Precedents for Today’s ‘Big Tent’ Liberalism: British Columbia’s First Woman MLA, Mary Ellen Spear Smith (1863-1933)

By Veronica Strong-Boag

In the age of their first avowedly feminist prime minister, Canadians confront another adventure in ‘big tent liberalism.’ His father tried it, for a time, with labour and social democrats,[1] but its history dates to the 19th century with Liberal-Laborism and Liberal-Feminism, or Lib-Lab and Lib-Fem apostles of inclusion. Such experiments have been especially likely when traditional governing parties, as with the Canadian and Ontario Liberals or the American Democratic Party today, face crises of credibility. The suffragist Mary Ellen Smith, who gave her maiden speech as BC’s first and Canada’s third female legislator, a century ago in March 1918, supplies a useful reminder of the limits of such liaisons.[2] Old political elites do not readily surrender privilege.

Ottawa Journal (Dec. 22, 1920)

‘Our Mary Ellen,’ as she was known on the hustings, was an ambitious emigrant from UK mining communities. The subject of my forthcoming biography, she raises provocative questions about political choices. 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 ‘aristocrats of labour’ in Britain after the disastrous 1892 coal field strike.[3]

Their new home was a vibrant centre of conflict over just whom would control the benefits of staples capitalism. In the 1890s and 1900s, Nanaimo offered a vibrant working-class and women’s culture, which included support for female enfranchisement and hostility to Asians in the creation of a white outpost of empire.The immigrants’ original embrace of Methodism, cooperatives, and the Liberal-Labour politics of Thomas Burt, long-serving British MP (1874-1918) and representative of the Northumberland Miners’ Association immunized them against BC’s emerging socialist politics and fostered faith in big tent politics sometimes promised by Canadian, like British, liberalism.[4]

Mary Ellen and Ralph plunged into BC and Canada’s lively politics. Moving quickly from the coal face, he became general secretary of the Miners’ and Mine Laborers’ Protective Association, a founder of the Nanaimo Reform Club, a Liberal- Labour MLA (1898-1900), president of the Canadian Trades and Labor Congress (1898-1902) and Liberal-Labour, later Liberal, MP (1900-1910), and an advocate of women suffrage. In setting himself up as labour’s standard-bearer, the newcomer exchanged the anti-Irish sentiments that sometimes distinguished British miners anxious about jobs, for prejudice against Asian competitors. For a liberal of the John Stuart Mill school, intolerance had to be judiciously managed, as in 1895 when he professed

humanitarian feelings on this matter, but they were brought face to face, no doubt with individuals who were men as we were men, but as they presented themselves to us in our present surroundings they were the greatest possible existing evil.[5]

Such careful positioning amid the particular politics of a new land underpinned the newcomer’s aspirations to transplant to BC the liberal-laborism that reached its high water mark in Britain in the 1890s.

Obvious social mobility, extraordinary for a recent refugee from the UK’s industrial wars and seeming proof of opportunities for motivated workers, fueled Ralph’s determination to present himself “as an independent labor man,” to reject “obstruction, criticism and opposition” in favour of a “policy of construction, advice and education as the best way to advance the interests of the working class in parliament.”[6]

Such conclusions made him welcome among Canadian Liberals desperate to “contain class conflict.[7] Smith’s emphasis on cross-class shared interest, much like that endorsed by Burt in the UK, soon, however, estranged him from erstwhile friends such as Nanaimo’s suffragist MLA James Hawthornthwaite and constituents, many of whom preferred the more radical Western Federation of Miners and socialist parties.

Historians have generally been equally skeptical: Ralph now readily emerges from the past as little better than an opportunist in his endorsement of Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier. His defeat federally in 1911 and sudden death in February 1917 as the 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 and humanizing capitalism.

Even as her charismatic husband crafted a reform and anti-Asian agenda, the personable Mary Ellen won friends in Nanaimo’s Methodist, charitable, and WCTU causes, all the while managing a busy household of offspring and boarders. By the time she and Ralph were renting Ottawa accommodation when the House was in session and returning regularly to cultivate their BC constituency, she was a major family asset, someone moreover with a reputation for improving his speeches.

