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Manitoba History: Women and the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919

by Mary Horodyski
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 11, Spring 1986

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

In the coming day women would take their place side by side with men, not as dependents or inferiors, but as equals. Thus there would be better relationships based on fundamental love and affinity. This strike was part of the great movement for the emancipation of women. [1]

The strike] got them the right to organize, it got them the right to speak up for themselves, and they began to have some legislation such as control of wages and led on to a minimum wage and led on to women getting into organizations too and the right to be recognized and the right to organize, that was the big thing. [2]

That was quite a strike alright ... but we all got over it anyway. [3]

For all that has been written on women’s actions during the Winnipeg general sympathetic strike of 1919, it could be concluded easily that females were not there at all, that they passed the six weeks holidaying at Lake Winnipeg. The historiography of the strike has been male-centered, and like all history which refuses to include women and renders them invisible, it has been severely biased and incomplete. [4]

When male-oriented historians are asked why women have been excluded so far from histories of the Winnipeg general strike, their most common response is that there are no sources. Gerda Lerner, one of the founding mothers of women’s history, has stated “the excuse of traditional historians for their neglect of women in history—that this reflected nothing more than a dearth of sources—has long since become untenable.” [5] It is certainly untenable on the subject of women and the general strike. Research into newspapers published during the period of the strike—the Winnipeg Tribune, the Citizen, the Telegram and the special strike editions of the Western Labor New—provides a wealth of information concerning women’s actions. Newspapers are traditional primary sources and, at least in this case, are easily accessible. When other perhaps less traditional sources such as oral history tapes and photographs are examined, they also shed light on women’s lives during the 1919 strike. It seems obvious then, that on this subject a “no sources” excuse cannot be taken seriously.

An examination of the sources mentioned above reveals that women played strong and various roles in the strike. They acted as strikers and scabs, rioters and terrorists. They made coffee and sandwiches for striking workers, and they struggled to piece together a meal for their families. Women as strikers unplugged the telephone lines and women as scabs plugged them back in. Women took to the streets during riots, they terrorized scab labour, and one woman has been credited with the infamous act of setting fire to the streetcar on Bloody Saturday. Women were members of the Central Strike Committee and members of the Women’s Labor League. As mothers, wives, sisters and daughters of male strikers they gave their men support. And as strikers themselves, women gave each other support.

Women began the Winnipeg general sympathetic strike. At 7:00 a.m. on the morning of Thursday, May 15, 1919, five hundred telephone operators punched out at the end of their shifts. No other workers came in to replace them. Ninety percent of these operators were women, so women represented the vast majority of the first group of workers to begin the city-wide sympathetic strike in support of the already striking metal and building trades workers. At 11:00 a.m., the official starting point of the strike, workers began to pour out from shops, factories and offices to meet at Portage and Main. Streetcars dropped off their passengers and by noon all cars were in their barns. Workers left rail yards, restaurants and theatres. Firemen left their stations. Ninety-four of ninety-six unions answered the strike call. Only the police and typographers stayed on their jobs. [6] Within the first twenty-four hours of the strike call, more than 25,000 workers had walked away from their positions. One-half of them were not members of any trade union. [7] By the end of May 15, Winnipeg was virtually shut down.

Working in the laundry room, St. Mary's Academy, c1920.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The strike, which began through the refusal of three iron works to recognize the Metal Trades Council, was called to fight for the right of collective bargaining. Beyond this, however, the strike soon became a struggle for a “living wage,” a struggle in which women had good cause to be involved.

According to the Census of Canada, the population of Winnipeg ten years of age and older in 1921 was 139,712 persons. Of these people, 53% were engaged in paid labour. Women paid labourers numbered 17,366, or 23.4% of the total number of paid labourers, which means that almost one in every four workers was a woman. [8] Table 1 indicates the sectors in which women were employed. [9] The Census categories can be misleading as clerical work is not offered as a separate occupation. However, the separation of each occupational category into clerical and non-clerical work brings out important information. For example, the forty-one women in construction were not bricklayers, carpenters, or plumbers, but office workers. More than half the women employed in transportation were also office workers. The remainder were telegraph and telephone operators.

Table 1. Women workers by occupational classification as designated by the 1921 census
shown in relation to percentage of clerical workers. * Totals do not equal 100 due to rounding.


