Gladys Strum, who made an exceptional contribution to political life in Canada, joined the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) two years after the first convention in Regina in 1933. A down-to-earth farm woman from Windthorst in southeast Saskatchewan, she became a CCF candidate in seven elections, when women politicians were “vastly out-numbered,” between feminism’s first and second wave. In 1945 Strum became the first woman to be the president of a Canadian political party when she was elected to that office in the provincial CCF. She became the first woman Member of Parliament (MP) to sit for the CCF, sitting for the Qu’Appelle constituency from 1945 to 1949, as Canada’s fifth woman parliamentarian. She memorably summed up sitting alongside 244 men as supplying the pork “in a can of pork and beans.” Service in Ottawa was followed by four years (1960-4) as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in Saskatchewan, the fifth woman member in its history. A long-time advocate of better health care services, she voted for the Medical Care Insurance Act in 1961. She described this moment, which established medicare in Saskatchewan, North American’s first universal health care program and the model for later Canadian initiatives, as the high point in her political life. (See Taylor, “Mothers of Medicare” on this site.)
What created this political dynamo? Gladys was born to Sarah and Luther Lamb on a Manitoba farm “almost in the hen house.” Chores were a way of life. A bright diligent student, she was hired in 1922 to teach all eight grades in a one-room rural school near Windthorst. In November of 1929 she married Warner Strum, a farmer who chaired the local school board. This intelligent appealing man was raising his five orphaned brothers and sisters. Warner, who was often very ill with pleurisy and pneumonia, was diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB) when Gladys was a bride of three months. Over the years he faced periodic stays in the sanatorium and recurring surgery. She became his advocate and an avid supporter of the superintendent of the Fort Qu’Appelle Sanatorium and the Anti-tuberculosis League in Saskatchewan.
Because Gladys was very busy with domestic work, including caring for their infant daughter Carol (born 1930), and outside farm work she did not join in the frequent discussions of politics between Warner, whose family had supported the left-wing Non-Partisan League in North Dakota, and their neighbour who was an advocate of Fabian socialism. During the 1930s, however, as their family battled dust storms and barely managed economically, while their neighbours were forced onto relief, she began to show an interest in politics. Much of her activism was channelled through the local Homemakers’ Club, the equivalent of the Women’s Institutes in other provinces. In 1935 when CCF missionary Louise Lucas came to Gladys’s district for a Homemakers’convention she was billeted with the Strums. The Lucas family, who also lived in southern Saskatchewan, faced eight successive crop failures during the 1930s. Regarded by many as the provincial “mother of the CCF,” Lucas toured tirelessly speaking and urging voters to put “Humanity First” by voting for the CCF. An agrarian socialist, she spoke in hundreds of rural school houses and was reputed to have made more speeches than any CCF speaker in Canada. Lucas was so impressed by Strum that she predicted a great future for her. She proved an extremely effective political mentor who taught Strum the “ABCs of socialism.” Later Strum recalled that it was only with this basic knowledge that she could understand Warner’s discussions of socialism. Well before Lucas died of cancer in 1945 she had groomed Strum to contest male-dominated politics.
With Lucas’s mentorship, aided and abetted by Warner, Gladys became a key CCF speaker and organizer in three constituencies. An assertive, forthright, country woman, she never learned to flatter men in the party hierarchy. Some of the organizers were paid, but she was not. In 1941 she told the CCF provincial executive it was “slowly dawning” on her that she was:
practically a full time CCF organizer – without pay…. This morning I am about to do the family wash – which I couldn’t do last week because I spent the entire week in Souris-Estevan … God knows what I am going to talk about [at the meeting in Highview]. Perhaps I’ll warn women to stay out of politics … Somebody is crazy – I’m beginning to suspect its me … I must get busy at the washing – the water’s hot. I’m eating breakfast and interspersing these paragraphs with toast and coffee…. I have … two solid weeks and two days of CCF meetings ahead. I’ll have to be put on as an organizer or quit. After all I have a husband and a family. Yet. Does the CCF ever contest divorce suits as correspondent?