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, sometimes dressed to the nines in “a handsome gown of pale blue satin striped filet net, fashioned empire, and trimmed with lace applique,” seemed to confirm imperial rewards for ambitious British immigrant ‘ladies of labour’.[8]

While the anti-suffragist Laurier hailed his wife Zoe’s friend and their frequent guest as the “second member from Nanaimo,”[9] Mary Ellen carefully negotiated her place in an elite political setting far removed from her humble origins. For the racially privileged, colonial spaces offered real advantages. Ottawa newspapers routinely recorded Smith’s inclusion in polite society but she proved more than mere ornament. An extended interview with a Vancouver journalist in 1904 applauded her “deep interest in economic problems, an interest that impels her to lend a hand in the solution of these ever present problems … with that calm judicial mind unbiased by sentiment, which is commonly supposed to be a monopoly of the sterner sex.” Above all, the wife of Nanaimo’s Lib-Lab MP was “a thoroughly progressive westerner and as loyal a Canadian as though she had chosen this fair land for her birthplace” and “full of sympathy for the men who toil … yet able to see and judge from the employers’ standpoint as well and … [not] to blind her to the mistakes of labor organizations whose short sighted methods too often destroy the object striven for.” Such attributes sprang from the intimate understanding of a charming “home lover and home maker,” a mother and the wife of a coal miner eager “to enter with sympathy into her husband’s political career.”[10]

Smith herself side-stepped the controversial question of suffrage, confessing to have

more faith in woman’s consciousness of, and an effort to live up to, the influence she now possesses, rather than in the securing of more privileges or rights. By using rightly the wide far-reaching influence which is now hers, woman will accomplish more for her own sex and for the race than by becoming a voter and politician.

She further reassured 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.” Obviously relieved, the interviewer suggested that Smith shared her predisposition to favour influence rather than enfranchisement with other parliamentary wives.[11]

Three years later, that conclusion no longer held. Mary Ellen openly joined the spouses of two Ontario and Nova Scotia MPs as suffrage supporters in an Ottawa WCTU meeting at the local YWCA.[12] In a foretaste of the future, the BCer also led in defending the ‘great cause’ and stressing the “excellent results’ of enfranchisement in New Zealand.[13] By the time she left the nation’s capital after the 1911 Liberal defeat, Mary Ellen remained welcomed by Madame Laurier but she had established herself as an attractive and persuasive suffragist who linked activists in Central and Pacific Canada. The Ottawa establishment would not forget her talent for speeches and building cross-class community.

Relations with Nanaimo’s mining families were much less certain for the upwardly mobile Smiths. After leaving Ottawa, the family moved to Vancouver where Ralph emerged as a financial entrepreneur, Liberal party-builder, and member of the prestigious Terminal Club. It was his wife, however, who increasingly drew public attention in causes from day nurseries to the minimum wage and the franchise. Her activism deftly mixed championship of wives and mothers with claims to economic justice in a version of maternal feminism that resonated with a broad constituency. By World War One, despite being a relative newcomer to a city that nourished a diverse range of talented activists and organizations with close ties to feminists in the British Empire and the U.S.A., Smith was a suffrage luminary.

While allied in the Political Equality League and the Women’s Forum with Helena Gutteridge, British veteran of the Women’s Social and Political Union and Vancouver’s most prominent working-class feminist, 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 series of social coups, she succeeded society maven, Lady Tupper, as Regent of the Vancouver chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire and assumed the presidency of the Women’s Canadian Club and the honorary presidency of the city’s Women’s Liberal Association. Spirited popular addresses that celebrated suffragists crossing a “desert on their way to a land of freedom with only one river to ford—the river of prejudice” conveyed a personal magnetism that consolidated broad feminist support.[14] When Ralph suddenly died soon after a Liberal victory that guaranteed mainstream enfranchisement, she became, as she was dubbed by a hagiographer, “the right woman in the right place at the right time” for provincial politics.[15]

When the new Liberal government went searching for a replacement MLA, Ralph’s widow was the clear favorite. Like her husband in the past, the energetic and articulate activist promised to link diverse constituencies and help renew the Liberal party. Clearly in her camp were Ralph’s loyalists. More importantly, as the only high-profile contender with a history of championing both labour and women’s causes, she promised to mobilize World War One’s rising tide of dissent in favour of a party with a dubious record of commitment to reform.