Occupation

Total
Women
Employed

Labour
Force
Participation
Rate

In
Occupation
as Clerical
Workers

Total
Women
Employed
Less
Clerical
Workers

Recalculated
Labour
Force
Participation
Rate


Agriculture

4

0

0

4

0

Mining and Quarrying

3

0

3

0

0

Manufactures

2,472

14.2

665

1,807

10.4

Construction

41

0.2

41

0

0

Transportation

1,241

7.1

686

555

3.2

Trade

3,903

22.4

1,332

2,571

14.8

Finance

1,420

8.2

1,400

200

0.1

Service

- Custom and Repair

27

0.2

0

27

0.2

- Domestic and Personal

4,056

23.4

85

3,972

22.9

- Professional

2,977

17.1

395

2,582

14.9

- Public Administration

391

2.3

380

11

0.1

- Recreational

62

0.4

29

33

0.2

Unspecific Industries

769

4.4

735

34

0.2


Total Clerical Workers

(5,748)

Totals

17,366

99.9*

5,748

11,615

99.9*


The vast majority of paid women labourers were confined to specific occupations. While exceptions did exist, as can be noted in the 1921 Census, (six women insurance agents, ten physicians and surgeons, one sculptor, one accountant, and one classified as a farmer’s son!), women who crossed the boundaries of designated “women’s work” were few and far between. Clearly, the greatest percentage of women workers held low-paying jobs that were viewed as unskilled, and in which there was little hope of advancement. These women were employed as factory workers, retail store clerks, servants, cleaners, waitresses, and office clerks. Those employed in the professional sector were basically confined to the “womanly” occupations of teaching or nursing.

Reports and investigations made in Winnipeg by the University Women’s Club in 1914 and the Minimum Wage Commission in 1918 discovered that many women worked for less than a “living wage.” While it was suggested that a wage of $10.00 per week could allow a woman to survive, workers in retail stores, factories and laundries often earned less than this amount. Women’s wages were meagre because of the prevailing assumptions of the “family wage.” This wage was earned by men, and was allegedly sufficient to cover all expenses for themselves, their wives and their children. In the world as perceived by devotees of the family wage system, every woman was supported by a male wage-earner, either a father or a husband, and this male wage-earner did not die, divorce his wife, or desert his family. Any woman who fell between the fibers of the safety net provided by husbands and fathers was presumed to be “a transitory single woman worker whose ultimate destiny was marriage and child rearing.” [10]

Tables 2 and 3 reveal that this presumed safe world for women did not exist. As can be seen in Table 2, a large percentage of households in which the head was single, widowed or divorced, were in fact headed by women. The two tables indicate that not only was there a definite percentage of women who never married, but there was also a sizable number who, through widowhood or divorce, were without a male wage-earner. Also notable is the percentage of women who, within marriage, assumed the status of the economic head of the household. This proves that marriage did not provide a life-long guarantee of economic support for women, and that marriage did not necessarily mean the end of a woman’s involvement in the labour force. Further, it suggests the desperate struggle many females faced when their wages were based on the erroneous assumption that they were financially supported by male wage-earners.

Table 2. Marital status of female population by age (1916) compared with percentage of total women employed by age (1921) for Winnipeg. * Source: Census of Canada, 1921, Table 5, pp. 610-611. ** Source: Census of Prairie Provinces, 1916, Table XVIII, no. 206-207.


1921 *

1916 **


Age
Group

% of Total
Women
Employed

% Total
Women
Without
Men

Single %

Married %

Widowed %

Divorced %

Unknown %


15 - 19

51.0

92.3

92.3

7.7

0

0

0

20 - 24

54.5

56.6

56.1

43.3

0.4

0.1

0.1

25 - 34

27.3

25.7

24.2

74.2

1.4

0.1

0.1

35 - 64

14.6

22.0

9.4

78.0

12.3

0.3

0

65+

3.1

60.2

3.9

39.8

56.1

0.2

0


Table 3. Private families, with or without children, classified according to marital status and sex of head for Winnipeg, 1921. Source: Census of Canada, 1921, Table 26, p. 92. ** Single heads reported with children comprise cases where single brother or sister was regarded as head. 1 Total families: single heads 2,089, married 36,258, widowed 3,927, divorced 133.


Total

1 Single **

Married

Widowed

Divorced


Total

%M

%F

%M

%F

%M

%F

%M

%F

%M

%F


Winnipeg

42,407

89.2

10.8

66.1

33.9

97.9

2.1

23.0

76.1

19.6

80.4

With Children

30,606

89.4

10.6

37.5

62.5

97.6

2.4

20.0

80.0

15.0

85.0

Without Children

11,801

88.7

11.3

66.3

33.7

98.5

1.5

33.3

66.7

33.3

66.7


Desire for a living wage was ample reason for women workers to strike. Even this brief consideration of the conditions of women’s lives and women’s labour—working in sweat shops, waiting on and cleaning up after other people, selling goods they could never afford to buy—helps explain their involvement in the strike, and the ferocious ways in which they sometimes acted while the strike was underway.

One of the most important tasks women performed during the strike was the setting up of a food kitchen. The kitchen was initiated and maintained by the Women’s Labor League together with other sympathizers, and its purpose was to provide women strikers, or any woman who was in need, with meals. [11] This kitchen was first located on the corner of Rupert and Main, in the Strathcona Hotel. Mrs. Helen Armstrong, noted socialist and president of the Women’s Labor League, was in charge of the arrangements. The kitchen was later forced to relocate to the Oxford Hotel, reportedly because “this activity on the part of the Women’s Labor League did not meet with the approval of the financial interests of the city.” [12] As it turned out, the Oxford Hotel was better suited to the women’s purposes because it provided a larger dining room and a more modern kitchen than the Strathcona. These considerations must have proved important as the women served 1,200 to 1,500 free meals daily. As well, the Women’s Labor League gave cash grants to women to meet their room rent. These services were funded in part by the Relief Committee of which a Mrs. Webbs was in charge. A large portion of the funding came from collections taken at various meetings of the strikers throughout the city. Appeals were also made in the Western Labor News for donations of staples such as bread, tea, sugar and sandwiches. Other funding came from organizations of workers who set up dances and performances for the benefit of the kitchen and Relief Fund.