Eventually the executive paid her expenses, but such confrontations offended some male party leaders.
The former teacher was a formidable CCF educator, undertaking youth work, teaching in CCF organizational schools, and speaking frequently. In 1938 Gladys lost as a sacrificial candidate for the CCF against the Liberal premier W.J. Patterson in the Cannington constituency. Warner’s health was so bad they contemplated moving to New Zealand so they cashed in an insurance policy to finance an exploratory trip by Gladys. While there she interviewed MPs and officials in the Labour government, which was establishing a comprehensive welfare state. With the prospect of the Japanese advancing in the Pacific, the Strums decided to stay put, but the experience left Gladys more enthusiastic than ever about democratic socialism.
During the 1944 provincial election Strum toured the province with T.C. (Tommy) Douglas, the CCF’s popular new leader. She also ran against Patterson again, losing by a mere six votes, but her party won in a resounding victory forming Canada’s first democratic socialist government. Strum’s moment to be provincial party president came in 1945 when most of the leading men in the party were in the legislature and the party constitution prohibited MLAs from holding this office. That year she also contested the federal election in a close three-way race in the Qu’Appelle constituency against Ernest Perley, the long-standing Conservative MP, and General Andrew McNaughton, the charismatic Second World War general and the federal Liberal Minister of Defense, who had been parachuted into the riding. Strum later recalled that when she won McNaughton said that he “would rather deal with an atom bomb” than with her.
In Ottawa Strum, the sole female MP, was immediately hailed by the press as a mother and, contradictorily, as a “maid with a million men.” Rejecting the idea that women should go “back to the kitchen” when the war was over, she told the Commons “no one has ever objected to women working. The only thing they have ever objected to is paying women for working.” (Commons Debates, 4 October 1945.) The CCF had anticipated a breakthrough, but Ontario proved a disappointment. There were, however, 28 CCF MPs, 18 from Saskatchewan where strong riding organizers like Strum made a difference. In Ottawa Strum was welcomed by M.J. Coldwell, the CCF federal leader, her caucus generally treated her well, and she was highly visible at party functions. She often spoke on behalf of Canadian women, from whom she received many letters, and she was the CCF MP who met delegations of women lobbying on the Hill. Strum also had support from Yukoner Martha Black, a Conservative MP from 1935 to 1940, who had replaced her husband while he was ill. During Strum’s term he was back in the House and Martha was free to befriend Gladys and give her valuable advice. Strum went down to defeat in 1949 when only five CCF candidates won in Saskatchewan.
She returned to the farm and teaching, attending university when she could to up-grade her credentials thereby increasing their family income. In 1952 the Strums moved to British Columbia where the climate was better for Warner. There she lost again as a sacrificial candidate. She could not find a job teaching in BC, likely because of her politics, so the Strums ran a motel. In 1955 they returned to the farm near Windthorst. Gladys resumed teaching locally and attending university at times in Saskatoon, while operating a boarding house to finance her education.
In 1960 Gladys ran for the CCF in Saskatoon, a three member constituency where each elector could vote for two men and still have a vote left for a woman. This was the only time she was nominated in a seat the CCF thought it could win. She was elected, but her term in Regina was not as pleasant as her term in Ottawa. In 1945 in Ottawa most of the CCF MPs were new and willing to welcome a woman, but 15 years later in Regina most of the caucus had been there a long time and were more rigid and misogynist. Strum was compared unfavorably to Marjorie Cooper, the only other woman in the caucus, who was elected in1952 when a new conservatism was fashionable. Douglas, who had been the premier for 16 years, and the other men in the caucus preferred Cooper’s lady-like accommodation and treated Strum like an intruder. Focused on establishing medicare, they saw Strum, who insisted on raising uncomfortable questions about inequality, as an annoying, trouble-making feminist. Not surprisingly Strum was not given a cabinet post by Douglas or by Woodrow Lloyd, who replaced him as the premier.
