Sunday, November 22, 2015

Zola, Picasso, Keira and Thoughts about Scary Times

When I arrived back in Montreal from my 4 day trip to New York City, the customs officer asked me what I had done on my short vacation.

I'm never sure what to say in these circumstances, so I said the obvious: " I went to a show, ate at a lot of different restaurants, and window shopped...ah...fantasy shopped." I added that  make sure he understood that I didn't buy anything. Rien. Nada. Zip.

"So you went up and down Fifth Avenue but didn't purchase anything?" he asked, slightly skeptical.

"Soho." I replied. "I shopped in Soho." And then I added, "Do you know the prices? A T-shirt (and I tugged at the collar of my Costco sweater for effect)"Can cost 500 dollars!"

"You didn't buy one," he asked again.


Maybe I should be flattered that a customs officer thinks I have the moolah to put down on 850 US dollars on a Burberry scarf (of dubious beauty) considering my home-made dye job and face that has never seen Botox and Value Village Bohemian attire, better suited, I know, to a 22 year old theatre-type..

But I guess he was just doing his job.

A New York trip to me, these days, is eating and walking, walking and eating some more. It's about soaking up atmosphere. Thank goodness, this past week, the unsettled weather complied.

 Hippy Me.

My old friend K. and I had planned the trip two months ago. She chose the dates as she works on Bay Street in Toronto and she could get those days off.

The Paris terrorist attacks happened on the Friday before. We expected increased security at the airport and in the city but all we noticed was severe-looking armed militia in front of the Christmas Tree being erected at Rockefeller Center.

K and I have  known each other since high school and we are so finely attuned that she understood immediately when I said that the new World Trade Center thingy, where we first emerged, looks like the Air Canada Pavilion at Expo67.

K. who walks 45 minutes to and back from her office every day stood up to the hours of walking  better than I.  Treadmilling for 15 minutes every second day doesn't cut it for New York. My body ached everywhere by night time.

But that's a small price to play for such pleasure.

 Picasso's scandalous Demoiselles D'Avignon caught the feeling of scary 1900 change. Today it's a great selfie prop.

 My vacation nails matched the dessert at the 2 Michelin Star Modern Restaurant at MOMA. Our one fancy meal in New York City, complemented by the fact a major celebrity of our generation was seated two tables down. Otherwise, it was an Italian bistro on Mulberry Street, a French bakery with communal tables in Soho serving updated health-food, sushi at Whole Foods at Union Square (I think)a large juice bar filled with young college student types, pastries at Ferraro's Italian Soda Fountain place and lots of breakfasts at the Landmark Diner across from our hotel in Soho.
Mulberry Street from our sidewalk table.

Cartoon inspiration

I've been to New York City on only three other occasions.

The first time was in 1982, when I went with another friend by overnight train to visit K who was going to fashion school in Manhattan.

She shared a small apartment in Queens with a med student and aspiring actress near that French Connection overhead railroad.

I remember being struck by the signs for bomb shelters everywhere in the shabby development, a left-over from the Cold War and something not seen in Canada.

We all went to the Met Museum on that trip and ate at three restaurants, suggestions from a book K had: The Cheapest Eats in New York City.

I recall only one of the places, a steak and ribs grill near Columbia University.

Oh, and we tried to go to Chippendale's.

A beautiful broad-shouldered young man in a tuxedo opened our taxi door, and I recall a look of embarrassment in his eyes. We were the same age, after all.

We didn't get into the show. It was an All-Girl's night and my companion was a man.

I visited NY for the second time in 1998, this time with my young family, my husband and two boys aged 10 and 13.

My husband's nephew from Philly drove us around the city and through Time's Square one autumn day. My kids weren't impressed with NY. They called it "garbage city." (I guess it was dirty.)

The nephew had worked as a courrier and knew the Big Apple back to front. He told us how he made deliveries to the World Trade Center and how entire floors were empty, just wires and concrete.

We spent only a few hours driving around. We parked near an entrance to Central Park. I wanted us all to go to the Natural History Museum. The all-male group outvoted me. They wanted to go to the top of the World Trade Center.

The very top, out in the open...with all the German tourists.

I had a paralyzing fit of vertigo up there. My youngest son laughed at me, "There's two fences to keep you from falling," he pointed out. But my older, more understanding son gently guided me back down the escalator to the safety of glassed-in windows on the floor below.

That's the very same vacation where we witnessed 'a naked Amishman' running through a field, so all was not wasted.

The second to last time I went to NY was just 5 years ago in 2010. 9/11 and all that.  I went with my younger son's girlfriend, just for a day.

I wanted to see the Roundabout Theatre's production of Mrs. Warren's Profession with Cherry Jones and Sally Hawkins. At the American Airline Theatre.

