Much like today’s women’s movements, the suffrage cause drew great strength from a world-wide constituency. Pioneers such as Britain’s Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), the USA’s Harriot Stanton Blatch (1856-1940), and Canada’s Nellie L. McClung (1872-1951) toured well beyond their own nations and their words encouraged global sympathies. Women of all stations in life carried political loyalties with them as visitors and emigrants to other lands. Helena Rose Gutteridge was just such a dedicated transplant from London to the far flung shores of the British Empire in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Born to a working-class London family that disapproved of girls’ education, Helena proved an early rebel. As a young teenager and aspiring ‘New Woman’ of her age, she left home, supporting herself in studies of hygiene and sanitation that gained her a teaching certificate. She worked for wages, however, in the retail clothing trade. Economic independence always stood at the heart of her commitment to equality.
As a spunky youngster, Gutteridge embraced the British capital’s suffrage agitation, orating at Hyde Park, marching in great parades, waving banners, and getting tossed out of political meetings when she stood up to demand the vote (Walsh, 90). In joining the ‘great cause,’ she fell under the spell of Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Frustrated with the obfuscation and deceit of the Liberal governments of Henry Campbell-Bannerman and Herbert Asquith, WSPUers turned increasingly to direct action and became known as ‘suffragettes.’ The term ‘suffragists’ in contrast everywhere denoted the mainstream ‘votes for women’ movement that remained committed to peaceful protest.
An unusual working-class recruit in a movement dominated by the middle class, the articulate and stubborn Gutteridge held her own. She and others like her were essential in affirming critical sympathies between the suffrage and socialist and union movements, even as some working-class leaders dismissed the suffrage cause as irretrievably bourgeois and utterly irrelevant (see Newton, 140).
While much of the world watched with fascination (and some horror) as British suffragettes increasingly battled police and hunger-struck (beginning in 1909), militants aimed at global influence. In 1911 Gutteridge and an audacious handful took the cause to Canada. She chose British Columbia, an imperial outpost that Emmeline Pankhurst herself would later consider as a potential home (Purvis). While she intended to stay only a few years, Helena found a lifetime’s challenge in furthering equality in Canada’s western-most province.
Pre-World War One BC’s suffrage agitation centred in Victoria (the capital) and Vancouver (the largest city) with groups such as the Woman’s Temperance Union, the National Council of Women, the University Women’s Club, and the BC Political Equality League. Once again middle-class activists (suffragists not suffragettes) were in the majority but Gutteridge did not hesitate to join. Her desire for stronger tactics soon led to the founding of the Pioneer Political Equality that held evening meetings (so working women could attend) in downtown Vancouver’s Labor Temple. Eventually she helped establish the BC Woman’s Suffrage League with its firm union loyalties. In a typically ecumenical fashion, however, the ambitious newcomer also supported the creation of the umbrella group, the United Suffrage Societies.
After investigating city women’s wages in 1912, Helena joined the local Tailors’ Union. In the same spirit, she became the first woman member, then treasurer and secretary of the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council and edited the women’s column of its newspaper, the BC Federationist. She offered a straight forward explanation of her linkage of causes: “The economic value of the ballot is one of the strongest arguments in favour of votes for women” (qted Kealey, 176) and “The political organization of women and the organization of women into trade unions, although two separate and independent movements, are nevertheless supplementary and necessary to each other, if the economic freedom of women is to be obtained” (qtd McMaster, 125).
After the provincial vote was gained for white women in 1917 (but not until after World War Two for Asian or Indian women), Gutteridge maintained both feminist and socialist loyalties. She helped organize a strike of women laundry workers in 1918 (McMaster 121), endorsed the progressive legislation shepherded in by BC’s first female Member of the Provincial Legislature, Mary Ellen Spear Smith (Strong-Boag), and joined the Vancouver branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Federated Labour Party. Marriage to a farmer in 1920 curtailed public visibility for a decade. By the 1930s, however, she was again in the Vancouver spotlight, helping to establish the provincial Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and serving as the first female city counselor in 1937-1939 with urban health, housing, and employment equity becoming her signature causes. A typical retort to one misogynist Vancouver colleague—“Men only object to women working when they start earning money” (qted Walsh, 108)—signaled the militancy groomed first at her family hearth some half century earlier.
Gutteridge’s obvious preference for cross-class alliances often caused her to be labeled ‘right wing’ by “radical unionists” (Walsh, 99) even as she could be judged too left-wing by conservative feminists. Despite her commitment to equality for women and workers, she did not campaign for political rights for BC Asians or Indians. Nor, however, did she express her era’s commonplace racism and she opposed interning Japanese residents during World War Two when she served as a counselor at the Slocan City camp in the BC interior.
Active in social justice causes until her death, Gutteridge never achieved the economic security that she demanded for all. In the last years of her life, she worked as a fruit and vegetable packer to supplement her tiny old age pension. But hard labour did not extinguish the irrepressible spirit that can be glimpsed in the photo that accompanies this essay. The assessment by Susan Walsh provides an apt summary of the suffragette’s life: Helena Rose Gutteridge was “neither a party ideologue, doctrinaire revolutionary or ‘middle of the road’ progressive but an independent idealist who cared more about the practical application of socialist principles than their theoretical basis” (120). Equally importantly, the London transplant demonstrates the persisting contribution of global feminism to social justice in Canada.
“A Radical Woman,” Celebrating the Stories of BC Workers, Labour Heritage Centre, http://www.labourheritagecentre.ca/project/a-radical-woman, accessed 25 Jan. 2014.
Frager, Ruth A. and Carmela Patrias, Discounted Labour: Women Workers in Canada, 1870-1939 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005).
Howard, Irene, The Struggle for Social Justice in British Columbia: Helena Gutteridge, the Unknown Reformer (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1992).
Kealey, Linda, “Women in the Canadian Socialist Movement, 1904-1914” in Linda Kealey and Joan Sangster, eds., Beyond the Vote: Canadian Women in Politics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989): 171-195.
McMaster, Lindsay, Working Girls in the West: Representations of Wage-Earning Women (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008).
Newton, Janice, Feminist Challenge to the Canadian Left, 1900-1918 (Kingston-Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995).
Purvis, June, Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography (London: Taylor & Francis, 2003).
Strong-Boag, Veronica, “Mary Ellen Spear Smith,” Women Suffrage and Beyond, http://womensuffrage.org/?designsentry_portf=mary-ellen-spear-smith accessed 25 Jan. 2014.
Walsh, Susan, “Equality, Emancipation and a More Just World: Leading Women in the British Columbia Cooperative Commonwealth Federation,” MA thesis, Simon Fraser University, 1984.