The food kitchen was provided especially for women strikers so that “no girl need want,” but men were made welcome also. [13] Men were expected to make a donation or pay for their meals, but if unable to pay, they were fed for free provided they had a ticket issued for that purpose by the Relief Committee. [14] This emphasis on provisions for women at the kitchen is often brushed over in histories of the strike. For example, Doug Smith, in his book Let Us Rise!, states that the kitchen was opened “to keep strikers and their families fed.” While Smith and, as another example, David Bercuson, are to be commended for mentioning the Women’s Labor League kitchen in their histories of the strike (Smith—18 words, Bercuson—69), both fail to emphasize that this service was initiated primarily for female strikers, and in particular, single female strikers. [15] Linda Kealey states that socialists of the early twentieth century “tended to perceive wage-earning single women only as dependents and as future wives and mothers”; [16] further, she says, they assumed that “women’s interests were almost always subordinate to family and society.” [17] Smith and Bercuson seem to be caught up in that same sort of trap, unable to separate women making sandwiches from men eating them. [18] The importance of the work of the Women’s Labor League is that it was woman-centred—work performed by women to support other women. The creation of the kitchen and the thousands of meals served weekly provide strong evidence of the large number of women on strike, as well as pointing out that due to their lower wages, women were unlikely to be able to scrape through the strike without the support of other women.

Winnipeg Strike Committee, 1919. The two women have never been identified, but one is thought to be Helen Armstrong.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Another women’s organization involved in supporting females during the strike was the Young Women’s Christian Association. On May 14, the Winnipeg Tribune reported that the Y.W.C.A. would provide emergency accommodation to women living a long distance away from their place of employment. [19] Apparently providing the service to a select group met with some opposition, because less than a fortnight later the Tribune reported that “The Y.W.C.A. board at its meeting Wednesday decided to take care of any girls, strikers or not, who are temporarily in want on account of the strike.” [20]

For many women, the strike represented an opportunity to organize en masse with sister workers. On May 20, the Western Labor News announced an all-day organizational meeting for all women workers. Other meetings were announced throughout the editions of the paper, including those of such groups as the laundry workers, box workers and “Bread and Cake” workers.

The “Bread and Cake,” or Baker and Confectionery workers, went on strike May 14. The Tribune reported that “more than 500 candy and confectionary workers failed to show up for work this morning because their employers will not negotiate a new wage schedule.” [21] Except for those workers at Pauline Chambers, where the company agreed to negotiate, employees at every candy making plant in the city went on strike. A mass meeting of the strikers had been held the evening before at their headquarters, at which time a system of picketing was arranged. On May 15, the members of the candy and confectionary workers not yet on strike stopped work and joined the mass of strikers. The Tribune reported that “more than 700 members of the union are on strike, most of them girls and women.” [22] The Western Labor News, on May 19, informed its readers that one local of the Baker and Confectionery workers was having difficulties with its meeting place at the Home Bank Building on Main Street. Although the workers rented space in the building, when they arrived for their meeting the building was found locked and all strike cards had been torn down. The labor newspaper responded to this action by sneering “it seems evident that petty persecution is not beyond our great bankers” and proclaiming that “the problem of industry will not be solved by locking the workers out of their meeting places during the progress of the greatest strike we have ever seen.” [23] In fact the bankers’ tricks did not stop the workers, as they held a mass meeting a few days later in the Travellers Building.

Wholesale and retail store clerks were another group of workers who organized with what the Western Labor News called “wonderful swing.” Early in the strike, this paper stated that “it is in their hand to close up tight practically every wholesale and retail store in the city.” [24] The clerks met frequently and at one meeting heard addresses by Alderman Heaps and Helen Armstrong’s husband George. Issues discussed at the meetings included the availability of food supplies, the maintenance of law and order, and the T. Eaton Company. The T. Eaton Co. refused to recognize the strike. Before the strike even began the company recruited a band of scab labour to come in from Toronto. However, on May 14, the Western Labor News reported that this contingent was refused transportation past Port Arthur and “railway workers are said to refuse to handle trains on which said persons are found.” [25] Eaton’s, though, had another card to play, one that it was not alone in using. On the morning of the strike Eaton’s bribed some employees with a $4.00 a week wage increase. [26] One other company, unnamed in the report, also tried to keep workers in the fold with a few extra dollars. In this particular instance the Western Labor News reprinted a sweetly written letter of gratitude the company sent its women employees. Besides expressions of “kindest regards and best wishes” the letter contained two dollars. The paper made clear that “even with this addition, the wage of this particular employe (sic) does not attain to the provisions of the Minimum Wage Award.” [27] With such evidence as this, it becomes clear why the momentum for the strikers’ “swing” arose.

