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Celebrating Women’s History Month: the women of BC
In 1992 the government of Canada declared October to be Women’s History Month to give Canadians an opportunity to pay tribute and learn more about the contributions of women to Canadian society. This year’s theme is Canadian Women Pioneers: Inspiring change through ongoing leadership, which is very fitting given that today’s post celebrating Women’s History Month is taking us back in time to British Columbia in the early 20th century to some real Canadian women pioneers.
In 1992 the government of Canada declared October to be Women’s History Month to give Canadians an opportunity to pay tribute and learn more about the contributions of women to Canadian society. In particular, October 18th is a special day as it commemorates the "Persons Case," which legally recognized women as "persons" under Canadian law for the first time in 1929.
This year’s theme is Canadian Women Pioneers: Inspiring change through ongoing leadership, which is very fitting given that the first of our three blog posts celebrating Women’s History Month is taking us back in time to British Columbia in the early 20th century to some real Canadian women pioneers. We’re taking you on a brief pictorial trip through Gordon Hak’s new book from Ronsdale Press, The Left in British Columbia: A History of Struggle, which references many of the great contributions that the women of BC made to society during this time.
The career choices for women in the early 20th century were somewhat limited: these women are working hard at the National Biscuit and Confection Company making cookies in this photograph, taken in 1926.
Studio: Dominion Photo Co. Vancouver Public Library 22207.
Mothers protest the Relief Camps, Malkin Bowl, Vancouver, May 1935. Glenbow Museum NA-3634-10 and Pacific Tribune Archive.
During the Depression, many provinces established camps to house unemployed single young men. Far from urban centres, the men worked on projects such as road building and airport runway construction. However, as time wore on, the provinces didn’t have the money to fund such projects, and it was taking away work from private companies, so the federal government took over the camps in 1932. As conditions at the camps grew worse, protests started, with people demanding the abolition of the camps, a government-run unemployment insurance program, and meaningful work. When the new federal Liberal government was elected in October 1935, the relief camps were abolished.
In 1935 the Mothers’ Council was created to influence government policy regarding unemployment. These women organized and took part in many protests and marches against the relief camps.
While women participated in the unions of the day, they were not often involved in the organization and leadership. However there were a few exceptions.
Helena Gutteridge was one such exception. She came to Vancouver from England in 1911, where she was a journeyman tailor and the only woman on the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council. Gutteridge was a moderate leftist who worked with the Conservative and Liberal women to fight for the political rights of women. She also founded the BC Women’s Sufferage League in 1913.
A member of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, Gutteridge ran for a provincial seat in 1941 but lost.
Here is Helena Gutteridge in 1938.
Vancouver Public Library 13333.
During the war, women were out of the home working traditionally male jobs to support themselves and their families. Once soldiers starting returning home, many women wanted to keep on with their jobs and continued to be active in various unions.
International Woodworkers of America Ladies’ Auxiliary march, 1946. Courtesy of Mona Morgan and the Trade Union Research Bureau.
The International Woodworkers of America was the largest union in BC at the time. Over 1946-47 there was a struggle in the leadership of the IWA between the communist and anti-communist factions, which led to many marches, as seen in the picture above.
Workers at a Penticton peach cannery, 1950s. Province, Vancouver. Vancouver Public Library 41821.
Women all over Canada struggled for the right to vote, be heard, and make a place for themselves in society throughout the early 20th century. While Canadian women did win the right to vote in 1918, it was not the end of women’s struggles in society as noted by Hak in The Left in British Columbia: A History of Struggle. The book touches on just some of the hurdles faced by the women of British Columbia during this time and on a larger scale, provides a fascinating glimpse into BC history.
Thank you to Ronsdale Press for providing the images and an early copy of The Left in British Columbia: A History of Struggle for our use. To learn more about Women’s History Month festivities happening across Canada this month visit www.women.gc.ca._______Edited from the original post, published on the LPG blog