Improving Cities: Annie Gale and Calgary, Canada


galeIn 2012, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities embraced the goal of increasing women on municipal councils from 21.4% to 30% by 2026. The United Nations had defined the latter figure “as the minimal percentage of women required for government to reflect women’s Concerns”(1). With only 12.9% of mayors and 22.9% of councilors, Canadian women had far to go.

Such shortfall might suggest that municipal government has had little interest for women.  Not so.  Around the world, 19th century feminists inaugurated continuing concern with the way that cities work, or often did not, for women and children and residents in general.  Disasters and shortfalls in health, education, and general well-being were carefully documented and reforms proposed. In their enthusiasm for urban improvement, feminists, both women and men, were part of the progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that foresaw the saving of cities, which were often seen as especially corrupt, as an essential part of the modern project.  Many female activists also believed that cities presented a special opportunity for their sex.  As the nearest level of government and that most immediately concerned with the day-to-day, they appeared to require women’s housekeeping expertise even as their tasks could be most readily accompanied along side domestic and employment obligations.

In the United Kingdom, women’s rights activists early targeted urban distress and abuse, winning the right to vote for Municipal Councils in the 19th century. Right from the beginning, however, their claims were contested. In 1889, several elite women ran for seats on the new London City Council but despite victories were not permitted membership.  In face of women’s determination and mounting suffrage campaigns at every level, however, diehard opponents slowly gave way.  By 1914 more than 3000 British women were “sitting on councils, local boards and acting as Poor Law Guardians”(Chandler, 5), providing a beacon of inspiration to the English-speaking world.  In the United States, many cities and towns were hives of feminist activity. Jane Addams (1860-1935), the founder of Chicago’s Hull House settlement and future winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, typically embraced the possibilities of what she termed “enlarged housekeeping’” in “The Modern City and the Municipal Franchise for Women”, a clarion call published by the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1910.

Residents of Canadian cities watched developments elsewhere with keen interest and franchise campaigners sought inspiration from their international counterparts. Immigrants regularly brought causes with them. In Vancouver, the suffragette and working-class veteran of English crusades, Helena Gutteridge (1879-1960) did not forget her feminist and labour politics, with their special commitment to tackling violence against women and affordable housing, when she was elected to that city council in 1937 (Howard). Calgary’s Hannah (Annie) Rollinson Gale (1876-1970) is another immigrant who deserves close attention when it comes to feminism and local government.

Annie Gale, as she was known after this middle-class Englishwoman from the West Midlands arrived in Calgary in 1912 with her engineer husband and two sons, has not been identified as a feminist in her homeland but Alberta quickly turned her into a advocate for workers and her sex. Inflated housing and food prices in the prairie boomtown drew fast censure.  Soon she was helping to establish a local Consumers’ League, inspired by the non-profit advocacy group first formed (and for which Jane Addams was instrumental) in the United States in 1899 and early on dominated by female reformers. A Municipal Market soon followed.  Both initiatives drew the ire of business monopolies.  World War One (1914-18) saw her promoting the Vacant Lots Garden Club and cheaper coal, which promised greater self-sufficiency and well-being for hard-up Calgarians. As Secretary of the Free Hospital League, she also drew attention to the province’s dismal provision of health care: expectant mothers could be worse served than livestock. As Treasurer of the Calgary Forum, she similarly insisted on the need to “protect women in industry, to prevent child labour and to obtain equal pay for equal work irrespective of sex” (qtd Lishman, 10). Such causes prompted Gale to organize a pioneering Women’s Ratepayers’ Association (WRA) to encourage greater women’s involvement in politics after its somewhat earlier male counterpart refused to desegregate.

Women won the provincial franchise in Alberta in 1916 and most secured the federal franchise in 1919. In 1917 the WRA asked Gale to run for city council, a right women had had since the 1890s.  The backing of organized women, workers, and reform-minded newspapers, including the Calgary Eye-Opener, made possible a pioneering event, the first woman elected to municipal office in Canada. Gale explained the practical and moral basis of her quest in words that would have resonated for many feminists:  “to me, municipal work has always meant so much; not just collecting taxes, policing the streets, constructing sewers … but to give service … to fulfill my duty to my neighbours, to discharge my share of responsibility towards the social welfare of the citizens, the health of the community, their full protection and to safeguard the public morals of my neighbours’ sons and daughters, to see justice dealt to everyone and encouragement given to the making of good cities” (qtd Lishman, 14). The only female candidate in a field of 13, she placed sixth and secured one of the nine positions.

Once elected, Annie Gale continued an energetic advocate of betterment, so much so that she was made Acting Mayor in 1919.  The Canadian magazine, MacLean’s featured her as the “champion of the housewives of Western Canada”.  She was quoted as arguing “Give housewives the place they deserve in municipal affairs and they will drive the food pirates to cover. I am such an enthusiast in respect to the rights of women that I willingly oppose a full council of men when the occasion arises. I belong to no party and believe that all women should be free to enter politics. If we remain disinterested (in party politics), we can accomplish what we set out to do—to better civic conditions and bring the cost of living down where it belongs’”(qtd Lishman, 18).  Her preference for a non-partisan approach inspired many other reformers, such as Nellie L. McClung, but that ethnical stance proved a substantial liability as political parties increasingly tightened their grasp even at the municipal level.

Gale’s criticism of business monopolies and profiteering, demands for the sanitary inspection of food, and defense of Calgary’s farmers’ market kept her popular but she was unafraid of controversial issues. Like other female activists, such as Britain’s pioneering Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) and Canada’s Agnes Campbell Macphail (1890-1954), Gale insisted on the need to alleviate conditions in jails and prisons, particularly but not only for women offenders. In 1919, she exposed the dire state of the mentally ill and the poor in Calgary’s facilities. Such disclosures helped return her in the 1919 municipal election, when she was also a passionate advocate for a city hospital in the accompanying successful plebiscite.

