Harriet Dick - A Lady Ahead of Her Time
Manitoba Pageant, Summer 1975, Volume 20, Number 4
Until recently women politicians in Canada have been remembered chiefly as curiosities or nuisances. The advent of women’s liberation and International Women’s Year has changed all that and now every community is scrambling to unearth evidence of women in its political past. After all, how better to qualify for a Secretary of State or OFY grant in 1975?
Research and writing about women in Manitoba’s past all too often begins and ends with Nellie McClung. The reasons for this are obvious. “Windy Nellie” was a colourful personality whose speaking tours and newspaper columns made her name known far beyond the borders of the province in which she lived, and her books were bestsellers in a day when emphasis on Canadian content was not yet government policy. It does seem a pity, however, that her fame should cause many of her colleagues to be overlooked.
Material about women in Manitoba’s political history is neither plentiful nor easily found but a diligent searcher is rewarded by making the acquaintance of some very “modern” women. One of these is Harriet Dick, a lady who found time during a long and busy life to run for the Manitoba Legislature twice and for the Canadian Parliament once. The fact that Mrs. Dick was never elected suggests that the Manitoba electorate may not have been quite ready for all that energy and those advanced ideas!
Like many women who figure in prairie history, Mrs. Dick was born in Ontario and came to the West as a young woman. Also like many other notable women of her day, Mrs. Dick had been a schoolteacher for a brief period before her marriage and was therefore one of the better-educated women of her circle.
Born in 1867, Harriet Snetsinger Dick came to Manitoba as a bride of eighteen and her first years in the province seem to have been fully taken up with raising a growing familysix children by the time she was forty. Her name first became prominent in the newspapers of the day when she helped to organize the “Mothers’ Association.” Along with other mothers of “Y” boys, she became concerned about the problems of growing children in Winnipeg, so the Association was formed to build a more “enlightened motherhood” and to see to the welfare of childrenwith a program aimed at preventing juvenile delinquency.
As a result of this work, Mrs. Dick and other women set up the Winnipeg playgrounds commission in 1909 so that children would have supervised play areas. Also in 1909 the same women set up the Stella Avenue day nursery to care for the children of working mothers. Mrs. Dick discovered that working mothers still had a full day of housework to do after their day’s work so she and other women began to arouse public opinion in favour of a mothers’ allowance program so that women could stay at home to care for their children. Arguing that it was actually cheaper to pay mothers to care for their children, this group eventually got the Mothers’ Allowance Act passed in 1916. Out of this same group also came a move for free kindergartens.
During the First War Mrs. Dick was on the Board of the Patriotic Fund and inaugurated Christmas Cheer for soldiers’ children, as well as reorganizing and centralizing battalion auxiliary work.
In addition to these wartime activities Mrs. Dick remained active in the Women’s Civic League and the Political Equality League. When women of Manitoba had their first opportunity to run in a provincial election 1920 Mrs. Dick was one of four women candidates nominated for the city of Winnipeg. Her nomination papers were signed by 800 citizens and she decided to run as an Independent, despite previous experience as a Liberal party worker. While she supported Norris, Mrs. Dick wished to reserve her opinion in order “to escape caucus policy which is not democratic.” In her election speeches she stated that party politics had to bow to the will of the public and “government could not merely be decided by party.” Her platform included better housing conditions, better and cheaper food and better education for children. She stated that she wished to be known as “the champion of the children.” In later speeches she advocated state care of mothers and a free hospital system, similar to the educational system, so that everyone would receive the necessary care.
With an eye to women who would vote for the first time, her committee set up a downtown office to give women information on the balloting procedure, on proportional representation, and, of course, on Mrs. Dick herself. Listed on the ballot as “married woman,” Mrs. Dick was also active at this time in the administration of the Mothers’ Allowance Act and is listed in Henderson’s Directory of that day as a commissioner for that act.
Of the four women running in the 1920 election, only Mrs. Edith Rogers was elected, but this did not deter Mrs. Dick who ran as an Independent for Centre Winnipeg in the federal election of 1921. She had apparently been assured of Liberal Party support in this election but had chosen to run independent of them because of the way in which the local party had chosen candidates. She ran on a platform of lower tariffs, prohibition, better legislation for women and children and consideration for the rights of returned soldiers and their dependents. Again she was not elected so she went back to volunteer work, setting up the Home Welfare Association, an organization she supported actively until a few years be-fore her death. This group ran a clothing bureau, Christmas Dinners for the elderly and supported the idea of visiting housekeepers, as far back as 1921.
During the Depression she continued her work and was instrumental in organizing picnics in City Park for the children of the unemployed. In addition to this she remained active in other groups such as the I.O.D.E.
In January of 1940, the seventy-three-year-old Mrs. Dick was honoured at a civic luncheon where tribute was paid to her by speakers from eighteen different organizations which she had supported. Time, one would have thought, for an elderly lady to take a rest from good works. The advent of World War II, however, found her active again in many of the organizations set up to deal with wartime problems and also in drives for clothing for people of Europe and Asia. In the spring of 1941 Harriet Dick ran for the Manitoba Legislature for the last time. This time she ran on a Liberal-Progressive ticket, campaigning with such people as L. A. Regnier, Paul Bardal, J. S. McDiarmid, and C. Rhodes Smith. Again she lost, and retired from a political career which had been active, if not notably successful.
Mrs. Harriet Dick died in 1957, at the age of ninety, the veteran of three election campaigns and a long career of volunteer service to the community.
Since Manitoba will celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the granting of the vote to women in 1976, it is to be hoped that Manitoba historians will take note of women like Mrs. Dick and her colleagues.
Page revised: 20 July 2009