Women Who Keep Political Secrets

MADGE MacBETH September 15 1925

Women Who Keep Political Secrets

MADGE MacBETH September 15 1925

Women Who Keep Political Secrets


Here IS a red hot refutation of that popular fable about a woman being unable to keep a secret. According to the writer— and the facts in the tale bear her out—politicians, who of all men have secrets most fraught with consequences both for good and evil, prefer to share them with women, rather than men secretaries, because they know that women will not talk!

"WOMAN talk less than men, and in this secretarial work, they are less corruptible!" Such is the extraordinary statement made by a Minister of the Crown in support of his preference for a woman secretary. . . a private secretary, be it underStood. Vitit no blow, therefore, he bashes an ancient art unpeasant tradition on the head, and out of the n~n~ted remains, a new type of woman emerges. .~lI acc~ havo produced `new women." There has alwav,o xtsted an element which reeards experiment as

an dangerous and progress as immoral. New” is the kindly term attached to women holding views divergent from this faction. The new women of our generation are merely the old ones whose evolution—whose progress— was speeded up by the war. Instead of gradual development, comparable with that of normal times, they leaped forward a century or so within the compass of a few years. Not that the war • can be held directly responsible for the women secretaries now in office. True, Canada's first Minister of War appointed a woman to this high position, and Miss McAdam confronted problems. performed tasks, enjoyed experiences that have never been duplicated thus far, in the ministerial secretariat. But Sir Sam did not establish a precedent. He followed an example. Way back in 1S96 the Hon. Israel Tarte astounded the public by installing as his private secretary, Madame Turcot. I doubt that he created half the astonishment when he married her! The romance of the late Hon. Wm. Pugsley is still fresh in the mind of the Service. In 1907 he brought to Ottawa the secretary who had proven herself so indispensable in his NewBrunswick office. A few years later, he married her. Since the echo of those wedding bells has died, fright, caution or whatnot has held our bachelor Ministers in thrall. Perhaps they agree with Sir Robert Borden, who in an afterdinner speech to the West Indian Delegates. observed—with one eye on the Prime Minister—that most married men found that their wives were the leaders of the government. If it should still seem that women as

private secretaries are a strange species, in the interesting stages of experiment, remember that many, many years ago, the Hon. Wm. Fielding brought Miss Alary AlacPherson to Ottawa in that capacity: that the Hon. F. D. Alonk preferred the services of AI;ss Louise Sarault to those of a man; that the Hon. Thomas Crothers brought Aliss AIcKeller from St. Thomas to continue in her capacity as private secretan.for him in Ottawa: that the Hon. F. B. Carvell, upon tederal appointment, insisted upon appointing Aliss Blanche Dibblee, who many years previously, had been in his Woodstock office. Aliss Hazel Sherritt has had considerable fighting experience, for she served under the Hon. Edward Kemp, General Aiewbum, the Hon. Hugh Guthrie and the Hon. George P. Graham. Recently she was transferred from Alilitia to Railways when her Alinister made that change. Air. Blondin’s private secretary was a woman—Aliss Antoinette Lusignan, familiarly and affectionately known as "Lulu ’, and the Hon. Air. Pelletier brought with him Miss Anne Alarie Lefevre, from Quebec. In accordance

with custom, many of these women have been absorbed in the Service, following the death, resignation or defeat of their Minister and are carrying on as before. It should

scarcely be necessary to stress the fact that the Alinisters assisted by wo-

men secretaries, prefer them, and that those who employ men, don’t know what they miss! It must be evident from the foregoing that all of

that all of the women under discussion have been sought. Previous association, often throughout a lengthy period of years, proved their worth. No “pull” achieved distinction for them. They were not thrust, but chosen, which recalls an incident in the career of a Minister now deceased. The Department tried to thrust a man upon him, when he came to Ottawa. A personable young man, too, whose political connections were above reproach. The Minister gave him a fair trial for a week, then flew into a noble rage and discharged him. “What was the trouble, sir?” asked the Deputy, realizing that difficulties stood in the way of obliterating the young man. “He was always poking things at me,” mumbled the Alinister, hard put to explain the exact reason for his irritation. The woman who had worked with him six years before was appointed. “I knew when not to poke things at him,” she laughed. And that extreme sensitiveness, adaptability, and above