Helen Armstrong organized many of the wholesale and retail workers. The Tribune reported that on May 26, at 5:00 in the morning, she began a drive against a number of smaller stores where women were still working. The Tribune said that “employees going into the business places were accosted and efforts were made to persuade them to join the general strike.” By 9:00 that morning, Armstrong was reported to have been pleased with the success of the drive and stated that a large number of women had been added to the strikers’ rolls. She further announced her intention to keep up the drive until a settlement was achieved. [28]

The telephone operators, the “Hello Girls,” also played a notable role in the strike. Their union was first formed in February of 1917 as part of a great organizing drive that unionized civic office employees, retail clerks and firefighters—groups which, in Winnipeg, had never before been involved with unions. By April of 1917, the telephone operators’ union was reported as being nearly 100 per cent strong. At this time, the union forwarded to the Manitoba Telephone Commission a request for salary increases of 15 - 40 per cent. A three hour strike was staged on May 1, 1917 and an investigatory board was called in to research the situation. The operators agreed to stay on their jobs until the end of May at which time the board was to produce their findings. The women had been demanding $40.00 a month minimum as well as better hours and working conditions. The investigatory board heard the operators’ demands and announced the following terms of settlement:

$40 per month minimum; a $2.50 increase every six months up to a maximum of $60; hours were reduced to eight per day and 203 hours constituted a month’s work for the purpose of computing overtime pay. [29]

In May 1918, the telephone operators were involved in a sympathetic strike of thirteen unions. This strike had begun in April when teamsters, electrical workers, water works employees, and office workers went to the city administration for wage increases. The municipal authorities, not wanting to make up a new pay schedule which they believed would freeze the already inflated war-time rates at an artificially high level, offered instead a bonus until peacetime when new wages could be negotiated. Although in dollars the bonus represented much the same increase that the workers were demanding, the creation of a new pay schedule became a matter of principle. On May 7, 1918, these workers went on strike and on May 16, the telephone operators joined in a sympathetic strike. The Citizens’ Committee of 100 had been formed on May 14, primarily to operate the civic facilities that the strikers had abandoned. By May 24, 1918, the strike was over. The civic electricians, water works employees, teamsters and firemen all received higher wages. All workers who had joined the sympathetic strike were reinstated without penalty. Further, the Fowler Amendment, which denied civic employees the right to strike but which actually inspired more walk-outs, was withdrawn.

The role of the telephone operators in both the 1918 and 1919 strikes was mentioned in the Western Labor News. [30]

Last year when the telephone operators went on strike they found the daughters of the wealthy attempting to operate the lines. This time they pulled all fuses including the P. V. X.’s.

The next day, in the column called Strikelets: “Please note that society dames are not scabbing on the telephone girls this year. They can’t.” [31] By May 26, it was reported, the telephone lines had been closed over the whole province. The writers of the Western Labor News pointed out that “this meant a good deal when it remembered that in many places there were only 2 to 3 girls.” [32] The effort on the part of their employers to break the unity of the operators took such forms as threatening individual strikers that the Citizens’ Committee would not allow the government to reinstate them.

Less than ten days after the strike began, the Winnipeg Citizen reported that volunteers were wanted to resume telephone service. On June 19, George A. Watson, Telephone Commissioner, reported to the Citizen that 192 applications had been received for permanent employment as telephone operators, 43 of which were from operators who had returned to duty. Watson also reported that these 43 operators gave the required pledge not to participate in sympathetic strikes. [33] The creation of this required pledge appears to have been a measure especially designed to degrade and disempower the returning operators.

In the Winnipeg Telegram, beginning on May 27, large quarter-page ads were placed calling for “Telephone Operators and Experienced Telephone Men.” Many of these ads listed a newly devised schedule of wages. In the advertised schedule the starting wage was listed as $50.00, up $10.00 from the $40.00 per month minimum established in the 1917 strike’s terms of agreement. Also, although the 1917 agreement specified that $60.00 was the maximum monthly salary, the advertised schedule listed salaries up to $70.00. [34] These new wages, and the profusion of ads which announced them, were part of a determined effort to break the militancy of the telephone operators and lure them back to work. As seen by Commissioner Watson’s announcement, this lure was effective at least to some degree. The return of these women, especially under the degrading condition of the pledge, probably illustrates the absolute necessity of a regular wage for survival.

