted effort to end corporal punishment in the schools, and although unsuccessful, left a legacy that was realized in the early 1970s.

A prominent supporter of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, Henderson ran unsuccessfully in the Ontario provincial election of 1934 and the federal election of 1935. As she had for much of her activist life, Henderson transgressed the boundaries of left ideologies, working with Communist Party members when she felt that labor unity was in the best interests of women and the working class. When she died on 30 January 1937 of a cerebral hemorrhage she was lauded by social democrat and communist alike, praised for the fact that she refused to abide any of the injustices of the world. Her many causes and sometimes conflicting beliefs offer a concrete reminder of the rich complexity of the suffrage pioneers.

Further Reading & Resources

Bacchi, Carol Lee. Liberation Deferred? The Ideas of the English-Canadian Suffragists, 1877-1918 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983.

Campbell, Peter. Rose Henderson: A Woman for the People (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010)

Christie, Nancy. Engendering the State: Family, Work and Welfare in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000)

Henderson, Rose. Kids What I Knows (Montreal: W.H. Eaton and Sons, no date)

Henderson, Rose; Woman and War (Vancouver: Federated Labour Party, 1925)

Myers, Tamara. Caught: Montreal’s Modern Girls and the Law, 1869-1945 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006)

Sangster, Joan. Dreams of Equality: Women on the Canadian Left, 1920-1950 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989)

Strong-Boag, Veronica. The New Day Recalled: Lives of Girls and Women in English Canada, 1919-1939 (Markham, Ontario: Penguin, 1988)

Campbell, Peter

Campbell, Peter

Campbell, Peter

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