She picked the date, November 17, the same date as this year's trip.

This was a very girlie occasion. We took a Sex in the City Bus Tour, visiting the Magnolia Bakery and some Sex Shoppe, etc.

The next day before catching the plane we took a caleche through Central Park, the weather was crisp and sunny, and then we walked a bit and ate at the Boathouse.

Pictures of the trip are still plastered on her Facebook page.

At the Boathouse in Central Park, November 2010.

It was a short but sweet interlude, My now daughter-in-law loved Central Park and wants to go back some day with my son, her husband. They honeymooned in Paris.

Anyway, this time it was the Picasso Sculpture Exhibit at MOMA with my high school friend, the one who remembers Expo67 as clearly as I do.

Expo67, as I have written on this blog, was my introduction to worldiness and art.

At Expo, there was a sculpture garden in the back of the American Pavilion filled with "Cezanne-inspired" sculpture. No doubt there were a couple of Picasso sculptures there,too.

I loved that place. I loved the sculpture, the grass and the peace and quiet away from the crowds.

I have always thought this was because I had some kind of natural affinity for this style of modern art, but this past week, while walking through MOMA, I had an epiphany.

These Picasso Sculptures were the inspiration for many a television cartoonist in the middle of the 20th century.

I grew up watching these cartoons.

No wonder I could relate so much!

On this NY trip, we saw Keira Knightley in Thérèse Raquin, her Broadway debut at Studio 54. The play has received mediocre reviews, but I  enjoyed it a great deal.

I'm a Zola know-it-all and a huge Keira fan.

Some critics think the Zola play, about a frustrated borgeois French girl, is a bit irrelevant and out-moded, but I see the universal aspects in it.

And I'm not alone: Zola is one of the favorite downloads on

And the acting all-around is terrific.

If I want to see Keira Knightley looking fabulously dressed, I'll re-watch Anna Karenina or the Duchess.

My friend, K, enjoyed it too. As we walked down Broadway, she remarked, "You know, after 9-11 people thought NY would never be the same, But, look. It's even better than before. I hope the same happens for Paris."

K has been to Paris 4 times, a pleasure I have not had once.

Which brings me to 9/11.

On September 11, 2001 I was working in downtown Montreal,  for a company run by people from France.

When the first plane hit the Twin Towers the guy at the desk behind me saw it on his laptop. We wanted to go downstairs to the 'bar' and watch the news coverage.

The officer manager said "NO" at first. "So, what," she said. "Paris had worse during the War."

"But, this is going to change the world," I told her-  not realizing how true that was. I wanted to get out of that skyscaper downtown and go home to the 'burbs' and be with my two boys.

We did go downstairs to watch the news and we all left the office early.  We didn't care what our boss thought.

I'm wondering what she is feeling today, this French woman from Paris. Well, I can imagine.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Service and Disservice, Chapter 1 : The Canadian Suffragists and the Conscription Crisis of !917

Service and Disservice
by Dorothy Nixon
Chapter 1 Part 1
The follow up to Furies Cross the Mersey, the story of the 1912/13 British Invasion of Suffragettes to Canada.

                                               Flora Macdonald Denison

So you want to talk to me, about what exactly? You want me to explain my position on Woman Suffrage back in the day, 1913-1918.

Well, you must know of my position. I wanted woman to have the vote. All women. Women equal with men.

You say you  want me to focus on the you-know-what. The Great Deception of 1917. The Disenfranchise Act as Dr. Margaret Gordon, my successor as President of the Canadian Suffrage Association, aptly described it.

Peculiar laws you moderns have, allowing you to bring back from the dead people who long ago passed away. To grill them on an historical point of interest. Not that I am a bit surprised.

To what end all of this?   To promote democracy by shedding light on a shady chapter in Canadian history, you say. Ah.

Well, then, let’s get started.

First, am I on trial, or something? Or am I here to testify against the other ones, the truly guilty parties? Those suffragists among us who were guilty of crimes against democracy?

Well, either way, I have nothing to hide.

Never did. I wasn’t like the others. I always wore my heart on my sleeve.  But you’ve already figured that out, haven’t you?

I can tell by that half-smile on your lips.

You want me to start when? In June, 1913.  As  good a place as any, I guess,  a full year into my Presidency of the Canadian Suffrage Association. And about one year before I was deposed, kicked upstairs, if you will and given that title of Honorary President, with Dr. Gordon taking my place.

And all because of that Mrs. L.A. Hamilton.

(If I could let out a giant sigh, right now, I would, but, of course, breath is in short supply these days.)

Let me start, then, by painting you a pretty little word picture.  

