A Political Pioneer on Women's Day

Posted by Daniel on Mar 7, 2011

Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day and the papers have been full of notable women past and present, but should our new premier-in-waiting be seeking career inspiration I recommend a close look at the life of Helena Gutteridge (above courtesy of BC Archives C-07954).

In September 1919 the federal government convened a National Industrial Conference in Ottawa to discuss the new ideas about industrial democracy that were causing such a disturbance in the country. Three women were invited to attend; one was Vancouver's Helena Gutteridge. According to news reports, she was the only female voice who stood up in the sessions to challenge the smug employers who were trying to put the lid on the post-war industrial unrest.

Gutteridge, who was born in England in 1879, arrived in Vancouver in 1911. Already a veteran of the British suffrage movement, she jumped feet first into local politics, joining the Political Equality League that was lobbying for the women's vote. Soon she was vice-president of her union as well, the Journeymen Tailor's Union of America. (She'd been making her living in the needle trade since she was 14.)

Gutteridge was a firebrand. Her experience in England made her impatient with the cautious, middle-class women who led the suffrage movement in BC. She formed her own breakaway group of working women who took to street corners to buttonhole the public and she was not afraid to consort with prominent Socialists, though she was not one herself. The eight-hour day, a minimum wage, the union shop: these were the causes for which she worked tirelessly.

Women got the vote, of course, and during the Depression, after a hiatus from politics, Gutteridge became the first woman elected to Vancouver city council. Always an activist, she spent the war years working as a welfare officer in one of the camps for displaced Japanese Canadians.

A recommendation for Christy Clark's bedside table on the centennial of International Women's Day: Irene Howard's excellent biography of Gutteridge, The Struggle for Social Justice in British Columbia.