We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.

RECURRENT VOICES: From Lib-Lab to Lib-Fem: British Columbia’s First Woman MLA, Mary Ellen Spear Smith (1863-1933)

RECURRENT VOICES: From Lib-Lab to Lib-Fem: British Columbia’s First Woman MLA, Mary Ellen Spear Smith (1863-1933)

January 25, 2018

Image from The Lethbridge Herald (May 26, 1928)

From Lib-Lab to Lib-Fem: British Columbia’s First Woman MLA, Mary Ellen Spear Smith (1863-1933) [1]
By Veronica Strong-Boag, Phd., FRSC, UBC and University of Victoria.

As the General Editor of the UBC Press series, “Women Suffrage and the Struggle for Democracy,”[2] I’ve had multiple occasions to reflect on the diverse histories of the Canadian women’s movements. The centennial (March 2018) of the maiden legislative speech of BC’s first female MLA, Mary Ellen Spear Smith, offers another opportunity to acknowledge that rich story.

This ambitious emigrant from UK mining communities, the subject of my forthcoming biography, raises provocative questions about both working-class and suffragist activists. Beginnings in Devon and Cornwall, maturation in Britain’s northeast as a daughter of a Methodist mining family, primary school teaching, marriage to a widowed miner with a new daughter, and further motherhood with three, and then a Canadian-born, sons, did not forecast public fame. Arrival in Nanaimo, a coal mining town on the age of empire, in 1892 to join her coal-hewer father, brother, and mother formed part of a family strategy to restore the health of her husband, Ralph Smith, coal miner and occasional Methodist preacher, and to find opportunities for him and their expanding brood seemingly denied even so-called ‘aristocrats of labour’ in Britain after the disastrous 1892 coal field strike. The immigrants’ original embrace of the Liberal-Labour politics of Thomas Burt, long-serving British MP (1874-1918) and representative of the Northumberland Miners’ Association[3] immunized them against BC’s emerging socialist politics and fostered faith in ‘big tent’ liberalism.

Mary Ellen and Ralph plunged into the contested politics of Nanaimo with its vibrant working-class and women’s culture, which included support for female enfranchisement and hostility to Asians. Moving quickly from the coal face, he became his era’s foremost expression of Liberal Laborism as a provincial MLA and federal MP. Obvious social mobility fueled Ralph’s determination to present himself “as an independent labor man.”[4] Canadian Liberals, desperate to counter more radical agendas, welcomed him even as BC’s miners grew more restive. His defeat federally in 1911 and sudden death in February 1917 as Minister of Finance in BC’s new Liberal government largely ended Canadian labour’s formal flirtation with Lib-Lab politics as the road to political influence.

Even as her charismatic husband crafted a reform and anti-Asian agenda, the personable Mary Ellen won friends in Nanaimo’s progressive causes, all the while managing kin and boarders. By the time Ralph became a MP in 1900, she was a major family asset. No other parliamentary wife with working-class origins mingled so well with the capital’s female elite. Guest and hostess of afternoon teas, bridge parties, and at homes, Mary Ellen seemed to confirm imperial rewards for ambitious British ‘ladies of labour’.

While the anti-suffragist Laurier hailed his wife Zoe’s friend and their frequent guest as the “second member from Nanaimo,”[5] Mary Ellen carefully negotiated unfamiliar terrain. A 1904 interview with a Vancouver journalist applauded her “deep interest in economic problems” and her “calm judicial mind unbiased by sentiment, which is commonly supposed to be a monopoly of the sterner sex.” While “full of sympathy for the men who toil,” she could “see and judge from the employers’ standpoint as well.” In contrast, the charming “home lover and home maker” side-stepped the controversial question of suffrage, reassuring the anxious that “when women thoroughly realize that they already possess the substance of power, they will not be so insistent about their right to the shadow.”[6]

Three years later, however, Mary Ellen openly joined an Ottawa WCTU meeting to defend the ‘great cause’ and stress the “excellent results’ of enfranchisement in New Zealand.[7] By the time she left the nation’s capital in 1911, she remained welcomed by Madame Laurier but she had established herself as an attractive suffragist linking Canadian activists.