After all, that is what I do – or did – best, back in the day.

I was a wonderful wordsmith, you know, a journalist, as well as a capable seamstress and one time department manager at Simpson’s; a creative person, first, I think, but also a very practical person, whatever my detractors said.

A woman who was used to supporting herself and oft times I supported my entire family.

 If I wasn’t perfect with council meetings and agendas and minute books, well, that’s not such a terrible thing, is it?

So, imagine this, if you will:  Union Station in Toronto, one bright morning in May, 1913.  

A handsome full-figured woman in her middle years, that’s me, with a fine, strong profile full of character, is participating in a little ceremony on the platform in front of her compartment.

 She is embarking on a trip, first to Boston, then to New York, by train, and then to Europe by ocean liner, to attend an important international conference on the woman  suffrage issue.

Her strapping college-age son, by her side, is accompanying her on the trip.

Two little darling brown haired children, a boy and a girl, holding bright bunches of yellow daisies proudly strut up to the mother and son and  hand each of them a  bouquet.

This is a families-friendly touch I thought up myself.

It is something to allow the cub reporter,sent by the Toronto World, to show what he can do words to liven up this otherwise dull assignment.

It’s also a little bit of political damage control,  as I’ll explain a little later.

After the children have done their adorable bit,  Augusta Stowe-Gullen, that is Dr. Stowe Gullen, the first female graduate of a Canadian medical school, and daughter of Emily Howard Stowe, the first female doctor in Canada, steps up to present me, just me this time, with a giant bouquet of red roses.

This is yet another carefully-curated scene and we are trusting that the young reporter gets it right in the newspaper the next day.

I am Flora Macdonald Denison, President of the Canadian Suffrage Association, an organization started by Emily Howard Stowe when Victoria was still on the throne, and I am off to Budapest to attend the Conference of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance and to report on it for the Toronto World in my column, Stray Leaves from a Suffragette.

But first I make this little speech for the benefit of the small group gathered, especially the reporter. “I go to Europe,” I say, “As a representative of Canadian women who have pledged themselves to the suffrage cause. Failure is impossible.”

The people clap and I climb up the stairs onto the train.

I am trying to sound strong and purposeful with this short speech.

As it happens, there are a number of women in my suffrage organization, perhaps half of the 2,000 total, who do not like me as their leader.

There are whispers and grumblings and these women will surely take advantage of  my absence to hatch a plot to oust me, if they can.  

Well, they have already concocted a cunning plan to force me out.  I can almost feel their daggers in my back as I turn to climb onto the train,  but, wait, it’s only my dear Merrill’s hand protectively guiding me up the steps.

When I ascended to the Presidency of the CSA, just a year ago, appointed, some say anointed, by the former President, Augusta Stowe-Gullen, I knew I had some built-in enemies.

Many high up in the Canadian suffrage movement, particularly Mrs. Constance Hamilton, President of  the Toronto Equal Franchise League, did not think it was  ‘natural’ that I was selected as successor to Stowe-Gullen ‘due to my experience and gifted ability as a writer and a speaker,” as was explained at the National Council of Women’s AGM in 1912.

Somehow, because she was British and well-born and successfully married, Mrs. Hamilton felt that she was better suited to the leadership of the Canadian suffrage movement,  despite having just adopted the suffrage cause.

And she had many friends out in the Canadian West, because she had lived in Vancouver and Winnipeg, and one of these allies was that tea-totalling schemer Nelly McClung  in Manitoba.

To Be continued

Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Canada's History Webinar and a tale of dueling Cabinet Photos

I took this from Maclean's website that had some great articles on the new Trudeau cabinet. "Because it's 2015."

Must say, Justin Trudeau's new cabinet is inspiring. I don't want to get too inspired, lest I set myself up for disappointment, but when you consider that Margaret Thatcher had no women at all in her cabinets (she wanted to remain the only women in an group photo) this official picture, alone, is a great thing, an important moment in history.

Men and women, young and old.

Thatcher Cabinet 1989

I was also impressed by the lyrical notes of red in a sea of blue and gray in the official photo.

Yesterday evening I participated in a short but sweet webinar given by Canada's History Magazine, with the guest 'speaker' being Rose Fine-Meyer.

Rose Fine-Meyer, a distinguished OISE educator, gave a presentation on how to use community resources to dig out info about women's history. Right up my alley. The webinar was aimed at teachers and researchers.

Rose Fine-Meyer’s presentation, How Community Influences the Teaching of Women's History in the Classroom.

Fine-Meyer acknowledged that anyone 'tuning in' to her talk had probably torn themselves away from the TV and the coverage of the day's events in Ottawa, Justin Trudeau's swearing in.

