Gutteridge, Helena Rose (1879–1960)

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Gutteridge, Helena Rose (1879–1960)

British-born suffragist, trade-union activist, and politician who championed women's rights in British Columbia and was influential in securing mother's pensions and the minimum wage for women. Name variations: Nell. Born Helen Rose Gutteridge on April 8, 1879 (some sources cite 1880, but 1879 is documented), in Chelsea, London, England; died of cancer on October 1, 1960, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; daughter of Charles Henry Gutteridge (a blacksmith) and Sophia (Richardsson) Gutteridge; attended Holy Trinity Church School and Regent Street Polytechnic School; also Royal Sanitary Institute, earning a South Kensington Department of Education certificate for teaching and sanitary science; married Oliver Fearn, on October 11, 1919 (divorced, December 21, 1928); no children.

Left home at 14; began career as tailor; was a London suffragist (1908–11); immigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada (1911); founded the radical British Columbia Woman's Suffrage League; co-edited the woman-suffrage page in the B.C. Federationist (1913–15); served as secretary of the United Suffrage Societies (1915 and 1916); served as secretary of the Vancouver City Central Woman's Suffrage Referendum Campaign Committee (1916); was a member of the Pioneer political Equality League and the Vancouver Council of Women; served the Vancouver Trades and Labor Council as first woman Council executive and as organizer, secretary-treasurer, business agent, statistician, vice-chair and trustee; helped to organize women laundry and garment workers; was a member of tailor's union; correspondent for the Labor Gazette (1913–21); served as chair of the Women's Minimum Wage League (1917); was an active supporter of the Mother's Pension Act; was the first woman "alderman" for Vancouver (1937), reelected (1939), defeated (1940); served as chair of the Vancouver Town Planning and Parks Committee (1937); was an active campaigner for improved housing, revision of tax laws and assistance for destitute women; worked as a poultry farmer (1921–32); served as supervisor of the welfare office of Japanese internment camp at Slocan City during World War II; served as chair of the Women's International League for Peace; was active in the Socialist Party of Canada as chair of the Economic Planning Commission.

Trained under the watchful eye of the militant British suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst , Helena Gutteridge had taken the stump at Hyde Park corner, participated in hundreds of parades for the suffrage cause, been thrown out of meetings, and waved banners in the British House of Commons. Once she was arrested but escaped imprisonment because there was not enough room in the jail for all 260 suffragists taken into custody that day. On September 8, 1911, when Gutteridge set sail for Canada, 32 years old and unmarried, her deeply ingrained sense of justice for women, especially working-class women, was honed and ready for advancement in a new land. In Canada's British Columbia, politics were never to be the same.

Born in Victorian England on April 8, 1879, to working-class parents, Helena Gutteridge was one of seven children. As London's Chelsea underwent redevelopment, the Gutteridges were one of the many families who endured constant threats of eviction, along with fetid air filled with sulphurous smoke from coal fires, the stench of animal and human waste running in the streets, and the fumes from gas lighting in poorly ventilated rooms. Helena, known to her family as Nell, was never to forget these hardships.

She attended the local Holy Trinity Church School with other working-class children until age 13. Arithmetic, spelling, reading, reciting poetry, needlework, some geography, history and grammar were crammed in, with the admonition that three mistakes and "the child was failed." In this humble setting, Gutteridge's strong sense of class difference was born, as students were constantly reminded of the donation of the school's land by the earl of Cadogan, while the countess of Cadogan occasionally sailed through to remind the students of their indebtedness to their benefactors. Class privilege also determined that her schooling ended at age 13. Beyond this age, education was dependent upon access to private schools, rarely available financially to the working-class child. In Helena's family, the money was found for her brothers to continue; when she left home at age 14, it was because she was denied the same privilege. It marked the beginning of her lifelong feminist sympathies.

Growing up in working-class Chelsea, Gutteridge was surrounded by the ferment of the trade-union movement, forming her first notions of workers' rights. The extent of her early labor activities is not fully known, but she was a member of England's Labor Party until she immigrated to Canada.

The need of political power for working women is greater than that of any other class because only when she is able to influence industrial legislation will she cease to be exploited and forced into starvation and shame.

—Helena Gutteridge

At 14, Helena went to work as an apprentice in a draper's shop. From running errands and sorting buttons, she moved up to sewer, cutter, fitter, and eventually tailor, an unusually high position for a working woman in the late 1890s. The work was 12 hours a day, Monday to Friday, and half a day on Saturday, and wages were extremely low. At the same time, Gutteridge managed to attend Regent Street Polytechnic School and the Royal Sanitary Institute, where she earned a certificate in teaching and sanitary science, a background that was to stand her in good stead when she dealt with the city politics of Vancouver. But women's suffrage was the cause that drew her into a lifetime of politics and social reform.

Turn-of-the-century London was a hotbed of suffrage activity. Young Helena became an effective public speaker and took part in a parade of 250,000 women marching to Albert Hall. She gradually became recognized as a leader in suffrage. By 1911, England's women had not yet won the vote when she decided to immigrate with several other British suffragists to Canada. Her plan to stay for four years stretched to 49, and she never returned to England.