Another group of women who played an important part in the strike were the new employees who took over the telephone system as “volunteers.” On May 28, the Tribune wrote that according to George A. Watson, more than 600 women and girls were operating telephone exchanges and more had been advertised for. Further, the Tribune quoted Watson, “We will not use strike breakers ... We are giving permanent employment to young women who show aptitude for this work.” [35] It appears that no one wished to name these volunteers for what they were—scabs. A few days after Watson’s announcement, the Tribune ran another article concerning these women. Under the headline “Volunteer Phone Operators Find Duties Very Hard,” it reported two cases of exhaustion and one of hysterics suffered by the operators on the Garry exchange during a particularly heavy day of calls. [36] Whether these casualties were caused by the grueling nature of the work or the fact that these women simply did not have the right “aptitude” for the job is not a difficult question to answer.

On June 5, the Tribune printed another story about volunteer operators which showed how some women dealt with their own particular adverse working conditions.

... This is the way it usually happens. “Are you a volunteer?”, he coos disarmingly. “Yes,” the unsuspecting phone girl responds. “Well, I don’t care to talk to a **** scab,” the man responds. “Suit yourself,” the girl says and unscrews the little electric globe which registers a call from that line and puts in a small piece of cork. [37]

The volunteer operators were eventually rewarded for their service. On June 26 the Tribune reported that nearly 600 cheques were mailed out to the volunteers from the head office of the Manitoba Telephone Commission. These cheques were “intended as a mark of appreciation for the service which the volunteers have rendered during the strike.” The cheques were made out at the rate of $60.00 per month, working an eight-hour day. [38] Notably, this rate of $60.00 was $10.00 higher than the rate previously listed in the ads placed by the commission, and 50% higher than the $40.00 starting wage provided for in the 1917 strike’s terms of agreement

As for the returning strikers, Watson stated that although 200 to 300 former telephone workers re-applied for work on the morning of June 26, not all would receive jobs as there were only about 200 vacancies. [39] In a follow-up article on June 27, the Tribune quoted Watson as saying “the new application blanks require the operator’s pledge that she will not participate in a sympathetic strike.” As well, a women re-employed would lose her seniority but would receive wages in accordance with the number of years served. Watson also stated that “a girl who had been an assistant supervisor before the strike was liable to be placed on the switchboard again.” [40]

While the daughters of the bourgeoisie were trying their hands at the switchboard, other women were also blazing trails in new-found employment. The Tribune reported that “Winnipeg’s strike brought another innovation—girl newsies.” When not enough men could be recruited to sell the Western Labor News, these women and girls offered their help and successfully sold several hundred of the newspapers daily. The Tribune related the opinion of the “girl newsies”: “‘It’s lots of fun.’ said one of the indefatigables. ‘All you have to do is talk nice, smile and there you are’.” [41] The women who tried to maintain the sales of the regular daily papers, however, did not fare so well. They were harassed and physically attacked by strikers, led again by the notorious Helen Armstrong. [42]

During the strike women also volunteered as gas station operators. On May 21 the Western Labor News reported that the gas stations were opened again, and one photograph survives showing two women “manning” the gas pumps. Female volunteer workers such as these two, and also the telephone operators, were most likely to come from the middle classes. But not all scab workers did so. The Tribune reported that a young woman worker at the Club Cafe was attacked on her way to work by a former employee of the Cafe. Mr. C. R. Lewis, proprietor of the cafe, was quoted as being “indignant over the outrage” and explained that it was essential for this woman to work as her husband had been killed while doing duty in France, and she was left with a three year old child to support.

Other reports of workers being attacked or harassed on their way to work appeared in the Tribune. On the morning of June 2, employees of a large department store, who were being driven to work along Arlington Street, were stoned by a crowd which lined the curbs waiting for them to come by. The police cleared the crowd and reported that no one was hurt and no arrests were made. A week later washerwomen on their way to work were also intimidated. The most vehement and successful attack on scab workers was the war waged by the women of Weston and Brooklands on delivery truck drivers. [43] These women wrecked three delivery rigs owned by local department stores. One of these rigs was found in a ditch with its wheels smashed, the wire cover missing, and merchandise ruined. The women also assaulted the drivers and the special policemen sent out to protect the men. The Tribune wrote that

According to the reports, the women of the district have formed an organization to intimidate all persons who have returned to work. Police could not certify the reports because of the hostility shown by the women.

One of the women warned a driver “We will murder you if you attempt to make deliveries in this district again.” The driver observed “And they look as if they mean real business.” A detective who was sent out to discover who wrecked the rig was unsuccessful. He reported that the women of this area made the investigation impossible.

“I wouldn’t advise any man to go out there,” he reported upon his return to central station. “His life is in danger if these women find out that he is at work, or had been working during the strike,” he said.

“They don’t respect police officers and apparently do anything that pleases them,” he asserted.