After the presentation there was time for a few questions and I asked my Valverde one. Should teachers look at the dark side of women's history, like Mariana Valverde does with her book on the Purity Movement?

Fine-Meyer replied that teachers like to highlight the positive because they wanted to inspire their students, although there was a place for the other. (I am paraphrasing.)

I'm writing Service and Disservice, about the Canadian suffragists and their iffy involvement in the 1917 Conscription Crisis.

It's a follow up to Furies Cross the Mersey, about the invasion of UK suffragettes to Canada in 1912/13.

Her remark brought to mind the 1909 article I had read and republished on my old website, called Moral Enthusiasm from Education Foundations Magazine.

The author, Arthur C. Call  writes about 'what it is to be a hero' and how heroes inspire. He uses the examples of Columbus and the Norsemen,and Buddha, Ralph Waldo Emerson, DaVinci and Charlemagne. Half of these example, all men, can be described as blood-thirsty criminals. Columbus committed genocide on the gentle people of Hispanola; The Norsemen (winners in the great Darwinian contest) slew the monks of Ireland; Charlemagne in the name of Christ hacked off the heads of all the pagan leadership, 7,000 I think the number is. Nice people!

If these are heroes, they are heroes with a river of blood on their hands.

My problem with promoting the positive in history, or only telling the ugly stories from the victims' point of view (ie. Residential Schools) is that we never learn that it's not only bad people who do bad things; good people do bad things too, and sometimes merely by being passive.  See McCarthyism, etc.etc.

That's such an important lesson to learn in a democracy.

But, even in my genealogy writing group, where great Canadian history is dug up every month by exploring family history, the stories got much better when the group leader suggested it's  fun when people explore the dark side of their ancestors.

If you want the good side, all you have to do is go to the obituary :) For the other, you have to do some detailed detective work.

PS: in her presentation Fine-Meyer touched upon the suffrage movement in Canada, with a pic of Emily Howard Stowe and that 'iconic' image of Christable Pankhurst and Annie Kenney holding a huge sign VOTES FOR WOMEN.

That's the second time I saw that same image used in the Canadian context, for lack of a better one from Canada. (The first time was for a feature on Women's Soccer this summer.)

I've often published an image from the Toronto World on this blog, explaining that it is the ONLY picture of Canadian suffragists marching that you will ever see. (It is from the 1913, the giant march in Washington and shows the Canadian delegation, made up of August Stowe-Gullen, Emily's daughter, and other Ontario suffragists, all older women.)

An article in the Ottawa paper about Rosalie Jones and her suffrage tramp. She inspired some young Montrealers to propose a similar tramp to Ottawa. That inspired the Montreal elite to start a suffrage organization on the jump...they didn't want this kind of thing happening in Canada. No march happened from Montreal to Ottawa, so no pictures exist of real Canadian suffagettes marching. 

The reason why the Pankhust/Kenney picture is iconic is because they are young women. Canada did not allow young women to participate in our suffrage movement.

Too 'exciteable.'

This Canada's History webinar was the forth in a series of seven on the subject of women in Canadian history.

The Enlargement of Moral Enthusiasms

You were led by these subtle spiritual forces to a finer heroic selfhood.

For example, you got in touch with the Norseman and he was idealized before you. You saw yourself adventurous, fearless, wild. You heart would pour out sagas to the undying ages. You looked upon the mound builders, you became a toiler. But when Columbus came on the scene your courage arose, your perseverance and industry increased. You became willing to risk for the faith you held.

Perhaps you read of Buddha and the genuine peace he offers to one third of humanity. You learned, as others have done certain stock things about Socrates. But upon closer relation with this greatest of Sophists, you began to catch the scholar's enthusiasm.

You learned of Charlemagne, and let the soldier rise in you, the thirst for power.
You may have sat at the feet of Francis, the sweet saint of Assisi and felt you soul warmed at the heart.

You may have contemplated Da Vinci, and become lost in wonder before this greatest mind of all minds.

You learned about Darwin. You learned that Darwin has rarely been highly thought of by the ministers. But the more you learned of the man the more you were able to rise above suffering, the more you sat in his study and learned the value of little things.

Perhaps finally you came to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American Plato, and beheld how he supplemented Buddha's asceticism in you..
Arthur C. Call form Educational Foundations Magazine 1909

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Suffragettes: Theatre and Politics..

Caroline Kenney, sister of Pankhurst militant, Annie Kenney, came to Montreal and tried to start up a militant suffrage organization.

In October, 1913, Flora Macdonald Denison, President of the Canadian Suffrage Association, arrived back from a 6 month tour of Europe and gave a rousing speech in praise of Emmeline Pankhurst.