The medicare legislation passed in November 1961, provoking a divisive battle between the government led by Lloyd and the medical doctors who opposed medicare and the Liberals. The doctors withdrew their services and Saskatchewan split into two warring camps. After a bitter battle the doctors grudgingly returned to work at the end of July 1962. In 1961 the federal party had joined with unions to form the New Democratic Party, although the provincial party continued to call itself the CCF until 1967. Douglas, who had resigned as the premier a few days before medicare passed, became the NDP federal leader. During the 1964 provincial election campaign, the CCF was on the defensive so Strum spent time outside of her riding speaking on behalf of desperate CCF candidates. The Liberals led by Ross Thatcher were victorious and Strum went down to defeat after a suspense-filled recount. She was soon scapegoated by the Saskatoon CCF in a blame game that drove her out of politics. The Strums returned to the family farm, new drugs having cured Warner’s TB. Gladys, who by then had a Bachelor of Education and a Bachelor of Arts degrees, was hired as the principal of a nine-room school in a nearby town. In 1968 the Strums retired to Penticton, the home of their daughter and her family.
In 1981 I taped a lengthy interview with Gladys and talked to her and Warner over numerous cups of tea. Feeling unfairly treated in part because she had criticized Douglas, often regarded as a saint, she used the opportunity to tell her side of the story. Gladys had seen herself as a “socialist” during her years as a politician, but by 1981 second-wave feminism helped her identify strongly as a feminist. She concluded that she had been “born too soon.” Warner continued to support Gladys wholeheartedly until his death at the age of 84, just short of their sixtieth anniversary. On February 4th 2004, in celebration of her 98th birthday, Gladys was recognized in the House of Commons for her strong advocacy of women’s equality.
Saskatchewan Archives Board, Women in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation Collection, 32 taped interviews by Georgina Taylor R-5827 to R-5874, R-8130 to R-8166. See in particular the interviews with Anne Blakeney, Frank Coburn, Marjory Cooper, Elsie Gorius, Eloise (Lucas) Metheral, I.C. (Toby) Nollet, Gladys Strum, Pemrose Whelan, and Thora Wiggens.
Unless otherwise noted the direct quotations are from this eight hour interview with Strum or from Taylor, “Equals and Partners?”
Taped interview with T.C. Douglas, 15 June 1982, in possession of the author.
Evelyn Eager, Saskatchewan Government Politics and Pragmatism (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1980).
“Gladys Strum,” Library and Archives Canada, <http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/women/030001-1341-e.html>, retrieved 20 December 2015.
Stuart. Houston, R.G. Ferguson: Crusader Against Tuberculosis (Toronto and Oxford: Hannah Institute & Dundurn Press, 1991).
David McGrane, “A Mixed Record: Gender and Saskatchewan Social Democracy,” Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes, 42 (1) Winter 2008, 179-203.
Thomas H. McLeod and Ian McLeod, Tommy Douglas: The Road to Jerusalem (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1987).
Brett Quiring, “The Social and Political Philosophy of Woodrow S. Lloyd,” Saskatchewan History 56(1) (Spring 2004).
Joan Sangster, Dreams of Equality: Women on the Canadian Left 1920 -1950 (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1989).
Georgina M. Taylor, “Equals and Partners? An Examination of How Saskatchewan Women Reconciled Their Political Activities for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation with Traditional Roles for Women,” M.A. Thesis, University of Saskatchewan, 1983.
—, “Gladys Strum: Farm Woman, Teacher and Politician,” Canadian Woman Studies 7(4) (Winter 1986): 89-93.
—, “Homemakers’ Clubs and Women’s Institutes,” The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, ed. Patrick Douaud, ((Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center University of Regina, 2005): 460-461. <http://esask.uregina.ca/entry/homemakers_clubs_and_womens_institutes.html>, retrieved 20 December 2015.
—, “Mothers of Medicare, ” on this site.
—, “‘The Women Shall Help to Lead the Way’: Saskatchewan CCF‑NDP Women Candidates in Provincial and Federal Election, 1934 – 1965” in Building the Co‑operative Commonwealth Federation, ed. J. William Brennan (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1984), 141-160.