all, that tireless playing up to a mood, explains the success of all our women secretaries. Interviewing them singly, disclosed many interesting points. They were unanimous and definite in their belief that the essential qualities of a capable secretary, were, patience, a good memory, tact and intuition. The latter they stressed, monotonously. Qualifications of a Secretary ' I 'HIS intuition comes into effect when separating the clamorous throng into those visitors who should see the Minister and those who should not, for naturally all of them are shrewd enough to give

enough to give the impression that it is vital to the Dominion—indeed, the Empire that they should achieve the other side of the green baize door.

The clever secretary is she who can insinuate herself into the confidence of the visitor and discover the exact nature of his business. To handle the matter herself is a supreme triumph. If that is impossible, she arranges the briefest possible interview. “Standing in” then, with a secretary, is a comfortable condition, and so eagerly has it been striven for, that political wise-crackers have not infrequently asked the women in office, “I suppose your salary is really the smallest portion of your income?” And precisely because there is no foundation for this sleek insinuation one Minister at least, was moved to state that he found women less corruptible than men—adding, by way of defense of his own sex, that men always need more money! The intuitive quality is employed by the Alinisters themselves, and it is not unusual for the secretaries to be asked to pass judgment upon people or projects about which there seems to be some uncertainty. “What did you think of that man? Or scheme?” is by no means an infrequent question. How They Get There words, and drop them overboard. “Capable, trustworthy, efficient,

clever”—there they are. We will, in the ensuing, take them for granted. Without these, and many subsidiary attributes, our women secretaries would be occupying some less conspicuous post. Miss Charlotte Whitton, private secretary to the Hon.

Miss Charlotte Thomas A. Low, put herself through Queen’s University, first on scholarships, and later by taking various positions during the holiday months, winning an ALA. in English and History, as well as. the University medal in these subjects, and the Governor General's medal in Educat ion. She was the first woman elected to the Students' Administrative

Council, and the first woman to edit The Queen's Journal —an 8-page bi-weekly paper.

“Worse than that,” she laughed. “I once edited a weekly newspaper, acquiring there, my subsequent taste for printer’s ink.” '

Miss Whitton’s great-grandfather was one of those early pioneers who contributed to the founding of Queen’s which, throughout the environs of Renfrew, actually is synonymous with University.

“Air ye goin’ to Queens of Toronto, er Queens of Montreal, er Kingston?” she was asked by more than one friendly if uninformed compatriot.

Miss Whitton is a «kater, and a canoeist. She was captain of her year’s hockey team, “for,” as she said, “every one around Renfrew skates. One’s godfather gives one a nice little pair at the same time that one’s godmother is presenting a feeding spoon or a rattle.” After her graduation, she became assistant secretary of the Social Service Council, and assistant editor of Social Welfare. “This brought her in close touch with child welfare work, in all its ramifications, and towards the solution of child welfare problems she devotes a tremendous amount of time, to-day. Her great objective is to help reduce institutionalism, to prevent duplication and overlapping, and to find a Canadian home for every child who is fit to be received in one.

Like most of the other secretaries, it has been her privilege to accompany her Minister on his tours. Miss Whitton knows Canada intimately—physically, politically, and social servicely. One of her most memorable trips was that to England and the Continent, during which she not only spoke at Wembley, but visited the late Sir William Peterson, at his beautiful home in the island of Eigg.

I asked Miss Whitton what, in her opinion, was the most exacting phase of a secretary’s work, and she answered:

“The wear and tear of minor interviews, and the capable handling of people who may mean votes. A private secretary’s mind should be her Minister’s reference file; she must have a knack for minuteness and detail. She must accustom herself to the feeling that all her energies are devoted to the interests of some one else, and of course she is always subject to call. During the Session our hours are from 9 a.m. until about 11 p.m. and when an important debate is in progress, we probably don’t get home until dawn.”