Denison had gone to Europe specifically to attend a meeting of the International Women's Suffrage Alliance in Bucharest in June and she reported on it in her Toronto World column.

On her way back home, she stopped in Paris and London.

In Paris she wrote about the fashions, bien sur.

In London, Denison wrote about the militant suffragettes. She was hosted there by Miss Barbara Wylie. a British militant who had just returned from Canada.

Wylie had tried to stir up 'suffragette' passions in that country, with very limited success.

Ontario suffragists in Washington, March, 1913, Denison and Dr. Gordon, and Yorkshire born Constance Hamilton who would lead a coup against Canadian born Denison the next year and end up helping Premier Bordon fix the 1917 Conscription Election with his infamous Wartime Elections Act which gave the vote only to women with men at the Front.

Wylie took Denison to see two rallies in one day; one with Annie Kenney at the London Pavilion (where Emmeline showed up and was descended on by police) and one in the East End, where a weakened Sylvia Pankhurst spoke, but escaped the police.

Now, in October, 1913 Toronto appearance, Denison probably should have stuck to a business-only speech about the Bucharest Conference, where they danced around the issue of militancy. Many women in her organization had been out to get her for a while. Instead, she talked about Mrs. Pankhurst, obviously infused with the warrior spirit.

She said that a great play was unfolding in England, with Pankhurst as the heroine and the British government as both the villain and the clown.

Mrs. Pankhurst arriving in Montreal in December, 1911, being met by Dr. Grace Ritchie England, the President of the Montreal Council of Women. She would speak in Toronto a few days later, hosted by Flora Macdonald Denison.

I personally love that statement. In Furies Cross the Mersey, by book about the invasion of militant suffragettes to Canada in 1912/13, I explore the issue of Pankhurst and her brand of suffrage 'theatre.' Or, more precisely, I have a character explore it.

Kathleen Weller, a Manchester-born Montrealer on the Executive of the Montreal Suffrage Association, was in London visiting the suffragettes at the same time as Denison, and she also was moved to give a rousing speech supporting Pankhurst upon her return to the city.

This was against the policy of the MSA, that claimed to be 'sane' and 'reasonable' and was going about 'a peaceful education of the people'.

The movie Suffragette, directed by Sarah Gavron, starring Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst and Carrie Mulligan as a working class suffragette, is interesting and beautifully acted and it recreates some famous suffragette incidents, but the movie fails to explore this 'theatre' angle.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Canadian Family in WWI: FLU!

Marion Nicholson in her genteel white dress in 1911. She was boffo and rose to be President of the Protestant Teachers of Montreal during WWII.

Here's a letter from Marion Nicholson in Montreal to her Mother, Margaret, back home that alludes to two major WWI issues, the Spanish Flu and the Conscription Crisis.

Letter 31. Marion to Margaret.

May 25, 1917

39 York Avenue, Westmount

Dear Mother,

Your letter came this morning and I was glad to get it. I feel a little lost without Flora a comin' and a goin'.

 I intended writing you sooner but you will have to take the mentions since you did not get any letter.

Margaret was quite good coming in. Of course she did not sleep and wanted to make 'bad bad' every few minutes in the spittoon.

Flora met us and saw us safely home and she will tell you all the news so you will not have to hear it twice.

Friday, one week later.

I started this letter when Flora was away so you would have it last Saturday and now I doubt you will get it this week.

No doubt Flora has told you all the news.  The baby has been so sick all this week I have not done anything but sit with her for the Dr. does not allow her out of bed.  

Perhaps you can imagine better than most people what that means.

However, today, she seems better and had a sleep this afternoon and is asleep now. I hope for the night.

Hugh and Willie Ledden are making a garden. What success they will have I do not know. One thing may be sure, the 'beds' are straight and square.

I would prefer to have more in them, myself.

Everyone here, that is the Aunts and Grandma B are terribly worked up about conscription.*

All they say would fill a book and some of the sayings I do not find very deep.

I would like to tell them that they are not the only ones who have sons who will be called, or they may think that theirs are more to them.

I think myself that is a political move on Borden's part 'to hold his job' as the saying goes, but that does not alter the fact that the bill will doubtless go through.

Flora tells me that this is the day or rather night of the "big sing' as father says. I hope it will be a success. Then tomorrow night you go to Sherbrooke.

What gay times you are having. Do you intend visiting Montreal?

 Little Margaret Blair. Did she almost succumb to the Spanish Flu in 1917?

The two Mead girls called Thursday evening but did not stay long when they found Margaret sick.

Today Hope brought Margaret a doll's carriage. I don't know what I will do tomorrow to keep her in bed with that in sight.

I have half a promise, if I may use the term, of getting a little girl of about 13 years old to come in daily when school stops, so I am living in hopes.

