Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Rewriting History on the Run

In 1913 Emmeline Pankhurst's Suffragettes were getting sensational Press in Montreal. (The Gazette and New York Times shared the same newsfeed, apparently. It would be interesting to compare headlines.)

As I research my documentary on the Montreal Suffrage Movement, I have been down a bit on Carrie Derick, the President of the Montreal Suffrage Association (reluctant President, it is said), especially for her obsession with mental defectives.

Carrie Derick, of course, is an interesting character. She proves that few dynamic people actually come down 100 percent on the side of history, when all is said and done. That's why they write their autobiographies, or have someone write their biographies for them.

Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst wrote her biography in 1913, while the fight was still going on and when her reputation was at its most negative, what with the widely publicized antics of her WSPU.

Carrie Derick didn't write an autobiography, although she gave numerous lectures about the history of the Suffrage Movement in Canada, some of which are available to posterity in the form of news reports. Margaret Gillett, McGill historian, penned an autobiography of Derick for a thesis, but I cannot find it anywhere.

Yesterday, I started scripting my documentary and, looking for a specific article, I came across a few more articles on Derick, which show that she was a humanist and tolerant, at times.

(Let's forget her statement, something to the effect, that "laws are only for the worst people, the best people don't need them."

Apparently, in 1917, the Vancouver and Victoria local councils of women wanted the Canadian Council to support their call to bring in indentured Chinese to work the fields out there during the war.

Carrie Derick strongly objected, saying indentured work was slavery.

Well, my grandmother, Dorothy Nixon, who I wrote about here was a 'land girl' in 1917. Funny that the Montreal Council didn't suggest that women work the fields and such.

My grandmother didn't work on a farm during WWI. She worked in forestry and I heard a family story about how funny she looked, as a tiny woman, leading the giant Clydesdales, who pulled the logs, through the forests.

Also in 1922, as an executive member of the Protestant School Commission, Derick was the only person who stood up for the Jewish population of the Montreal Board, according to a report in the Canadian Jewish Times. Another member of the board had described Jewish students as foreigners and their reps had replied that this was not fair as only 20 percent of students were not Canadian born.

That being said, I also stumbled last night on a weird Derick pronouncement. In May 1913, when the Canadian Council was holding their AGM in Montreal at St. James Methodist, there was a suffrage evening where Mrs. Ethel Snowden was invited to speak.

Carrie Derick introduced her and said that the evening was sponsored by the Montreal Suffrage Association with the support of their executive.

Well, the Montreal Council of Women had had its inaugural meeting just a few days before, and Carrie Derick, President wasn't there. (She obviously had to organize this event, but no mention of that was made in the notes. They said she was absent for good reason, that is all.

(I must re-read the Montreal Local Council Minutes (my notes) for 1913. I can't say for sure if Snowden's speech was mentioned there, but I seem to remember it was...No, I checked my notes. No mention...In April 1913 the Local Council was transitioning all suffrage work to the Montreal Suffrage Association, so they said. (In actual fact, the Local Council stayed deeply involved, especially with the conscription crisis. It didn't really matter, it was the same people on both executives). The April Local Council Minutes say they are having trouble finding the right officers for the new M.S.A. Hmm. That says it all, doesn't it?  The right officers.)

So right from the beginning Derick was re-writing history with respect to the Montreal Suffrage Association and this worked, because even scholars today look upon the organization as an influential one when I suspect it was pretty bogus as an organization and certainly much less democratic and grass roots than the other suffrage organizations around Canada.

But that was the point I think: to keep any uncontrollable women out of the organization. To control the message. The executive had to nominate and OK any new member.

And the MSA's raison d'etre became even murkier when the war broke out, because the war gave them the opportunity to do whatever they wanted, as long as it was war-related.