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militant suffragette Gertrude Harding

by Gretchen Wilson | December 7, 1999

From girlhood on, Gert showed her independence and sense of adventure. She was born in 1889, and grew up with six siblings on a farm in Welsford, New Brunswick. As a girl, she loved to head off into the woods alone to fish, hunt and tent, a wild raccoon her only companion. Sometimes, when her mother called her to come wash the dishes or sew clothes, Gert would slip outside, leap bareback onto the workhorse, Barney, and gallop off across the fields.

Her carefree days ended at age 18, when her mother died. As the only girl still at home, all the housework fell to her, with no indoor plumbing. As fate would have it, she developed a slight heart murmur, considered dangerous in those days. Her brother George (my grandfather) paid her way, at age 21, to Honolulu to live with her oldest sister, Nellie, who had married wealthy Dr. Ernest Waterhouse.

Despite the excitement of tennis, boat parties, ocean swims at midnight and a horse of her own, Gert’s need for economic freedom and a desire to help others soon surfaced. She volunteered with indigenous people on the island and, behind everyone’s back, found a job selling chocolates in a café. She got caught after the first day, and brother-in-law Ernest threatened to send her back to Canada because “Waterhouse women don’t work!” After a huge lecture from her sister, Gert relented and quit the job. In her memoirs, she concludes, “And so ended my first sallying forth to gain independence in the year 1910.”

Gert soon turned the personal into the political.

Two years later, when Ernest moved his family to London, England, Gert was amazed to be included. Within three weeks, she saw her first poster parade of suffragettes marching for the right of women to vote. “It struck a chord I never knew I had.” Soon, as a suffragette volunteer, she was one of the marchers.

The use of suffrage to mean the right to vote originated in the United States in the late 18th century. The term suffragist – one who advocates for the extension of the right to vote, especially to women – came into use in the early 20th century. In 1905, when the Daily News in London, England, coined the term suffragette for the militant suffragists of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), its leaders quite liked the epithet and adopted it themselves.

Gert soon became a paid organizer and moved out on her own. The WSPU was by far the most militant of the more than 30 suffragist groups in Great Britain. Its leader, Mrs. Pankhurst, travelled the world, giving impassioned speeches to raise awareness and funds for the cause. Her daughter, Christabel, was the brains of the organization and the driving force of the militancy.

Just as Gert joined, British Prime Minister Asquith once again went back on his word to extend the franchise. In response, the WSPU leaders upped the level of violence from window-breaking to the Arson Campaign. Empty buildings, mainly government, were set afire or bombed, but never factories that employed the poor. Christabel warned them to be careful not to harm “so much as a canary in a cage.”

Gert’s second assignment was to break into the renowned Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and wreak as much damage as possible to the valuable orchids before being arrested. She and a co-worker hid on the grounds at closing time. At midnight, during a raging thunderstorm, they broke into the two greenhouses holding the rarest orchids and smashed plant pots and dozens of panes of glass. The next day, all of the papers covered the story on the “outrage at Kew Gardens,” two of them reporting that it must have been male sympathizers to the cause because only a man could have scaled the six-foot wall to escape! My mother, Gert’s niece, loved to tell this story, and always added that “it was nothing for a farm girl from New Brunswick.”

This was Gert’s only act of violence. Her memoirs don’t say why, so I can only guess that she found the actual perpetration of violence difficult. In 1913, the weekly newspaper, The Suffragette, was driven underground. Gert joined the staff, eventually working her way up to editor, right before World War One broke out. They worked in secret flats at night, sneaking through back alleys with soot on their faces to avoid detection. If they had to go out by day, they wore disguises.

In defiance of the government policy of imprisoning suffragettes as common criminals, instead of as political prisoners, many jailed suffragettes went on hunger strike. Prison doctors were ordered to force-feed them, an intrusive procedure akin to torture. But authorities were afraid to force-feed Mrs. Pankhurst, the most recognized woman in the world, who therefore had to be released before she starved to death. To make her finish her three-year sentence for inciting others to violence, Parliament rushed through legislation, dubbed the Cat and Mouse Act, allowing Scotland Yard to rearrest her, over and over again, on the old charge. The WSPU leaders decided to form a secret bodyguard of women to help Mrs. Pankhurst escape after giving public addresses. Imagine Gert Harding’s surprise when she was asked to head it up!