Now I must thank you for the towels. They are all fine and I will 'settle up' for them when I see you.

Now I must close for this time,

Mom, Margaret Nicholson of Richmond, Quebec.

Sunday Morning,

Your letter has just come in and been duly read.

If there are any eggs out there that I could get I would be glad. You could send me a crate (and I would be glad of a few) with Florence.

I manage fairly well, although the work is not always very thoroughly done. If Margaret would only keep well.

My sewing is my most troublesome thing at present. I have so very little for the newcomers' arrival.*

But as you say, a roll of wadding will do. I suppose I need not worry.

Auntie Kate gets my meat etc at the market which is a great help and also cheaper.

Margaret is writing something to 'dear Bandy'. I hope you will understand it.

PS. I made all the buttonholes in Margaret's pants and put lace on them and they are fine and fit so well. The buttonholes will not stand too close an inspection.

MNB (Marion Nicholson Blair)

*The Conscription Crisis of 1917. Borden promised Great Britain 500,000 new recruits which could only be secured by drafting the men of Canada. The election of 1917 was the Conscription Election.

 For this election, Borden gave some women the vote, but only women with brothers, husbands or sons in the war! Borden wanted only ‘patriotic women’ to vote in the election.

This ‘limited franchise’ idea in the War Times Election Act  was not popular in Quebec or out West. There were demonstrations in Montreal and riots in Quebec City and some hooliganism in Sherbrooke over Conscription.

*Marion is expecting her second child in August. Pregnancies were not talked about in the 1910 era. This might be misplaced propriety, but likely it is also superstition. Child mortality was huge in Montreal in the 1910 era.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Carey Mulligan's Suffragette Movie : An "Insider's" Review

 WSPU's Barbara Wylie came to Canada in 1912 to stir up trouble. Her beauty and fashion sense was all the Press could talk about. She soon gave up on Canadians and went back to England to help Mrs. Pankhurst. Yes, suffragettes were often very pretty, so the movie Suffragette got it right on that count!

"Go for the story, not the history." 

That was the advice a top author of historical fiction for young adults gave me a few year ago, and it's good advice.

That's what 'Hollywood" tends to do, anyway, which annoys some purists, but not me. 

As long as a film captures the 'essence' of the truth about an event or historial personage, that's all that matters, I think.

History textbooks are there for the rest, and these texts are full of errors and mistruths and biases, anyway. 

Yesterday, I went to a preview showing of the movie Suffragette, not a Hollywood movie, per se, a British movie with top drawer Brit actors (indeed, all my favorite female actors including Helena Bonham Carter and Romola Garai) and an extended cameo with American Meryl Streep.

The screenplay is by Abi Morgan, who wrote the Iron Lady, a movie I really, really enjoyed (and which a lot of people hated for its take on history). Morgan also wrote The Hour, a series I really like.

Suffragette's storyline plays around with the historical record,all right,  but in a rather strange - almost inverted - way. 

The movie recasts working class women as the heroines of the British suffragette movement, while weaving them into all the well known (iconic) suffragette events.

Thus, all the cliches of class/gender oppression are thrust front and center in this movie, when the movement, even in Britain, was more about maintaining the social order by keeping people (poor people and rich men) from drinking too much, for one.

Yes, the British had a very wide and very deep suffrage movement, one that included working class women, but it was first and foremost a middle and upper class movement, and that goes for Pankhurst's militant suffragettes.

That's what scared the 'establishment' men: their own wives, sisters and, OY, even mothers,were the ones going out in their finest shirtwaist suits and big hats to smash windows...with hammers, I believe, not rocks, in the case of Oxford Street.

A resolution passed by the Montreal Suffrage Association condemning the force-feeding of British Suffragettes. The MSA was ambivalent about militancy. At their inauguration in 1913, they promised to be sweet and reasonable and a clergyman on their Board said it would be better if the suffragettes starved to death in jail.

Of course, this Pankhurst militancy is what got the most attention - and that was the purpose of it. There were plenty of Constitutional Suffragists in England at the time.

These upper and middle-class militants were the women who were angry at their men, angry for not being allowed to control their own money, or their children or their own destiny. Angry at their men's drinking and whoring ways, too, I imagine, as the double standard loomed large in their lives.

After all, Christabel Pankhurst wrote a pamphlet: Votes for Women: Chastity for Men.

And single middle class women just wanted to have more fun outside of their low-paying work and society wasn't into that. They were supposed to live piously and act respectably, even if they had no family responsibilities.

Working class women, I suspect, had more autonomy. They earned money, after all, and helped keep the wolf from the door. With their large families, they generally didn't have the time to engage in social activism, or the energy left over after a long, long LONG day at work.