Ties with Nanaimo’s mining families were much less certain for the upwardly mobile Smiths. Leaving Ottawa, the family moved to Vancouver where Ralph emerged as a financial entrepreneur, Liberal party-builder, and Terminal Club member. It was his wife, however, who increasingly drew public attention in activism that deftly mixed championship of wives and mothers with claims to economic justice in a version of maternal feminism that resonated with a broad community.

While allied with Vancouver’s most prominent working-class feminist, Helena Gutteridge, Mary Ellen frequented far more elevated circles. She might not have had the university-education or the kin of local female elites but she more than held her own. In a social coup, she succeeded society maven, Lady Tupper, as Regent of the Vancouver chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire. Spirited popular addresses that hailed suffragists crossing a “desert on their way to a land of freedom with only one river to ford” the river of prejudice”[8] demonstrated persuasive personal magnetism. When Ralph suddenly died soon after a Liberal victory that ushered in mainstream enfranchisement, she became “the right woman in the right place at the right time” for provincial politics.[9]

When the new Liberal government went searching for a replacement MLA, Mary Ellen’s potential to link diverse voters made her an immediate favorite. As a candidate with a history both of championing labour causes such as the minimum wage and of acceptance by women activists,[10] she promised to mobilize World War One’s rising tide of dissent in favour of local Liberals. In January 1918, that calculation proved correct when she won as an “independent candidate” and a sympathetic “soldier’s mother.”[11]

Mary Ellen spoke to the era’s pervasive disillusionment with partisan politics, endorsing both proportional representation and recall. Like Ralph’s sorties as a Lib-Lab, this self-identified “free woman,” entered the legislature “supporting to the best of my ability any good measures that be introduced in the best interests of the Province by whomsoever introduced”.[12] She was third woman and first Liberal-Feminist or Lib-Fem elected provincially in Canada.

First signs, including minimum wage and mothers’ pensions’ legislation, seem promising. Equality-seeking activists appeared to have a champion in Victoria. In seeking a new term in 1920, Mary Ellen continued to assert that she knew “no narrowness of creed, of class, or color, and no prejudice” and that “the problems of her own sex are those which interest her most.”[13] Despite claims to progressive causes at home and abroad, her agenda nevertheless increasingly included anti-Asian and eugenics legislation that designated some BCers outsiders in the evolving democratic project she imagined. Such prejudices divided reform-minded British Columbians and undermined calls for a solid phalanx of female voters.

Still more injurious to Smith’s ambitions was the collapse of the suffrage coalition. In the 1920s, exhausted activists variously retired from politics, focused on international causes, or dispersed among Socialist, Labour and Conservative as well as Liberal parties. The empire’s pioneering female cabinet minister had to surrender hope “that women “would remain independent, would support on all sides their representatives in parliament and would go single mindedly after the things for which women have struggled unsuccessfully as nonvoters for years and years.”[14]

Like her Lib-Lab husband, Mary Ellen’s reputation faltered as well in wake of Liberal patronage. Particularly damaging was the fall-out from a 1923 UK tour promoting immigration but offering heady opportunities to flaunt success in her old homeland. In Canada, critics quickly accused her of contributing to unemployment, making her appeals for working-class support appear increasingly hollow.

Nor did legislative life offer much comfort. Once the threatened transformative potential of her election wore off, Mary Ellen, like Ralph before her, found little success in enlarging liberalism’s tent. For all her obvious intellect, industry and willingness to oil the party machinery, male colleagues readily treated her as a pretty face. A miserly offer of a cabinet position without portfolio in 1921 and a brief interlude as Acting Speaker of the House in 1928 confirmed mounting disregard. Controversial reception by a ‘kissing’ premier only added to her credibility gap.[15] In 1928, her luck ran out when she faced the nondescript Conservative house leader, Robert H. Pooley, in a new Vancouver Island constituency. Along with her party, she went down to defeat. Now in her sixties, she, unlike lesser men, would not win another party nomination. Liberal leader then premier Dufferin Pattullo showed no interest in promoting women.

Federal Liberals still, however, came calling with patronage offers. A 1928 immigration tour of Britain submerged Mary Ellen once again in agendas without wide appeal to women or workers. Her 1929 federal appointment as Canadian delegate to the International Labour Organization, like her detour to visit Margaret Bondfield, Britain’s Minister of Labour (1929-1931) and first woman in cabinet, resurrected the old ghosts of Liberal-Laborism and Liberal-Feminism but phantoms they remained.