Other women also decided on direct action and became involved in riots, inciting strikers and harassing scabs. On June 6, Mayor Gray placed a ban on public crowds and parades. This ban led to some women being arrested for being members of an unlawful assembly. On this same day, the Tribune reported that eleven persons, three of whom were women, faced disorderly conduct charges in connection with inciting strikers on Main Street near Market Square on the previous day. These three women, named as Miss Ida Kraatz, Miss M. Steinhauer, and Mrs. Helen Armstrong, entered no plea and were remanded until the next week. Later the same month, the Tribune listed other women who had been arrested and charged in connection with disorders. These included Mrs. Pete Braster, who was alleged by police to have been active in the riot gathering at Portage and Main the previous week, and charged with being a member of an unlawful assembly. Six men and one woman had been committed for trial the previous day on charges of intimidation. The woman, Matilda Russell, was alleged to have intimidated employees of a local department store. On May 30, the Tribune reported that three people were remanded on charges of disorderly conduct following a disturbance at the Canada Bread Company’s plant. One was an individual named Frank Winters; another was Arthur Riley who was the manager of the Company; and the third was Helen Armstrong. This incident was not the last of Helen Armstrong’s encounters with the law. Late in June she was committed for trial on a charge of counselling to commit an indictable offense. This offense was inciting Ida Kraatz and Margaret Steinhauer to assault two Tribune office employees who were selling newspapers on the street. While the two women charged with the assault got off with a fine of $5.00 plus costs each, Helen Armstrong was held in jail until she could obtain bail from a judge in the Court of King’s Bench. Two days later, the Tribune reported that Helen Armstrong was still in the provincial jail “owing to the refusal of the authorities to grant bail.” [44] This refusal must have been a special measure designed to keep Winnipeg safe from the activities of Helen Armstrong, as other women who had been held for trial on riot charges were granted bail—albeit at the hefty sum of $1,000.00 each.

By June 21 the Mayor, obviously feeling things were getting out of hand, issued a second proclamation in which special mention was made of women: “Any women taking part in a parade do so at their own risk.” [45] An article a few days later in the Tribune showed that not all women paid heed to the Mayor’s warning. Of the ninety-four people arrested in connection with the June 21 riot, four were women. These four, Eliza Restall, Irene Heir, Christina Ross, and Clara Westman, were arraigned on June 23 and remanded until the following week. The Tribune said that the people arrested were caught throwing objects at the police, or “trying to incite the mob to violence.” [46] It provided a further account of women involved in the riot. One of them had been standing in front of the Manitoba Hotel when the first volley was fired. She collapsed and was taken by two Red Cross men into a nearby building. It was discovered that she had suffered nothing more serious than a fainting spell. She soon recovered and went down a back lane for safety. Other women refused such safety. One was a woman with an infant. When advised by a male pedestrian to find a safe place, she “retorted with such a vile outburst of profanity, that the well intentioned man turned about and beat a hasty retreat.” [47]

The Tribune took pains to note that this latter woman “had a pronounced foreign accent.” Where possible, the newspaper preferred to designate women involved in the riots as foreigners. The woman who set fire to the streetcar on Bloody Saturday “appeared to be a foreigner.” The Tribune added

Many women of this ilk refused to budge when the special constables were clearing the streets, until they were forcibly pushed down side streets. Profanity from these women were not unusual in these cases. [48]

If true, these statements reveal the resentment that minority women felt toward a prejudiced majority. However, the Tribune was no doubt less interested in providing factual information than in denigrating immigrant women by naming them as pyromaniacs and users of profane language, and by implying that it was they, not “white” women, who caused trouble during riots.

Great War Veterans Association parade, June 4, 1919
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The practice of “alien-bating” was not uncommon during the strike. In an oral history tape, Georgina Thorne mentions how immigrants were blamed for the strike:

According to some there was a lot of people coming over from different parts, or coming from the States, taking the jobs that our boys should have got when they come home, you see. Or coming from overseas, different parts of Europe. [49]

Perhaps the most vehement expression of this attitude came from the war veterans who opposed the strike. On a photograph taken June 4, 1919 at a Great War Veterans Association Parade, their banner proclaimed:

“WE WILL MAINTAIN CONSTITUTED AUTHORITY, LAW & ORDER: DOWN WITH THE HIGH COST OF LIVING: TO HELL WITH THE ALIEN ENEMY: GOD SAVE THE KING.”

The hostility directed toward the “alien enemy” caused some immigrant women to experience a good deal of fear. A few days after the strike had ended, a woman in great panic phoned the police shouting “murder ... help ... soldiers.” This woman, whose husband was an immigrant striker, had seen a group of Boy Scouts going down the lane. She recognized uniforms, but in the half-darkness, misunderstood the boys to be soldiers. The Tribune said “She was terrified that her husband was to be ‘shot at sunrise’ without the police knowing about it. While at the phone she fainted.” [50]

Immigrant workers, throughout the strike, seemed to be in the wrong whether they struck or scabbed. One woman, a Mrs. Munitch, offered this perspective on immigrant scab labour. She said

Sometimes they scab and they don’t know any better. They come from the old country and they don’t know what it is. And they give them a job and ... I know a man from the old country, left a wife and children and he came here and this was in 1919, and they killed him. I mean, I think the workers must have. He didn’t know any better. He didn’t know ... It was a relative ... I was told by the family. This was in 1919. It was on the railway that he worked. And he didn’t know, he didn’t know the language, and I guess he just kept on working. They couldn’t prove it, but it must have been the workers themselves. They used to be so angry. If they got hold of some of them they would kill them. [51]

A similar sort of story was related by a man whose grandfather was involved in the strike. He said his grandfather was one of the first men to re-operate the streetcars. Strikers pulled him from the car and hit him across the face with a switch-iron and broke his nose. Apparently, when his grandfather died a few years later, his grandmother attributed his death (and did so until her own death) to his battle with the strikers. [52] While the above two stories certainly have the aura of family legend surrounding them, they do indicate that women had reason to be fearful.