There is an element of flattery in a Minister’s dependence upon these women, in their utter reliance upon the mind of a secretary. One girl

confessed that besides being an alarm-clock, a dispenser of his hours—hours of play as well as work—besides being all that the idea of secretary implies, she was a medical chart, noting the pounds he gained or lost

consequent upon the daily dozen; she reminded him when to take his medicine; and more than once, suggested that before conferring with a visitor, he had better adjust a couple of newly - acquired teeth!

‘ ‘ I have found that women talk less than men,” said this Minister, “about the affairs of the office. They have so much besides to say, there is little probability of business leakage. Men—

except the golf addicts, and private secretaries have little time for this gentlemanly pastime—have nothing save business to discuss. Put a lot of women together and they never mention the office!”

The Cradle of Secretaries

IF THE Maritime Provinces claim to be the cradle of Canadian statesmen, surely Huron County can claim to be the cradle of the Ministerial feminine secretariat. Miss Cummings, Miss Straith, Miss McCool and Miss Sherritt are all natives of Huron and were unknown to one another until reaching Ottawa.

The story of Miss Isobel Cummings’ rise to a position of importance reads like a piece of fiction. A delicate child, she was taken from school upon the advice of a physician who assured her parents that hard work would kill her. Orphaned at fourteen, with very little “schooling,” this girl with a frail body but robust and independent spirit, refused to become a charge upon any member of her family, and applied for the position of bookkeeper in a local dairying concern. Incredible though it sounds, she got it. . . . And then she studied business methods and such-like by mail.

Larger opportunities opened and Miss Cummings went west to fill a post in the Saskatchewan Department of Agriculture. In less than three years, she was private secretary to the Provincial Minister—the Hon. Mr. Motherwell.

I asked Miss Cummings to what she attributed her rapid rise.

“By always doing just a little more than was expected of me,” she answered.

A good policy.

In 1919, Mr. Motherwell resigned and Miss Cummings was appointed secretary for the Department of Agriculture—the first time a woman has held such a position in Canada. She resigned this permanent office to come to Ottawa, when her former chief was elected to the Dominion Cabinet.

Despite the fact that women have proven their fitness to hold posts that fifty years ago would have been as remote as the stars; despite the prevalence of women as teachers—in most public schools and collegiates, they far outnumber the men—and the fact that every walk of life has been invaded, and conquered by them, there still seems to exist definite opposition to appointing women to any office that commands dignity and a living wage. Just as pressure was brought to bear upon Mr. Carvell, and he was furnished with a splendid young man who “poked things at him,” so it was in the case of Mr. Motherwell, when he asked for the service of Miss Cummings. All the ancient arguments were advanced; a woman could not handle men, a woman could not deal with problems concerning cattle, stock, farms, et cetera, a woman could not—with propriety— accompany the Minister on his inspection trips. To all of which Mr. Motherwell listened courteously and answered, that “he thought he’d risk it."

Miss Cummings will long be remembered—particularly in the west—for her administration of the Saskatchewan Better Farming Train. This was an agricultural exhibit consisting of some thirty cars which toured the province each summer. For several years, Miss Cummings superintended the train from her office, but later

it seemed expedient for her to take personal charge. If there was any resentment felt by the considerable number of men who comprised the personnel of this itinerant University Extension Course they were gallant enough to conceal it!

conceal it! Significant as this appears to the observer, Miss Cummings sees nothing unusual m a woman taking precedence over men. Indeed, she does not

does not regard the matter in that light. She is fixed in her belief that immeasurably better results are attained when men and women work together, when they concentrate upon what might be termed the masculine and feminine aspects of the same undertaking.

The terms “chief” and “subordinate,” do not occupy a very conspicuous place on her horizon. Those who work under her are as much her colleagues as though they commanded the same salary.

