October is Women’s History Month. This year’s theme is #MakeAnImpact, celebrating women and girls in Canada who have made a lasting impact.
2019 also marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most significant events in Canadian history: the 1919 strike wave. That year, thousands of workers across the country walked off the job to protest a number of issues, such as low wages and rising prices, and to demand more power for working people. Though many of the strikes failed or were crushed by employers and the government, the strike wave brought attention to inequality in Canadian society and paved the way for future political and legal victories for working people.
Women played a key role in the 1919 strike wave. Their contributions as strikers and supporters, including here in Calgary, made a lasting impact on the history of Canada.
An important hub of women’s activism in Calgary during the 1919 strike wave was the Women’s Labour Council.
(Photo (right): Announcement in the Calgary Strike Bulletin, 5 June 1919)
Activists Jean McWilliam and Mary Corse established the council in spring 1919 to improve conditions for workers and teach people about the labour movement. Many council members had been involved in labour activism for several years. They supported unions, assisted striking workers, and served on the Trades and Labour Council.
(Photo (left): Jean McWilliam, The Alberta Women’s Memory Project, http://awmp.athabascau.ca/digitized/mcwilliam/)
The Calgary strike began on May 26 and lasted for four weeks. During the strike, the Women’s Labour Council provided crucial support to the strikers. Council members collected hundreds of dollars in donations, at times enduring abuse and threats of violence. They put pressure on politicians and employers to rehire strikers who had been fired from their jobs. The council also organized social events, such as dances and lunches. These events brought people together and boosted strikers’ morale.
Though the Calgary strike ended on June 25, the Women’s Labour Council continued to be a strong voice for working women in the months and years that followed. In the 1920s, the group fought for higher wages and safer working conditions for working women. They also pushed the Alberta Minister of Labour to create a Women’s Bureau.
The Calgary Women’s Labour Council is part of the long history of labour and feminist activism by women and girls that has made a lasting impact in Alberta and across Canada. Though women continue to experience inequality at work and in society, groups like the Women’s Labour Council brought attention to these issues and helped bring about social and legislative changes that improved wages and working conditions for many women.
[For more information about the 1919 Calgary strike and women’s role in it, check out the new exhibition by the Alberta Labour History Institute. The exhibition can be viewed online and will be on display at the University of Calgary (Science A building) from October 27 to November 10.]
Article written by Julia Smith, Historian and Women’s Centre volunteer