As her personal political prospects deteriorated, Mary Ellen clung to feminist causes such as the drive for constitutional recognition as persons but her last outstanding effort to bolster equality occurred in 1928 with her presidency of the new Women’s Liberal Federation of Canada. It aimed to offer members what suffragists assumed enfranchisement had guaranteed, namely “a definite place in national affairs.”[16] While hobbled by Liberal loyalism, the Federation represented a critical step in mainstream feminist politics. In contrast, Mary Ellen’s service as president of the BC Liberal Party often required her to act as little more than ‘den mother’ to disruptive males, hardly the role envisioned by ambitious maternal feminists.

Even as her ambitions were curbed, Mary Ellen Smith never surrendered her faith that an up-to-date liberalism offered the inclusive politics that her husband had anticipated. That prospect likewise captured another prominent Canadian suffragist. In 1921 Nellie McClung entered Alberta’s legislature as a Liberal committed to independence. Within the decade, such Lib-Fem politics proved no more successful than Lib-Lab’ism. Ultimately, liberalism had little room for labour aristocrats or suffragist champions anywhere in Canada.



[1] This blog originated with a paper presented at the “Women’s Suffrage and Political Activism Conference, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, 3 Feb. 2018. See also my “Mary Ellen Spear Smith,” Women Suffrage and Beyond: Confronting the Democratic Deficit (Jan. 23, 2013), http://womensuffrage.org/?designsentry_portf=mary-ellen-spear-smith
My thanks as always to SSHRCC for supporting my work.

[2] The seven volumes include Joan Sangster, One Hundred Years of Struggle: The History of Women and the Vote in Canada; Sarah Carter, Ours By Every Law of Right and Justice: Women and the Vote in the Prairie Provinces; Lara Campbell, A Great Revolutionary Wave: Women and the Vote in British Columbia; Tarah Brookfield, Our Voices Must be Heard: Women and the Vote in Ontario; Denyse Baillargeon, To Be Equals in Our Own Country: Women and the Vote in Quebec; Heidi MacDonald, We Shall Persist: Women and the Vote in the Atlantic Provinces; Lianne Leddy, Working Tirelessly for Change: Indigenous Women and the Vote in Canada.

[3] See J. Satre, Thomas Burt, Miners’ MP, 1837-1922: The Great Conciliator (London & NY): Leicester University Press, 1999).

[4] Ottawa Journal (Sept. 22, 1900).

[5] “Some Details about Cabinet Ministers,” Vancouver Daily World (Nov. 29, 1916).

[6] Margaret Graham, “Of Interest to Women,” Vancouver Daily World (June 25, 1904).

[7] “Franchise Drill in the Y.W.C.A.” Ottawa Journal (April 16, 1907).

[8] “Declares the Women Must Ford Prejudice River Before Ballot,” Vancouver Sun (Dec. 6, 1915).

[9] Elizabeth Norcross, “Mary Ellen Smith: The Right Woman in the Right Place at the Right Time,” in Not Just Pin Money: Selected Essays on the History of Women’s Work in British Columbia, ed. Barbara K. Latham and Roberta J. Pazdro (Victoria: Camosun College, 1984).

[10] See “An Appeal to the Women of Vancouver,” Vancouver Daily World (Jan. 23, 1918) from the United Suffrage Societies of Vancouver.

[11] Western Women’s Weekly (Jan. 31, 1918).

[12] “Mrs. Smith Gets Big Majority Over Both Her Male Opponents,” Vancouver Sun (Jan. 25, 1918)

[13] N. de Bertrand Lugrin,”The Woman Who Might have been Speaker,” Maclean’s June 1, 1921

[14] Mrs. Ralph Smith, “Legislation and the Lady” Western Woman’s Weekly (29 March 1919).

[15] See “Kissing as a Vote-Getter,” Ottawa Journal (Dec. 22, 1920) and “Big Audience Heard Hon. Wm Sloan and J.S. Cowper Pour Hot Shot into Opponents,” Nanaimo Daily News (June 19, 1924).

[16] Anne Anderson Perry, “Women Begin to speak Their Minds,” Chatelaine (June 1928).