During the war, she organized and presided over “The Motherwell Circle”—a group of energetic women who besides knitting and making bandages, raised $8,000 for the soldiers. They held poultry shows, and auctioned farm produce, and did all sorts of things that effected a triple benefit: to the buyer, the seller and the boys overseas.

If questioned as to why he found her services so indispensable, her Minister would probably answer something like this;

“She is so quiet and peaceful in the office. She handles people so courteously. She is so economical. If she doesn't know what I ask, she finds out. The office staff like her. She . . . well, by George, she’s just right!” Miss Sadie McCool is the admirable right-hand man of the Hon. Mr. Murdock, and like Miss Cummings, maintains that a practical business training is essential for a private secretary. “One may not know very much,” she modestly said, “but one has to know a little about so many things!”

Her business experience was quite varied even before she became associated with a great typewriting firm in the capacity of Relief Worker. An expert stenographer, she could have continued in that capacity, but the other branch appealed to her, and developed into the shadow cast by events that were to follow.

Mr. Murdock, then living in Cleveland, and Canadian Vice-President of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, was in Toronto, intent upon making some changes in the constitution of that body. He wanted an expert stenographer, and Miss McCool was obviously that. Her firm recommended her and their reward was that they never got her back!

When Mr. Murdock was appointed to the Board of Commerce in Ottawa, he brought Miss McCool with him, and she was one of the staff on the 1916 Unemployment Commission of Ontario—perhaps the most exhaustive study of that phase of labor conditions ever undertaken. Upon the report of this work, the Government Unemployment Bureaus were founded. I doubt if any woman in the country has a more intimate grasp of labor conditions than Miss Sadie McCool.

of labor conditions than Miss Sadie McCool. Her secretarial work differs from that of her colleagues in one significant respect; she "handles” a rougher element than the others. Her Minister’s visitors are,

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Women Who Keep Political Secrets

for the most part, men who have a grievance, a whole cord of wood on their shoulders; radicals and reds, with fire in their eyes and sulphur on their lips. More than any of the other secretaries, Miss McCool deals with Trades Unions, Labor deadlocks, aggregations rather than individuals.

And the special providence that looks after Ministers, saw that the one woman in ten thousand was ready for that difficult job. Grievances are met with sympathy, anger is quenched by gentleness, storm gives way to peace and harmony, for Miss McCool is an ideal illustration of “a soft answer turneth away the office-seeker.”

The need of women in business is very clear to her. .Aside from their executive ability, they raise to a higher level the standard of an office. Quite simply, she asserts that the violence many of the Minister’s visitors may have felt, has never broken out into profane speech—in her presence. Spiritual, mental and physical orderliness is what she brings very perceptibly into the atmosphere. She brings it almost unconsciously.

Admitting certain obvious qualifications—a love of detail, natural accuracy, ingrained conscientiousness and so on. Miss McCool argues that women are not the sole inheritors of them. If this influence for a higher level, if the vision of an ideal is not added, then, she maintains, one might as well employ a man. And the influence is by no means confined to the office. For it touches the

Minister, and flows out into thê department, and on to the country, and the hearts of the people. And after all, what else is a good influence for?

A Busy Life

MISS HAZEL SHERRITT, private secretary to the Hon. George P. Graham, held to the view that experience is essential in her work. “One has to grow into it,” she said. “One has to grow so thoroughly that it becomes not one’s job but one’s life.”

The House of Commons in her childhood was not an unfamiliar place. It was the “house” where her father lived most of the winter. Mr. John Sherritt was Conservative member for North Middlesex and was able to help his ambitious young daughter in her desire to join the stenographic staff of the Commons.

Promotions came rapidly. From the staff of the Privy Council, to which she was appointed in 1910, Miss Sherritt became secretary to the then Mr. Edward Kemp, when the Conservatives were returned to power. She went with him through the interesting period when he was chairman of the War Purchasing Commission, and also when he was appointed Minister of Militia. When Sir Edward went overseas, she remained in Canada as secretary to General Mewburn, and after two years, added to her list of chiefs, the name of the Hon. Hugh Guthrie. With the change of government in 1921, the Hon. George Graham became her Minister and she went with him from Militia to Railways in 1923.