The 25 bodyguard members were armed with Indian rubber clubs, hidden within their long skirts, and trained in jujitsu, a Japanese system of wrestling that works well against stronger opponents. As leader, Gert was ordered not to risk arrest, and she often felt “like a heel” for not being able to join in the fray. Although they couldn’t out-muscle the policemen, they could outwit them. On several occasions, they staged exciting rescues. Twice, a decoy manoeuvre led the detectives to carry off the wrong Mrs. Pankhurst. But the sad truth is that, more often than not, the women suffered dislocated joints, broken bones and concussions.

Gert was kept on staff until 1917, when the WSPU ran out of money. She then worked at the huge Gretna munitions factory as a welfare supervisor, the predecessor of today’s social workers. She loved this work and, after a brief year back with family in New Brunswick in 1920, she landed a job as head social worker in the slums of Plainfield, New Jersey.

While Gert’s social activism now lacked a militant outlet (women were granted the vote in the United States that very year), she remained a committed activist all her life. When she wasn’t tending to the needs of the poor with her job, she volunteered for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and the League of Nations. She was a member of the Bound Brook Women’s Club and secretary of the local Girl Scout Council. After retirement, she volunteered at thrift shops and the SPCA. Kew Gardens notwithstanding, Gert earned a bit of money as a gardener. She remained single and also very tight-lipped about her love life. There is evidence that she was a lesbian.

In her middle age, Gert typed out her memoirs and handed them in a scrapbook to my mother. I knew “Auntie Gert” until she died in 1977, when I was 20, but I never took the time to really get to know her. It wasn’t until 1993, after I had become a writer, that I read her memoirs. I was mesmerized. I could hardly get over the realization that my great-aunt was one of the members of this radical feminist group and that she had worked personally under Mrs. Pankhurst and, in 1915, as private secretary to Christabel, in exile in Paris.

How I wish now that I could ask her a million questions.

On the other hand, maybe the timing was perfect, because, when I finally read the memoirs, I had both the ability and the interest to do something with them. Her biography, which I published in 1996, contains the memoirs, her sketches and her personal collection of photographs.

I sometimes write commentaries from a feminist perspective. If I ever read letters-to-the-editor denouncing them, or receive a snide comment from a relative or acquaintance, I just think about what Gert and her co-workers risked – their reputations, their freedom, economic support, their health – and my tribulations seem mild. And perhaps getting to know Gert through my research into her life has helped explain myself to me.

more to consider

How many of us are prepared to break the law for what we believe in? Gertrude Harding and many members of the Women’s Social and Political Union were. Civil disobedience and militancy have played a role in many human rights struggles around the world, in democracies and in dictatorships. What would our society look like if they had never been used? It’s worth understanding how deep-rooted resistance to change is, and what it can take to bring about real change.

resources for this story
  • With All Her Might: The Life of Gertrude Harding, Militant Suffragette, by GRETCHEN WILSON, Goose Lane Editions, ISBN: 0864921845 | 1995
  • Marching into the New Century, chapter 8 of Canadian Women: A History, by ALISON PRENTICE and others, sets the broad context for the suffrage movement in Canada, second edition, Harcourt Brace, ISBN: 0774732938 | 1996
  • The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada, by CATHERINE L. CLEVERDON, University of Toronto Press, ISBN: 0802062180 | 1974
  • Gretchen Wilson has included an extensive bibliography on women’s suffrage in With All Her Might: The Life of Gertrude Harding, Militant Suffragette. She suggests the following:
    — Shoulder to Shoulder: A Documentary by MIDGE MacKENZIE, Vintage, ISBN: 0679721312 | 1988
    — The Life and Death of Emily Wilding Davison, by ANN MORLEY, with Liz Stanley, Women’s Press, ISBN: 0704341336 | 1988
    — The Militant Suffragettes, by ANTONIA RAEBURN, Joseph, ISBN: 071811020X | 1973
    — Unshackled: The Story of How We Won the Vote, by CHRISTABEL PANKHURST, The Crisset Library, ISBN: 0091728851 | 1987

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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