Upon reaching Vancouver, Gutteridge joined the Pioneer Political Equality League (PPEL) but soon found it too conservatively middle class for her taste. Within weeks, she founded the British Columbia Woman's Suffrage League (BCWSL), whose aim was to "deal with all matters connected with the interests of women, particularly those things that affect women out in the labor market." In her mind, to organize working-class women to attain the vote would improve their lot in a myriad of ways, by "securing significant changes in industrial legislation, governing working conditions and pay rates, thereby eliminating sweated labor, the undervaluing of women's work and poverty-induced prostitution."

In 1913, Gutteridge also formed the United Suffrage Societies of Vancouver. From 1913 to 1915, as co-editor of the woman suffrage page in the B.C. Federationist, she received much attention for her wit and spirited determination to win women the vote on the grounds of the collective power it would bring to women of the working class. In her words, "The economic value of the ballot is one of the strongest arguments in favour of votes for women."

By 1913, as a member of the Vancouver Council of Women, Helena had also appeared before the Royal Commission on Labor Conditions in British Columbia. To present an accurate picture of the hardships of working women, she investigated many local factory workrooms where women were employed. Under the guise of a woman seeking a job, she found women working as glovemakers, cigarmakers, and canvas- and awning-makers. Biscuit factory employees were working up to fifty hours a week for less than six dollars. Once her findings were presented to the commission, a minimum wage for women began to receive its first serious consideration.

A woman member of the tailor's union and the Vancouver Trades and Labor Council (VTLC) was unheard of in the early 1900s. In 1914, however, Helena was elected secretary treasurer of the VTLC and became the first woman to sit on the council's executive committee. She held many positions with the VTLC, eventually, including vice chair and trustee, and was a delegate to provincial and national labor conventions. From 1913 to 1921, she was also the B.C. correspondent on women's labor issues for the Labor Gazette, the paper of the Federal Department of Labor. In the summer of 1913, in order to present the truth of women's working conditions to the VTLC, she had spent three weeks employed as a fish cannery worker.

"Women's lack of interest in her economic future as a wage earner," Helena once wrote, "is shown by her lack of interest in trade unions."

In 1917, she was chair of the Women's Minimum Wage League, leading an intense effort to ensure that women's pay was based on the cost of living and their work time limited to eight hours a day. In the spring of 1918, she headed a deputation to the provincial legislature requesting minimum-wage legislation. Only six months after the campaign was launched, on July 19, 1918, a Minimum Wage for Women Bill was passed by the B.C. government. That same year, she organized women laundry and garment workers, and in September she led them on a strike that finally won their demand to be included under the minimum wage.

During this same period, Gutteridge also worked in active support of a Mother's Pension, to provide financial aid to destitute women for the care for their children. The Mother's Pension Act was passed, finally, in 1920. Workers' compensation was another area of legislative reform she supported. According to Gutteridge, "We finally did succeed in 1918 in establishing the principle that injury or death on the job must be compensated by industry, it was a model piece of legislation for North America."

Following her marriage to Oliver Fearn in October 1919, the couple settled outside of Vancouver, and Helena Gutteridge spent several years as Mrs. Fearn, poultry farmer. From 1921 to 1932, her involvement in social reform came to a standstill. The couple remained childless and were divorced in 1928, after which Gutteridge moved back to Vancouver. Though she took up work again as a tailor, she became increasingly engaged in municipal politics.

As a member of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a newly formed socialist party, she held prominent positions on the CCF executive board, including chair of its Economic Planning Commission. In the fall 1933 provincial election, she campaigned avidly for the new party. In face of the economic devastation of the Great Depression, Gutteridge and her allies in the CCF found hope in the party's philosophy of cooperation and brotherhood.

Sponsored by the CCF, Helena ran for Vancouver City Council alderman in 1937 and won, becoming Vancouver's first woman ever elected to the office. As chair of the Vancouver Town Planning and Parks Committee, she promoted government-subsidized social housing, an idea just being introduced in British Columbia. As alderman, she worked ceaselessly on this issue, through her reelection in 1939 and until her defeat in 1940. It was not until 1954, six years before her death, that she saw the beginnings of public housing in Vancouver. According to the Province, Vancouver's premiere newspaper, "No council member has been more faithful or more zealous than she. She has been consistently in the van of every movement of social conditions among the underprivileged."

With the outbreak of the Second World War, and its impact on city politics, Helena's career as a municipal politician ended. Packing up her belongings, she headed for British Columbia's interior, where from 1942 to 1945 she was supervisor of the welfare office at the Japanese internment camp at Slocan City. Officially declared enemy aliens by the Canadian government and stripped of all rights and belongings, thousands of Japanese were then being relocated to work camps across Canada for the duration of the war, though many were Canadian citizens. As a welfare officer, Helena oversaw the housing and personal needs of these internees, managing to carry out the job with exceptional humaneness for the time.

In retirement, Gutteridge was active in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, founded in 1915, and she remained on the Vancouver Town Planning Commission as late as 1957. By the time she died of cancer on October 1, 1960, at age 79, she was well aware that much of the social reform legislation she helped to introduce was firmly in place.

sources:

Howard, Irene. The Struggle for Social Justice in British Columbia. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1992.

Wade, Susan. "Helena Gutteridge: Votes for Women and Trade Unions," in In Her Own Right: Selected Essays on Women's History in B.C. Victoria: Camosun College, 1980.

suggested reading:

Prentice, Alison, et al. Canadian Women: A History. Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Canada, 1988.

collections:

Helena Gutteridge File MSS. 285, City Archives of Vancouver.

Natania T. East , historian, Valemount, British Columbia, Canada