But, now, what I liked about the movie Suffragette. 

The acting, for one. It is all A-plus and I'd give Anne-Marie Duff as Violet Miller an A - plus plus for her role as a feisty beleaguered older wife, one of the London laundry factory workers who are the focus of the film.

Carey Mulligan as Maude Watts gives a laudable, if low-key performance, in the lead role. Her main character,a laundress and  loving wife and mother who has been molested in the past by her boss, is both tough (she has to be) and vulnerable - and quite 'ordinary' in so many respects, which is refreshing. No Norma Rae, she.

Her slow converstion to the cause of suffrage comes to complete fruition when she is thrown out of the house by her otherwise caring husband and  brutally cut off from her young son, an act that seems to me to be more middle and upper class, but hey.

Sarah Gavron, the director, gives us lots of close-ups of Mulligan's face, showing that her beauty is much more than skin deep. None of these characters, rich or poor, can be seen to wear make-up. It's 1912/13 after all.

And although I worried Meryl Streep's 'cameo',where she plays Mrs. Pankhurst, would be hokey, it was not. It was touching, bordering on magical.
The Suffragettes were HUGE news in Canada; that was the problem for Constitutional Suffragists.

Pankhurst, famously, was a fabulous dresser. Most of the middle class suffragettes were careful to dress fashionably: after all, it is just too easy to diss - and dismiss- a woman on her appearance. 

But my husband may have nailed the problem when I asked him, in the car driving home, how he liked the movie.

"It was fine," he said. "Although I thought it was going to turn into a labour rights movie, so I was surprised. I thought the lead woman was going to jump up on a table screaming STRIKE!"

"There were plenty of strikes and stuff in the era," I explained to him, "but not associated with the suffragettes. And all led by men. 

(As far as I know.)

The summer of 1911 had record heat and that provoked many union strikes, if I remember right. (A few years ago I read Juliet Nicholson's The Perfect Summer 1911.)

Sylvia Pankhurst, famously, started a movement in the East End of London, but if I recall my Shoulder-to-Shoulder, Emmeline wasn't into it.

And Sylvia split from Emmeline because she didn't want to be militant.

(I just lately wrote a post here about a Sylvia Pankhurst rally, in August, 1913, recorded by the Canadian Suffragist, Flora Macdonald Denison for her Toronto World column. 

 That same morning,  Denison had attended a rally where Emmeline Pankhurst showed up and provoked police action. 

Denison's column reveals that the British Suffragettes behaved as wildly as portrayed in the Suffragette movie - and then some.

 And Denison stated something else interesting, the meeting in the East End, where a very weak Sylvia turned up disguised in a fancy costume like a rich woman and then peeled off her clothes to reveal a plain khaki dress, was mostly attended by MEN. 

That makes sense, doesn't it? Working class men didn't have any use for the Status Quo.)

Now, there was, indeed, a working class woman high up in Pankhurst's militant movie, Annie Kenney, Pankhurst's First Lieutenant. Kenney was a former Lancashire mill worker (and union activist). But, Kenney's autobiography reveals hers was a quirky upbringing. She read Emerson in the nursery. You can read a period biographical article of Kenney here, from the Montreal Mirror.)

(Kenney's sister, Nell moved to Montreal in 1909, with her lover, a journalist who saved her from the police at a suffragette rally. Read about it here. Her sister Caroline tried to start a militant movement in Montreal, but to no avail.)

BTW, Absolutely NO working class women were allowed into the Canadian Suffrage Movement.

My husband, a news editor, also thought the Suffragette movie was too grainy.That didn't bother me at all.  I feel the soft diffuse cinematography contrasted nicely with what was, essentially, a film about violence and strife in a very dirty time, even if we like to romaticize the Edwardian Era these days.

Most people then were poor, sick and living in filth, in London and in Montreal. (Montreal was worse, apparently.)

I missed the big hats, though.

 1912 was the year hats reached ridiculous heights, but working class women couldn't afford such finery.  Feathers for hats could cost in Canada from 1 dollar to 100 dollars, about 2 months salary for a teacher! Thus big hats were about status.

(It peeved middle class people when Italian factory workers in the US used their talent with cheap remants to dress up 'too high'.)

Sarah Gavron's slow almost sleepy directing pleased both of us.

One aspect of the Suffragette film surprised me. It was claimed that the English Powers That Be kept tried to quash news items about Pankhurst in the London Press, lest they inspire more women to militancy.

There were plenty of suffragette headlines in the Montreal Press, often squeezed between the fashion and entertainment columns.  (And the Montreal Gazette and the New York Times shared a newsfeed.)