In January 1918, that pragmatic calculation proved correct. Running as an “independent candidate” and a sympathetic “soldier’s mother” holding “the best interests of the boys at heart,” Mary Ellen ran unopposed by Liberals or Conservatives to trounce two returned soldier candidates.[16]

In standing officially as an independent, Mary Ellen spoke both to the complicated perspectives of BC suffragists and to the era’s pervasive disillusionment with partisan politics. Her platform’s endorsement of proportional representation, a favorite of many activists, reflected the same influences. Like Ralph’s sorties as a Lib-Lab politician in Victoria and Ottawa, Mary Ellen, a publicly declared “’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”.[17] How much her embrace of non-partisanship as the best route to a better deal for women and children reflected conviction and suspicion of the old parties and how much arose from a pragmatic effort to mobilize the broadest range of support remains unclear.

Whatever the case, in 1918 Mary Ellen became Canada’s third woman elected to a provincial legislature and its most prominent Liberal-Feminist or Lib-Fem. First signs seemed promising and she fanned hopes of more female legislators in Canada and in Britain. For a time under her watch, BC activists had unprecedented access to the government, with Smith leading delegations and speaking for them in the legislature. Her contribution to the province’s introduction of mothers’ pensions and minimum wage legislation appeared to herald a new day even as she had to battle resistance to equality in marital property. Smith’s participation in broad-based post-war appeals for peace, conciliation, and the League of Nations stood in the same spirit of reform-minded collaboration.

Prospects for this advanced liberalism depended, as she repeatedly emphasized, on mobilizing female voters. In seeking a new term in the 1920 provincial election, she continued to assert that she knew “no narrowness of creed, of class, or color, and no prejudice,” that “those seeking her help may be certain of unbiased judgment and sane advice,” and that “the problems of her own sex are those which interest her most.”[18] A few years later, she typically tried to encourage diverse supporters, including audience members such as Christobel Pankhurst, by stressing common interests, such as the appointment of female probation officers.[19]

Progressive causes were not Mary Ellen’s only rallying cry. Whether at the heart or on the margins of empire, such post-World War One Lib-Fems joined political dance partners whose steps involved both exclusion and inclusion. All the more so after her proportion of the vote shank in 1920 and 1924, the legislator invoked prejudice to cement claims to represent settler women and children. Her endorsement and sponsorship of anti-Asian and eugenics initiatives matter-of-factly restricted reform liberalism’s benefits to preferred populations. There were many outsiders in the evolving democratic project that the feminist, labelled by the 1920 cartoon included above, apparently without irony, as a ‘man’ making the province, imagined.

Mary Ellen lasted a decade on the legislative dance floor with assertions of non-partisanship ringing increasingly hollow. Like Ralph, her reputation suffered when she benefitted from Liberal patronage. Particularly damaging was the fall-out from a UK tour sponsored by Ottawa’s Mackenzie King government. Designed to promote Canada as a land of post-war opportunity, it gave the earlier refugee from Britain’s industrial ills the heady opportunity to meet King George V and Queen Mary, stay with the Dominion’s former vice-regal couple Lord and Lady Aberdeen, and receive an official welcome from Newcastle-on-Tyne, her former home. It was just as well that her loyalty got such rewards. On her return, BC critics took out the knives to condemn Smith’s promotion of immigration even as Canadians went jobless.[20] Such accusations undermined her hopes for a working-class constituency.

