The Suffrage and the Second Wave Women’s Movements have often been regarded as distinct. In fact, feminism never disappeared. Laura Marshall Jamieson, who joined BC’s Political Equality League before World War One and the Women’s Committee of the New Democratic Party a half a century later, exemplifies its persistence.
An Ontario farm girl, Laura Marshall became a schoolteacher to fund a BA in philosophy from the University of Toronto. The 1908 yearbook described her as “one of the few possessing sufficient energy and skill to play a leading part in every activity open to women students.” Bluestocking credentials were augmented by Marshall’s enthusiasm for the Alpine Club of Canada, a passionate group identified as a magnet for independent-minded New Women (see Reichwein and Fox). Like many progressive people, the new graduate took a job with the Young Women’s Christian Association. As its Secretary for Western Ontario, she remembered,
I had never looked at my own life and my duties and responsibilities like this before. I had gone to church and taught Sunday School class and sang in the church choir and thought I had done well. But a whole new set of social duties confronted me. (qted Walsh, 126)
In 1911, however, she married lawyer John Stewart Jamieson, settled in Burnaby, BC, and had three children in quick succession, including a son who died in infancy.
With John’s unexpected death in 1926, Laura succeeded him in a juvenile court judgeship, although the honour of becoming BC’s first female magistrate had gone to Helen Gregory MacGill (1864-1947) in 1917. The appointment recognized a well-known activist. Laura had already presided over Vancouver Local Council of Women campaigns for dower and equal guardianship rights and, with John, lectured for the BC Political Equality League. She had helped host the 1916 Vancouver visit of the British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and led Burnaby’s Woman’s Forum in feminist educational outreach. She trusted that women suffrage would “remove the causes of distress instead of merely relieving that distress temporarily” (qted Walsh, 128).
After the war, Laura moved comfortably in progressive circles. In 1920, she joined James Shaver Woodsworth, later leader of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), in addressing UBC students on “the aims of socialism and the work of the Federated Labor party.” Her loyalty to broad alliances thrived with commitments to the Parent-Teachers’ Association, the University Women’s Club, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), and the League of Nations’ Society. Like hours in Burnaby’s Juvenile Court, such involvement increased her awareness of economic distress, affirmed internationalism, and strengthened ties to key feminist and later CCF stalwarts.
The first decade after the enfranchisement of BC’s white women in 1917 brought women impressive legislative gains. Laura credited much early success to the independent(-minded) Liberal Mary Ellen Smith, the province’s first female legislator. Later scholars have also pointed to “nation-building” discourses that aimed to strengthen the ‘white race’ (Clarkson, 326-357). Laura remembered post-suffrage politics as exhilarating: “I think that working for the suffrage, and using ingenious methods of educating the public gave us a zest and impetus that carried over into the period when we able to get good legislation passed, and we felt that we should get as much passed as possible.” With Smith’s 1928 defeat, prospects dampened sharply.
The Great Depression intensified sensitivity to injustice. Jamieson was appalled by pervasive hostility to female wage-earners and her attention turned as well to the male unemployed. As a member of the CCF Women’s Council and Vancouver’s Mothers’ Council, she advocated aid for the refugees from federal work camps assembled in Vancouver to begin their ‘March on Ottawa’ in 1935 (Howard). The interwar years also kept international concerns to the fore as she challenged narrow nationalism and linked conflict and economic disadvantage. She recognized the consequences of her politics: “the fact that I am known in Vancouver as a Radical, and even to many as a ‘dangerous woman,’ mitigates against popularity” (qted Crowley, 65-66). In 1939, Jamieson endorsed CCF support of the war but she scrutinized its effect on women and racial minorities.
Jamieson’s engagement in reform causes drew censure from the BC Liberal Government and she resigned her judgeship in 1938. A year later, she won a Vancouver by-election for the CCF. In 1941 she was returned, alongside two other CCF women (Grace MacInnis and Dorothy Steeves), for the Official Opposition. In 1941, she helped found the Vancouver Women’s School for Citizenship. Such efforts could not counter right-wing fear-mongering and internal CCF divisions. In 1945, she met electoral defeat.
In 1948 Jamieson’s passion for local improvement led to a two-year term as a Vancouver City Councilor, only the second woman in that office. There she advocated an expanded municipal franchise, housing reform, and public ownership of utilities. In 1952, the provincial legislature came calling again and she topped Vancouver Centre polls. The new Social Credit Party managed, however, to hammer out a minority. The 1953 general election made it a majority and the feminist veteran, now over 70, ran well but unsuccessfully. She did not again hold political office.
As a legislator, Laura Jamieson’s causes were familiar progressive preoccupations, signaled by her inclusion on the House Standing Committee on Social Welfare. In 1941, she announced that she “would devote her energies particularly to the help of women industrial workers” (qted Walsh, 132). She endorsed day nurseries as a legitimate claim and with armistice in sight rejected efforts to force women out of good jobs and proposed converting war to peacetime production (Jamieson). The province’s habitual racism also drew her ire as her article, “Where White and Brown Men Meet” in the Canadian Forum in 1941, and her service for the Vancouver Consultative Council for Co-operation in Wartime Problems of Canadian Citizenship, which opposed internment of Japanese Canadians, demonstrated. Her column, the “World at a Glance” in the BC Federationist advocated global-mindedness and the United Nations, causes dear to progressive women’s groups.
By the time she last held office, Laura Jamieson was a CCF matriarch. Even as she named herself both a socialist and a feminist, she above all sought broad progressive coalitions to secure social improvement. In the mainstream of her party, she joined those who rejected any common front with Communists, endorsed social democracy, and put their weight behind a politics of moderation. Loyalties groomed in community-based feminist groups did not readily align with male-dominated ideological purists.
The transformation of the CCF into the NDP in 1961, which Jamieson supported, and the emergence of its Women’s Committee represented the last stage in her political life. Although the committee did not long survive, the formation of the Voice of Women in 1960 and the Vancouver Women’s Caucus in 1968 signaled the feminist revival for which she waited. Her own life, however, testified to feminism’s resilience in individual hearts and actions from the time of the suffragists to the beginnings of the Second Wave.
Clarkson, Christopher A. “Remoralizing Families? Family Regulation and State Formation in British Columbia, 1862-1940”, PhD thesis, University of Ottawa, 2002.
Crowley, Terrence, Agnes Macphail and the Politics of Equality (Toronto: James Lorimer & Co., 1990).
Howard, Irene, “The Mothers’ Council of Vancouver: Holding the Fort for the Unemployed, 1935-1938,” BC Studies nos. 69-70 (Spring-Summer 1986): 249-87
Jamieson, Laura, Women Dry Those Tears (Vancouver: CCF Women’s Council of BC, 1945).
Reichwein, PearlAnn and K. Fox, “Margaret Fleming and the Alpine Club of Canada: A Woman’s Place in Mountain Leisure and Literature, 1932-1952.” Journal of Canadian Studies (Fall 2001): 35-60.
Strong-Boag, Veronica, “Taking Stock of Suffragists: Personal Reflections on Feminist Appraisals, ” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association NS, 21:2 (2011): 76-89.
Walsh, Susan, “Equality, Emancipation, and a More Just World: Leading Women in the British Columbia Cooperative Commonwealth Federation,” MA thesis, Simon Fraser University, 1983.