Photographs provide a good deal of information on women’s involvement in strike actions. In pictures taken at mass meetings at Victoria Park and of crowds of strikers on Portage and Main, a few women can be spotted. The greatest number of them, however, can be seen in photographs of Labor Temple meetings. In one such photograph several women and some of their children can be seen easily. The greater quantity of women at the Labor Temple meetings suggests that someone—perhaps the women themselves, perhaps protective men—thought these meetings were safer than the meetings held in the streets.

During the strike many women chose not to pass through boundaries into more dangerous ground and instead remained in their traditional place as wives and mothers. These women are often disregarded and rendered invisible because they were not dashing and daring heroines. When seen at all, they are viewed as martyrs standing behind the great striking man. One expression of this perception is found in a speech given by Mr. James Winning, President of the Trades and Labor Council, at the Labor Temple. He said

There has been wonderful forbearance during the strike. Mothers have gone to the corner store and returned without milk, and have gone home and said: “Stay with it John. The women will do without milk, and we will make some shift for the kiddies, but you must win.” [53]

Even the least amount of analysis leads one, as it did Mr. Winning, to the realization of the important role these women played in the strike. He said that as the pay envelope was not sufficient to last to the end of the week “the wife found it was exhausted by Wedn. night and she demanded that Jack ask the boss for more money.” [54] Although it was the husband’s job to bring home the money, it was the task of the woman to try and make ends meet. She tried to provide adequate clothing and adequate meals on an inadequate pay envelope. Undoubtedly, behind the strike were women demanding a living wage.

The question Mr. Winning’s comment brings to mind is—how did women cope during the strike? How did they manage to feed their families? If women had difficulties doing so when pay envelopes were coming in, the problems incurred during the strike must have been practically insurmountable. Some women chose the route of relying on scab labour to survive. Mary Barker, for example, came to Canada from Scotland in 1919, as a war bride, and arrived in Winnipeg just as the strike was going on. She and her husband, a recently returned soldier, managed to eat during the strike because her husband took a job. When asked how the strike affected her life, she replied

It didn’t affect it at all. Because my husband saw his colonel. He said “Are you thinking about the strike, Barker?” He said “What have I got to go on strike for?” He says “I’ve just got back.” He says “And I want to get a job.” And he said “Good for you, Barker.” So the Barker name was carried on. And so here I am. After all this time. [55]

Other women, whose husbands recognized the strike, or women who were on strike themselves, had to discover other means of obtaining food. The Tribune, on May 15 had the headline “Women Buy Food For Long Siege.” [56] Women had rushed stores all day Wednesday, and on the Thursday morning when the strike began they were laying in provisions. The Tribune joked “the real problem has very nearly become what to do with the stuff.” They wrote that many men would come home from work to find their apartment loaded up with food and be “utterly unable to protest if he finds the bed covered with carrots and the bathrooms filled with onions.” As deliveries backed up, women took to the streets with wagons and perambulators with which to bring home supplies. Store owners reported that in many cases their shelves were swept clean, and often substitutions had to be made for the women’s orders. “There was no protest from the woman who ordered cheese and got bacon. Anything was satisfactory as long as it was edible.” The Tribune also said that women, in anticipation of the failure of public utilities, spent the day preparing huge amounts of meat, vegetables and bread in order that these might be eaten cold should the gas supply be cut off. Many women, despite the announcement by the Trades Council that a water supply of thirty pounds would be maintained, filled bath tubs with water and “gave orders that there would be no trespassing.” The Tribune concluded its article on a cheery little note: “Withal it is safe to say that come what may Winnipeg will not go hungry. The city may burn down. Riots may sweep the streets. But Winnipeg will eat and eat well.” It seems likely that the Tribune was overly optimistic in this respect. Other women, without sufficient cash to buy up stock, may have had very little to rely on, especially because it was too early in the season for almost all garden produce.

All these women should be remembered in the histories of the strike. The women who struggled to feed their families, the women who set up the food kitchen and the ones who waited in line for their meals. The women who took to the streets, got arrested and sat in jail. The women who struck and the women who kept going to work because they saw little other choice. The women who took over the work the strikers left behind at the telephone system and the gas stations, the ones who threw bricks at the police and the one woman who set fire to the streetcar.