Support was further undermined by the collapse of the vital 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 trust in non-partisanship that had fueled her initial election disintegrated and 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.”[21]

Once the threatened transformative potential of her election wore off, Mary Ellen, like her Lib-Lab spouse earlier, found little success in enlarging liberalism’s tent. Even the flaunting of a “blue gingham apron” in the course of the 1924 election did not guarantee acceptance by party brass or an electorate suspicious of new women.[22] For all her obvious intellect, industry and willingness to stump for others and oil the party machinery, male colleagues readily treated Smith more as a pretty face than a serious participant in parliamentary games. 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 a female law-maker’s credibility gap.[23] In 1928, her luck ran out when she faced the otherwise nondescript Conservative house leader (1924-1928), Robert H. Pooley, in a new Vancouver Island constituency. Along with her party, she went down to defeat. Now in her sixties, she, unlike men of a similar age but fewer merits, would not be invited by the Liberal party to run again.

As her personal political prospects deteriorated, Mary Ellen remained committed to mainstreaming women’s rights. In 1928, she declared that “’the iron has dropped into the souls of women’” when the ‘Alberta Five’ had to appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council to win women recognition as persons under the British North America Act.[24] Her last significant contribution to gender equality was service as the first president of the Women’s Liberal Federation of Canada founded in 1928. This group, summed up by a contemporary feminist journalist as a return to “those highly successful methods of agitation, education and activity which have been found to work so effectively in other than political clubs of women in the past,” was to offer members what optimists assumed enfranchisement had guaranteed, namely “a definite place in national affairs.”[25] Revealingly however, the Federation’s initial gatherings devoted more time to Canadian liberalism’s historic preoccupation with the two European founding peoples than relations with workers or women. Some activists, such as future senator Cairine Wilson, did nevertheless gain a useful bastion in a party that remained hostile to female parliamentary candidates.

Mary Ellen’s other efforts for liberalism seem less significant for human rights. As president of the BC Liberal party, she often functioned as little more than a den mother to the party’s misbehaving sons, hardly the role envisioned by ambitious maternal feminists. A federally-sponsored tour of Britain in aid of immigration in 1928 only further submerged her in partisan agendas. Even as she was applauded as contributing to an “empire where all are welcome whose lives are in the right and are loyal and self-sacrificing in their services to the state,” Canadian failure to offer women or workers equality went unacknowledged.[26] Her 1929 federal appointment as Canadian delegate to the International Labour Organization, like her detour from Geneva 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.

Right up to her death, Mary Ellen preserved her faith that up-to-date liberalism could supply the big tent politics that Burt in Britain, and her husband in Canada, had espoused. She had company in succumbing to that promise. Alberta’s Nellie L. McClung, the second prominent Canadian suffragist to win legislative office, stood as an independent Liberal in 1921. Neither would retire from electoral politics with much satisfaction. Ultimately, post-suffrage Lib-Fem politics proved no more successful than earlier Lib-Lab’ism. Canada’s Liberal parties ultimately had little place for Labour aristocrats or Liberal feminists.

That failure helps explain why a few suffragists, some of whose personal trajectories seemed more predictive of liberalism than Mary Ellen’s,[27] turned in time to the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation or even the Communist Party. Such radical choices remained, however, rare. As 21st century politics continues to demonstrate, Canadian liberalism never entirely lost appeal for workers or women who treasured hopes of mainstream reform. Feminist ministers in the cabinet of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, not to mention Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne, stand in that tradition.

Veronica Strong-Boag, the author and editor of many scholarly books and articles, received the Tyrrell Medal for excellence in Canadian history from the Royal Society of Canada in 2012 and is a former president of the Canadian Historical Association. She is a Professor Emerita at UBC and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Victoria.


An early version of this paper appeared as a blog for BC Studies, From Lib-Lab to Lib-Fem: British Columbia’s First Woman MLA, Mary Ellen Spear Smith (1863-1933),” and as a presentation at the “Women’s Suffrage and Political Activism Conference, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, 3 Feb. 2018.  My thanks to Tom Peace for his suggested refinements and, as always, to SSHRCC for supporting my work.

[1] See Christo Aivalis, “In the Name of Liberalism: Pierre Trudeau, Organized Labour, and the Canadian Social Democratic Left, 1949-1959,” Canadian Historical Review 94:2 (June 2013): 263-288. See also R.K. Carty, Big Tent Politics: The Liberal Party’s Long Mastery of Canada’s Public Life (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015). For the counterpart in mainstream feminism see Veronica Strong-Boag, “Creating ‘Big Tent’ Feminism: the Suffrage Politics of Ishbel Marjoribanks Gordon, Lady Aberdeen,” Workshop Paper, Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, 2011.

