The Last Suffragist Standing: The Life and Times of Laura Marshall Jamieson.
Dr. Strong-Boag's first book, a history of the National Council of Women based on her doctoral thesis, was published in 1976, more than forty years ago. Her newest book, The Last Suffragist Standing, was first published in hard cover in 2018. We should be grateful for her career, and for her dedication to the cause of making us think about our country--what it has been and what it might be.
Laura Marshall Jamieson (1882-1964) was born in Ontario and spent most of her life in Vancouver. As a young woman she fought for women's right to vote; in 1939 she was one of the first three women to be elected to the British Columbia Legislature, where she served as an MLA until 1945 and again from 1952-1953. Her election in 1952 made her the last suffragist in Canada to serve in a provincial or federal legislature. She also served for a time on the Vancouver City Council (1948-1949) and as a juvenile court judge (1927-1938). She outlived the CCF and attended the founding convention of the NDP in 1961. Even so, it is not likely that many British Columbians would know who she was, any more than many Manitobans would know who Margaret Konantz was (i.e., the first Manitoba woman to be elected to the House of Commons. Her mother, Edith Rogers, had been the first Manitoba woman to be elected to the Manitoba Legislature.) Fortunately, Strong-Boag has given us this book about Laura Jamieson's life and times, so we can now learn about this remarkable woman.
For a book to be subtitled "Life and Times" may call to mind immense biographies of Victorian generals and statesmen, who could be considered, by their actions on the field of battle or in Parliament, to have had an effect on their times. Yet this term, somewhat dated as it may seem, is appropriate for this book. As a politician and as a writer and speaker, Laura did have an effect on her nation and the times in which she lived. It is also the case that Laura's 'life' without her 'times' might have been a slim volume indeed. She left few personal papers and, since she died more than fifty years ago, there are not many people still living who knew her.
Nevertheless, working with the evidence available to her, Strong-Boag gives us a well-rounded and perceptive account of her subject. As an example, here is a quotation from a review Laura had written of a 1950 study of British industry, not an obvious source of personally revealing detail: "This book makes me quite proud of my sex, even though I could wish that these particular women were more alive to their own potentialities, and to the larger issues of life in the world around them. But, for women of a distinctly narrow experience, they met life at the level at which they found it, with courage and cheerfulness, and they hardly ever seemed daunted or defeated" (p. 204).
Strong-Boag recognizes that Jamieson was writing about herself as much as she was about British working-class women. She too met life with courage and cheerfulness. She was alive to her own potential and to the larger issues of life in the world around her. More than that, and the reason why her biography is worth reading, is that much of her energy, time and talent was devoted to increasing awareness of issues. She strove to inspire what she modelled: informed and responsible engagement in the life of our nation and the world.
When asked what had drawn her to Jamieson's story, Strong-Boag is quoted as saying: "Laura never let life get the better of her." (1) A mere listing of some of the major events in her life will indicate that life certainly tried. She was born on the family farm in the Saugeen Peninsula and her early years were not ones of prosperity. When she was nine years old, her parents died. She was able to attend the high school in Owen Sound because one of her older sisters loaned her the money for the fees. She financed her studies at the University of Toronto's University College by teaching in the rough coal mining communities of Alberta and British Columbia. In 1911, she married Jack Jamieson, a lawyer, and a man as dedicated as she was to making the world a better place. They settled in Vancouver and became the parents of two sons and a daughter. Their first child was born in 1912 and their third in 1917. In 1918, Laura was for a time in sanitorium for the treatment of tuberculosis. That same year saw the death of their youngest child, only ten months old. In 1926, Jack Jamieson died of septicemia from an abscessed tooth, leaving Laura with two children and an uncertain financial future. It is striking that she bolstered her income though activities that supported her idea of how life should be lived. She served as a juvenile court judge, she taught classes in current affairs, and she took in boarders, both for the company they provided her and for the rent. Later on, she lived in communal residences and was active in the co-operative housing movement. Today there is a Vancouver housing co-op named in her honour.
Strong-Boag interviewed some of Laura's eight granddaughters, and the interviews are included at the end of the book. One granddaughter remembered Laura as "not a smiling, cookie-baking child-hugging old lady," but as a woman for whom politics was "her passion to the last" (p. 220).
A passion for politics can include other passions. Laura believed strongly in education, both within the public system and through organizations such as the Parent-Teacher Association and the Women's School for Citizenship. If we know, we will care--we will want to make a difference for the better, and we will be able to take action that is responsible and well-informed. She also had a passion for women's rights. In 1945, she lamented that women still did not "fill their full role as citizens." She attributed this "to the fact that the attitude towards women is still largely the traditional one: that women are not just people like the rest of society, but a group apart" (pp.158-9).
The statement that women are "just people like the rest of society" echoes a statement attributed to Agnes Macphail: "Most women think politics aren't lady-like. Well, I'm no lady. I'm a human being." The year 2021 will be the 100th anniversary of Macphail's election as the first woman to sit in our House of Commons. I hope that when that anniversary is celebrated it will not become one of those occasions in which Canadians are encouraged to feel better about ourselves than we deserve to. We may do slightly better than the global average of elected women parliamentarians, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, but that average is only twenty-four percent. Some provincial legislatures do better--far better, in the case of Quebec--but Manitoba is not among them. What would be a fitting way to celebrate Macphail's election and the legacy of Laura Jamieson and other suffragists? How about asking ourselves why we elect so few women, compared to many other countries, and what we can do to change this?
(1.) The interview is available at https://vancouversun.com/entertainment/books/courage-key-quality-of-b-c-suffragist-politician-jamieson-in-new-biography
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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