Thus, it will be seen that most of Miss Sherritt’s experience has been gained in a militant atmosphere; and as she said, laughing, “We’re fighting, yet!”

It was her privilege to accompany Mr. Graham to Geneva and to the Imperial Conference. Each day was packed with memorable incident, and yet Miss Sherritt declares that the most eventful and thrilling period of her career was during General Mewburn’s ministerial reign when the first troop ship returned and when the office was seething with demobilized men all day long.

“It was like unscrambling a scrambled egg,” she tried to explain.

She could not name the greatest difficulties in her position. Neither could she designate the particular delights. Experience, covered everything. “It’s rather like listening to a baby’s first attempt at speech, or the clever things children say,” she told me. “When you’re unfamiliar with them, they seem epochal, but presently so many happen in a day, you grow to regard them as routine.”

There remains of the Huron County quartette, Miss Anne Straith, associate private secretary to the Hon. Dr. King.

Miss Straith is the daughter of a Presbyterian clergyman, who was called to British Columbia several years ago, and she became associated with the Minister in his Provincial office. That same feminine quality of usefulness, that same subtlety of service that so many of the Ministers have acknowledged, was felt by Dr. King, who finding that the departmental work in Ottawa was too heavy for one secretary, sent for Miss Straith to join his Federal office staff.

Miss Straith could write a book—and a jolly book it would be!—on “campaigning with the Minister,” for she has accompanied Dr. King on most of his trips to his constituency.

An Arduous Job

TO ARRANGE, dis-arrange and rearrange one of these journeys at a moment’s notice is not the least exacting of a secretary’s duties. Did you ever try to “route” a trip—to make dates fit trains, and people fit dates? Did you ever try to arrange on a slip of paper a schedule for some one else to follow, arranging it so accurately that when the Minister is in A —speaking to the Y.M.C.A. (whose president is Mr. X) he knows that at 4.47 he must catch a train for B— to speak to the Rotary Club, (whose president is Mr. Y) and that he stays the night there finding his luggage safely housed in the best hotel; that the following morning at 9.15 he must meet the—Delegation before catching a train at 9.56 for C . . and so on through two or three weeks of travelling?

Realizing what the secretaries accomplish, one is prone to exclaim,

“But what is there left for the Ministers to do?”

An Ottawa girl, and former attendant at the Ottawa Collegiate Institute, is Miss Alberta Frances Ryan. After seven years on the Senate stenographic staff Miss Ryan went to Toronto. The late Colonel Chambers, Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, wrote and asked her, two years ago, if she would become his secretary, and she accepted.

Another Canadian girl who has risen to secretarial responsibility is Miss J. E. Denison, secretary to the Hon. Dr. S. F. Tolmie, Federal Organizer for the Conservative party and ex-Minister of Agriculture. Miss Denison who is somewhat of a Spanish type, was born of Canadian parents near Ottawa, she does not say how many years ago, although it cannot have been many. Her grandfather came to Canada from Ireland in 1829, and was one of the pioneers of Ontario. She received public and private schooling, took a business course in Ottawa, an agricultural course in Cornell University and studied music at Ottawa. Quite a variety of accomplishments, you will notice. She was for six years with the Dominion Department of Agriculture, for three sessions with the House of Commons, acted as secretary to the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, and was then appointed to her present position.

It is remarked that the success of these women is not due to luck or chance. Each, through study, training and hard work prepared herself for advancement, and was ready to fit the job when Opportunity beckoned.