[2] My thinking about Smith has been informed by my work as General Editor of the new series, ‘Women Suffrage and the Struggle for Democracy,’ from UBC Press. Its 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] On this controversial term see John Field, “British Historians and the Concept of the Labor Aristocracy,” Radical History Review 19 (1979): 61-85.

[4] For a sympathetic treatment see J. Satre, Thomas Burt, Miners’ MP, 1837-1922: The Great Conciliator (London & NY): Leicester University Press, 1999). See mention of Ralph Smith’s meeting during a tour of UK with Burt, as well as British labour stalwarts John Burns and Keir Hardie, “Labor,” Vancouver Daily World (henceforth VDW) (Aug. 25, 1902). Coverage of those meetings led him to declare that he and the other ‘Labour’ member in Ottawa, Arthur Puttee from Winnipeg, had “never yet attended a single government caucus and we consult together on every question that comes before the House. We always have a caucus of our own.”

[5] “Nanaimo’s Labor Day,” Nanaimo Free Press (henceforth NFP) (Sept. 3, 1895).

[6] Ottawa Journal (henceforth OJ) (Sept. 22, 1900) for a positive local assessment see “Concerning the Island Member,” NFP (reproduced from The Presbyterian) (April 19, 1904).

[7] Margaret E. McCallum, “Labour and the Liberal State: Regulating the Employment Relationship, 1867-1920,” Manitoba Law Journal 23 (1995), 574.

[8] I’ve coined this term to capture Smith’s self-presentation. OJ (March 19, 1909).

[9] “Some Details about Cabinet Ministers,” VDW (Nov. 29, 1916).

[10] Margaret Graham, “Of Interest to Women,” ibid. (June 25, 1904).

[11] Margaret Graham, “Of Interest to Women,” ibid. (June 25, 1904).

[12] These were probably Mary Bartlet Sutherland, wife of Windsor, Ontario, Liberal MP, Robert Franklin Sutherland and Isabel Flemming Laurence, wife of Colchester, Nova Scotia Liberal MP Frederick Andrew Laurence.

[13] “Franchise Drill in the Y.W.C.A.” OJ (April 16, 1907).

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

[15] 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).

[16] Western Women’s Weekly (henceforth WWW) (Jan. 31, 1918).

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

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

[19] “New Era League Afternoon Affair,” VDW (June 21, 1922).

[20] See “Hungry Blame Mary Ellen for Unemployment,” VDW (Nov. 20, 1923)); “Mrs. Smith Denies Charge of Local Unemployed,” NFP (Nov. 23, 1923); “Our Mary Ellen Gets Headlines in Gt. Britain,” VDW (Oct. 5, 1923); “Mary Ellen is Heckled, but Scores Again,” VDW (Nov. 24, 1923). For more favourable assessment see “Hope Offered Here for British Women,” OJ (Oct. 19, 1923).

[21] Mrs. Ralph Smith, “Legislation and the Lady” WWW (29 March 1919).

[22] “Mary Ellen Smith is a Home Woman,” Lethbridge Herald (henceforth LH) (May 26, 1928).

[23] See “Kissing as a Vote-Getter,” OJ (Dec. 22, 1920), “A Fresh Dignity,” Winnipeg Tribune (Feb. 28, 1921), and “Big Audience Heard Hon. Wm Sloan and J.S. Cowper Pour Hot Shot into Opponents,” NFP (June 19, 1924).

[24] Brian Hicks, “Mary Ellen Smith, Canadian politician with roots in the south-west of England,” 31 July 2011, http://stoneposts-59.blogspot.ca/ .

[25] Anne Anderson Perry, “Women Begin to speak Their Minds,” Chatelaine (June 1928), .6.

[26] “British Appreciation of Hon. Mary E. Smith,” VDW (Sept. 8, 1928).

[27] See the story told in my The Last Suffragist Standing: the Life and Times of Laura Emma Marshall Jamieson, 1883-1964 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2018).

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