A RADICAL WOMAN
Born in England, Helena Gutteridge broke off all contact with her family at the age of 13 because they disapproved of higher education for girls. In 1911, now a union organizer and a “militant suffragette,” she arrived in Vancouver to work as a tailoress. Here she formed the Woman’s Vancouver league, for “obtaining the vote for women on the same terms it is granted to men,” was the only woman on the Vancouver Trades and Labour council, and helped bring about BC’s first minimum wage act.
The first woman ever elected to Vancouver City Council, she became involved in two issues: “white slavery” – the abduction of young women for prostitution – and a lack affordable housing in Vancouver’s East End – “hovels utter utterly unfit for human habitation.”
Issues that haunt us still.
When Helena Rose Gutteridge was born in the late 1880s, life was relatively scripted for women of working-class families: leave school, work as a domestic or one of the other few occupations available to women at that time, get married, and raise children—but this path was one Helena refused to follow.
At the age of 13 she left home, found work in a London clothing department as a fitter, cutter, and tailor, and began to pay her way through school. By the time she had finished she was certified in hygiene, sanitary science, and teaching. Perhaps even more lasting than her formalized education was the exposure she received to a wide range of intellectual influences from the various political and social movements surrounding her, including trade unionism, feminism, and the doctrines of philosophy and mysticism popularized by the Theosophist movement.
All of these movements influenced her, but it was her dedication to the Suffrage movement – the movement dedicated to gaining the right for women to vote and hold political office – that brought her to Canada. By 1911 the movement in Britain was increasingly radicalized, using hunger strikes, arson, destruction of property, and protest marches to compel the government to grant women the right to vote. Recognizing that this struggle needed to be extended across the British Empire, a handful of Suffragettes temporarily moved to Canada to aid the growing women’s movement. Helena was one of these women. However, instead of returning home after the four-year mission, as initially intended, she remained in British Columbia for the rest of her life.
Following the long journey by boat and by train, Helena arrived in Vancouver just as the 1912 Recession was about to hit. In the early years of the 20th century the economy was going strong in British Columbia, propelled by the vast natural resources and construction booms across the province. However, as tensions between nations continued to rise in Europe there was a slump in the transatlantic economy and trade, affecting all of Canada, but hitting Western Canada the hardest. Even when war did break out, British Columbia’s industry was not immediately suited for wartime production and unemployment levels continued to rise.
If there were few jobs available for men at that time, even fewer allowed women to apply. If you had no family, were not married or were widowed, and especially if you had children, you might receive meager amounts of charity from a religious organization, but things like social assistance, pensions, or subsidized housing and daycare did not yet exist. As Helena was trained as a tailor she did manage to find employment, but spent her time outside of work actively working to seek these very things for those less fortunate.
In her capacity as organizer of unemployed women with the new Women’s Employment League, Helena was well aware of the struggle of local women and their children. While waiting for a response on whether or not her organization would receive any funding from the government, in 1914 Helena set up a “make work” project for unemployed Vancouver women: a toy-making cooperative. It was already October, meaning that the short holiday buying season was fast-approaching. Plans quickly unfolded. They found a 33 room building at 1027 Robson Street, acquired a six month lease, and set to work.
By November there were 60 women working on dolls and toys, while another group made Christmas pudding. Soon, an additional six rooms were converted into workspace while other rooms were made into a residence for the workers. While the venture was not ongoing, it exemplified the possibilities present with hard work, determination, and the refusal to take no for answer.
Although Gutteridge remained passionate about labour and women’s rights, she married shortly after the conclusion of World War I and moved to the Fraser Valley where she became a poultry farmer. In 1932, after the marriage did not work out, she returned to Vancouver where she immediately returned to politics. She joined the CCF (the party later known as the NDP) and by 1937 she became the first woman elected to city council, championing the cause of, among other things, low-income housing. While political life suited Gutteridge, many voters grew alienated from the party because of the CCF’s anti-war position. She was not re-elected. The loss of her seat did not stop her for long, however, and she continued to work on issues she felt important–housing, sanitation, and the rights of workers and women.
By 1941, many jobs were opening up for women, as workers were needed to fill the positions left vacant by men who had enlisted. Helena soon found employment as a welfare officer at Lemon Creek Relocation Project, one of the newly-formed Japanese internment camps that began to dot the interior of the province. The site was abysmal: hastily built dwellings that served no protection against the cold winters, no water, no schooling system for the large population of children housed there, and no electricity. Although improvements came later, they did little to help diminish the fact that the people living there had left behind whole lives in Vancouver.
For Helena the physical toll was not as great as the emotional one, as she witnessed daily the pain the interned Japanese experienced. The bureaucracy was also difficult for Helena to handle, and was a steady source of conflict.
She resigned in 1945, after most of the camp’s population had begun to dwindle, and returned to the coast, where she remained for the rest of her life. With few options and little savings, at the age of sixty-six she took a labour-intensive job at a cannery. It was back-breaking work, but, as she told a friend, it provided her with first-hand knowledge of what life was like for women working at canning factories. Her commitment to understanding of lives of working people continued, even as she neared the end of her life.
Other commitments continued to appear. In 1947 she joined the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom, an international peace movement developed in 1915. Here, she was surrounded by women she had met throughout her life in Vancouver, breathing new life into causes of social and economic justice she held dear for most of her life. However, the post-war anti-communist hysteria that was appearing throughout North America was a disruptive and divisive force. Although Helena was careful to not become too closely involved with the debate on either side, she slowly began to retreat from politics. By now it was the late fifties and Helena’s health was starting to fail. She said little of her poor-health, but soon discovered that the discomfort and pain she had been experiencing was caused by pancreatic cancer.
She died on October 1, 1960. The brief notice in the Vancouver Sun stated, “She leaves many friends and associates to remember her life long-work for peace and justice.”
Memory of this life-long work continues to this day.