These women have been forgotten and ignored not because of the lack of sources, but because of the patriarchal ideology that has dominated history. As Gerda Lerner says, “men have defined their experience as history and have left women out.” [57] Lerner also states “women have been left out of history not because of the evil conspiracies of men in general or male historians in particular, but because we have considered history only in male-centered terms.” [58] While it is unlikely that most male historians go out of their way to deliberately exclude women from history, they ignore females because of the prevailing patriarchal ideology and assumptions that dominate society and subsequently the field of history. In other words, because the focus of history is on men, women are lost in the shadows.

In an interview, David Russell (a descendent of R. B. Russell, one of the strike leaders) stated that in the strike “There were people involved who were never mentioned, you know.” [59] An historical blind spot has certainly been evident in the case of women’s involvement in the Winnipeg general strike. It is demonstrated by the lack of secondary materials on women’s actions in the strike, and even by primary sources themselves which reflect the patriarchal bias of their time and as such do not answer all questions concerning women’s lives during the strike. For a truly complete history of women’s involvement in the 1919 strike the task for historians is to review the sources, to delve into areas of material history such as photographs or diaries, but most importantly, to use oral history—search out the women who were in Winnipeg during the general strike and record their history before it is lost. Until such work is done, the history of the Winnipeg general strike will remain male-defined and incomplete.

Notes

1. Western Labor News, hereafter WLN, June 13, 1919. This is from a report on J. S. Wordsworth’s speech on June 12, “ladies’ day” at the Soldiers’ Parliament.

2. Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, Oral History Project, 1972, Tape 584-2, interview with Beatrice Brigden.

3. Provincial Archives of Manitoba, hereafter PAM, Winnipeg Past and Present Project, 1981-1982, tape 257, interview with Mrs. Georgina Thorne (Orr).

4. See, for exmple, David Jay Bercuson, Confrontation at Winnipeg (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1974).

5. Gerda Lerner, The Majority Finds its Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 172.

6. The 2police remained on duty until they were dismissed on June 9, for refusing to sign loyalty oaths and refusing to agree not to join unions affiliated with outside organizations. On June 10 about 1800 special police, recruited from the city, took over the duties of the dismissed men.

7. The total of 25,900 strikers was reported in the Winnipeg Tribune, hereafter Trib, May 15, 1919. The WLN, on May 19, 1919, reported that there were 30,000 strikers, and on May 27, 1919, 35,000 strikers.

8. Census of Canada, 1921, “Occupations,” p. xlviii.

9. Ibid., table 5, pp. 612-631.

10. Linda Kealey, “Women and Labour During WWI: Women Workers and the Minimum Wage,” unpublished paper, 1983, p. 7.

11. WLN, June 3, 1919.

12. Norman Penner, ed., Winnipeg 1919: The Strikers Own History of the Winnipeg General Strike (Toronto: James Lewis and Samuel, 1970), p. 74.

13. WLN, May 26, 1919.

14. Ibid. See also Penner, Winnipeg 1919, p. 74, and Doug Smith, Let Us Rise! (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1985,) pp. 44.

15. Bercuson, Confrontation at Winnipeg, p. 141.

16. Linda Kealey, “Canadian Socialism and the Woman Question, 1900-1914,” Labour/Le Travail, number 13, Spring 1984, p. 97.

17. Kealey, “Women and Labour,” p. 6.

18. Smith, of course, intended to write a survey history based on existing secondary materials. It is not surprising that his book incorporates the sex biases found in those materials.

19. Trib., May 14, 1919, evening edition.

20. Ibid., May 26, 1919.

21. Ibid., May 14, 1919.

22. Ibid., May 15, 1919.

23. WLN, May 19, 1919.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid., May 22, 1919.

27. Ibid.

28. Trib, May 26, 1919.

29. Kealey, “Women and Labour,” p. 21.

30. WLN, May 19, 1919.

31. Ibid., May 20, 1919.

32. Ibid., May 26, 1919.

33. Winnipeg Citizen, June 19, 1919.

34. Winnipeg Telegram, June 3, 1919.

35. Trib., May 28, 1919.

36. Trib., June 2, 1919.

37. Ibid., June 5, 1919.

38. Ibid., June 26, 1919.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid., June 27, 1919.

41. Ibid., May 31, 1919.

42. Ibid., June 19, 1919.

43. Ibid., June 6, 1919.

44. Ibid., June 27, 1919.

45. Ibid., June 21, 1919.

46. Ibid., June 23, 1919.

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid.

49. P.A.M., Georgina Thorne (Orr) interview.

50. Trib., June 30, 1919.

51. P.A.M., Winnipeg Past and Present Project, 1981-82, Tape 142, interview with Mrs. Munitch.

52. Personal interview with James Douglas, March 9, 1985.

53. WLN, May 20, 1919.

54. Ibid.

55. P.A.M., Winnipeg Past and Present Project, 1981-82, tape 193, interview with Mary A. Barker.

56. Trib., May 15, 1919.

57. Lerner, The Majority Finds its Past, p. 158.

58. Ibid., p. 178.

59. Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, Oral History Project, 1973, tape 99, interview with Mrs. Mary Sykes and David Russell.

Page revised: 25 April 2009

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