Gale’s range of concerns prompted her candidacy in the spring 1921 provincial election. Running once again as an Independent, she campaigned enthusiastically for improvements in mothers’ pensions and legislation to protect unmarried mothers. Eight women ran for various parties in that campaign. Two, both feminists, were elected—Irene Marryat Parlby (1868-1965) for the victorious United Farmers of Alberta and Nellie Mooney McClung (1873-1951) for the defeated Liberals—but Gale was not. She was philosophical:  “I can truthfully say I enjoyed every minute of the campaign and should like to have been elected so that every independent woman might be encouraged to run simply on the woman’s platform.  I feel that this campaign will help to unite women of all opinions in fielding and electing women candidates’”(qtd Lishman, 43).

Gale was more successful in the December Calgary municipal election when she placed third of fifteen candidates, despite the lack of official endorsement from either the Local Council of Women or the labour movement. This term saw her attention particularly taken up with the safeguarding of the milk supply and the problems of unemployment.  She continued to find enemies among the city’s powerful, who when they couldn’t defeat her managed to force her husband to resign from city’s engineering department.  In December 1924, Annie Gale won election as a school trustee representing the Labour Party, a shift that reflects the hardening of political lines.  Her advocacy of free school health care, the only medical coverage possessed by many poor residents, placed her once more in the mainstream of progressive reformers.

Gale’s days as a force for municipal good were nevertheless coming to a close.  Her husband’s worsening health forced a retreat to the milder climate of British Columbia in 1925 and she passed the rest of her days seemingly far from public attention in Vancouver. Before she left Calgary, however, she was feted by twelve women’s organizations.  Speakers applauded her service and lamented her loss to local government:

“Annie had always been an energetic and courageous worker and the loss of her influence would be keenly felt.” (qtd Mrs. Walter Smith; Lishman, 58)

“Where is the woman ready to face the music and stand alone in a great cause? It will be hard to find a woman to take her place.” (qtd anonymous; Lishman 58)

“Women haven’t an easy time in public life and Mrs. Gale has played her part courageously and intelligently. Mrs. Gale could always be depended upon to take a sane, forward, dependable view. Her tact and charming personality have carried her through many difficulties. Women haven’t an easy time in public life but they count the cost before they enter. Mrs. Gale has always upheld the standards of womanhood and we cherish the hope that she will come back to us again.”(Nellie L. McClung; Lishman, 58)

Annie herself remained an enthusiastic proponent of political life for her sex:  “The work is its own reward because it develops you. I dearly loved my work here. Although it is impossible for two people to see alike, as a parting message I urge you, the women of Calgary, to unite in your work on the main issues. It is hard to leave here but I hope to come back” (Lishman, 58-59).  Unfortunately, she would not.

Indeed Gale’s departure signaled the difficulties women long encountered in municipal politics. Despite the high hopes of the pioneers, resistance remained pervasive across the country. Not till 1936 did the small Ontario town of Webbwood elect the first female mayor (Barbara Hanley 1881-1959) and Montreal did not see even its first female city councilor until 1940 (Katleen Fisher).  While Ottawa’s Charlotte Whitton (1896-1975) readily made headlines as the first female mayor of a major city (1951-1956; 1960-1964) (Rooke and Schnell), cities depended on the revival of the second women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s to nourish the activist flame of an earlier generation. Even then, however, the Calgary City Council like the vast majority of Canadian cities, while doing generally better than the provincial and federal legislatures, has yet to elect a majority of women or a female mayor (Sampert), despite reporting a slight majority of female residents in 2011. The election of Naheed Kurban Nenshi (b 1972) as the first Muslim mayor of a major North American City in 2010 suggests, however, that a more inclusive day for municipal politics may be on the horizon.




Women in Local Government: Getting to 30% by 2026 (Ottawa: Federation of Canadian Municipalities, 2012).

Democracy in Montreal from 1830 to the Present. City of Montreal

Addams, Jane. “Woman’s Part in Managing the Modern City”,

Chandler, Malcolm. Votes for Women, c.1900-28 (Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 2001).

DuChene, Danielle. “Where are the Women? Unequal Representation in Municipal Government in Newfoundland and Labrador.” MA thesis, Memorial University, 2008.

Howard, Irene.  The Struggle for Social Justice in British Columbia: Helena Gutteridge the Unknown Reformer  (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1992).

Lishman, Judith.  Alderman Mrs. Annie Gale (Vancouver: Sheila Graham, 1985).

Rook, P.T. and R.L. Schnell. No Bleeding Heart: Charlotte Whitton: A Feminist on the Right (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1987).

Sampert, Shannon. “4. More than Just Cowboys with White Hats: A Demographic Profile of Edmonton and Calgary” in Electing a Diverse Canada: The Representation of Immigrants, Minorities, and Women. Eds. Caroline Andrew, John Biles, Myer Siemiatycki & Erin Tolley (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008): 92-110.

Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag, Ph.D, FRSC, is a Canadian historian specializing in the modern history of women and children in Canada. She is Professor Emerita of Women's History at the University of British Columbia. In 1988 she won the John A. Macdonald Prize (awarded to the best book in Canadian history) for her study of the lives of women in Canada between the wars, entitled The New Day Recalled. In 1993–94 she served as president of the Canadian Historical Association. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2001. In July 2012 the Royal Society of Canada announced that Strong-Boag would be awarded the J. B. Tyrrell Historical Medal "for outstanding work in the history of Canada."