Mrs. Pankhurst's autobiography, My Own Story, written in 1913! is available on

You can watch Shoulder to Shoulder on YouTube, with about a 1000 other videos about the suffragettes, including mine, about How Canadian Women Won the Vote. (It wasn't pretty either, but no rock-throwing.)

At the end of the Suffragette movie, there's a scroll revealing when various countries won the Vote. ( New Zealand first, Saudia Arabia, soon, apparently.)

The Montreal Saturday Mirror, a short lived tabloid from 1913 aimed at Upper Crust Women in Montreal, showcased Mrs. Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, her working class 'First Lieutentant.'

Canada is not on the list.. Maybe they couldn't figure out when we got the vote. In 1917, 18 or 20?

Answer: In 1917, when women with men at the Front got to vote. In 1918, most women except those unpatriotic types, ie, non-whites,etc.

In 1920, when every woman got the right to vote

My husband's great grandmother, suffragist Margaret Nicholson, got to vote for the first time in 1921 and she was simply THRILLED. 'How I love this country," she wrote in a letter to her daughter.

But many of her middle class neighbours didn't even bother to vote, her letter reveals.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Suffragists, Youthful Energy and Trudeau's Big Win

This is a not so-secret message from Frances Fenwick Williams to Kathleen Weller, in the Saturday Mirror, telling Weller how to join the new Montreal Suffrage Association.  It's from 1913. 

The Mrs. Lyman Weller has to contact is the daughter of Reverend Scrimger, President of the Presbyterian College, who sent college students into the slums of Montreal in 1912 to take down statistics and information, so afraid was he that the State would take over the Church's job, helping the poor.

 Another prominent Minister, Barclay, in 1913, was in a messy debate over Jewish parents being on the Protestant School Commission. Barclay didn't want this to happen, even if Jewish students at some schools made up 80 to 90 percent of the population. 
Only that year, 1913, did they allow Jewish teachers in the schools to teach, with Scrimger saying schools must keep their Christian character and that the Old Testament was to be taught by Protestant teachers only.  

Reverend Barclay was afraid that Jewish teachers would convert Protestant students to their faith. He called them infidels and thieves but had to backtrack, saying that 'Infidels were still my brothers.'The Jewish community leaders reminded the man that it was Protestants who were evangelical.
This is just to show you that the Montreal Suffrage Association was run by social reform types, even if some equal rights types, like Weller, got in.
I really should not be writing this blog post: I should be working on my ebook, Service and Disservice, about the Canadian Suffragists and their very iffy influence on the 1917 Conscription Election, the follow up to Furies Cross the Mersey.
But, it's not an easy topic. Indeed, it is very complicated. And I just don't have the creative energy I once had.
I'm older, you see.
And I writing the book from five points of view so I have to get into the head of each lady involved: Flora Macdonald Denison, Frances Fenwick Williams, Kathleen Weller, Constance Hamilton and Miss Carrie Derick.
And that's tiring. It's a bit like acting.
Right now I am working on the first draft of Constance Hamilton's bit. I decided to make this Toronto social reform suffragist totally unapologetic about her ways and have her take full credit for the War Time Elections Act of 1917 that gave the vote ONLY to women with men at the Front.
I suspect that Constance Hamilton had a great part to play in this game-changing debacle, but history says that it was Nelly McClung or Arthur Meighan who thought the plan up.
Even back then they blamed these two people.
But, that's because Hamilton was a savvy political player - and hid her exact role. Methinks, anyway. She went on to become the first female alderman of Toronto.
Carrie Derick of Montreal, I suspect, also had her part to play, although she totally covered up her tracks.
She, too, was a clever one.
Youthful energy. As I've written a lot on this blog, the suffragists of Canada were scared to death of young women's energy and their 'idealism' which had the power to bring changes about - and they didn't want that.
The Status Quo was serving them very well. They only wanted women to have the vote to counter-act all the social evils (sic) caused by industrialization like mass immigration and migration to the cities.
Wild, Hysterical, Exciteable. Suffragette energy scared people. So the suffragettes put their prettiest speakers on show and made sure they dressed in the latest fashions. Mrs. Pankhurst was gorgeous, tiny and tastefully dressed, too. So that confused people.
In many ways, that is what frightened men and women about the Suffragettes: so much energy! The British  allowed young unmarried women into the movement. Christabel and Sylvia were young and unmarried.
So was Barbara Wylie, who came to Canada in 1912 to convert Canadian women to the cause.
Well, we've just made a youthful and very energetic and idealistic man Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau so maybe Canadians aren't as afraid of youthful energy as they once were.
Trudeau ran on a platform of change and early analyses suggest it was 'new voters' who got him his majority. New voters: young people and immigrants.