An Old Country Girl

MISS WINEFRIDE M. P. RAYE, secretary to the Speaker of the Senate, was born of Irish parents near Newcastle, England. Her father was the late Major John J. A. Raye, M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P., I., who had a distinguished military as well as a medical career. Besides service in India and other parts of the Empire he was largely responsible for the installation of better sanitary and drainage systems in the settlements along the Gold Coast, West Africa, thereby rendering the “White Man’s Grave” somewhat more inhabitable. Miss Raye came to Canada with her family at the age of seventeen, after the death of her father. She was educated at Coventry Hall School for Girls, London, England; Matriculation—London University. Associate in Arts—Oxford University.

After working for several years in various Departments of the Government at Ottawa, she was appointed to the Senate sessional staff in 1921, and upon the change of Government was selected by the newly appointed Speaker of the Senate (Hon. Hewitt Bostock P.C.) to act as his Secretary.

Parliamentary work had always appealed to her; possibly she inherited it from her grandfather, Thomas Matthew Raye, a prominent barrister of Dublin, Ireland, who was the Secretary of the well-known Precursor’s Society, and the close friend and confidant of the famous Daniel O’Connell. However, Miss Raye has no ambition to become a Member of Parliament. She prefers to work behind the scenes—-the “girl behind the throne” as it were. Of course in the Speaker’s office there is not much political work, but in Parliamentary circles she comes in contact with “big” men—“big” minds; and such associations, as she remarks, cannot fail to enlarge and broaden one’s own mental capacity and outlook.

Miss Raye is fond of all outdoor sports. “I think some form of outdoor sport is essential for any woman who spends a large portion of her time sitting at a desk. It gives much needed exercise to the body, and first rests then stimulates the mind,” says she.

For a hobby she is making a study of “Reading character,” and edits a small club magazine called The Character Analyst.

The names of two French women complete the list. Miss Reine Coutlee for some time had charge of the Quebec office of the Hon. Jacques Bureau, Minister of Excise and Customs. He brought her to Ottawa and she was appointed associate private secretary in the Service. Recently, however, she left Ottawa to return to her former work.

Miss Helen Tremblay is associate

private secretary to the Hon. Mr. Cardin, Marine and Fisheries. Her work in essentials is more or less similar to that of her confreres, and doubtless promotion will come with seniority of service.

The Rise of Others

SPEAKING of promotions, the significance of the Ministerial Secretariat may be judged by glancing at the present positions of former secretaries. To possess fitness for this type of work, it is evident that fitness for posts of importance is included. Take for example, Sir Joseph Pope . . late Under Secretary of State for External Affairs. Sir Joseph was private secretary to Sir John Macdonald. Mr. F. C. T. O’Hara, now Deputy Minister of Trade and Commerce was Sir Richard Cartwright’s secretary. Mr. J. B. Harkin, Commissioner of Dominion Parks, was secretary to the Hon. Frank Oliver. Mr. J. B. Hunter, Deputy Minister of Public Works, was secretary to the Hon. Mr. Sutherland Speaker of the House of Commons. The Clerk of the Senate, Mr. A. E. Blount, was secretary to Sir Robert Borden, while Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s secretary, Mr. Lemaire, is now Clerk of the Privy Council.

The Commissioner of Immigration for Canadain China, was the late J.E. Featherstone, once secretary to the Hon. Charles Stewart. One could continue at some length had the point not been made.

Possessing the same fundamental qualities, it is interesting to observe how strongly individual characteristics reveal themselves. Miss Sherritt, for example, strikes one as being the perfect mental machine, calm, with that trained restraint that suggests a huge power plant, running swiftly in certain grooves, and never flying off at a tangent and throwing the contiguous machinery into confusion.

“I never suggest anything to my Minister,” she said. “I am not supposed to have initiative. I am supposed to carry out his directions.”

No one could doubt that she does. “Certainly, I suggest things to my Minister,” said another girl. “I take letters to him and say, ‘Why, you can’t send this out as it stands! You’ll mortally offend this man. Give it to me, and I’ll fix it! That’s my job,” she continued. “He depends on me for that!”

Miss Whitton, genial, dynamic, vital, like a spot of mercury, gives one an impression of tireless toil. If she is not attending departmental business, she is directing the policy of the Child Welfare organization, or perhaps taking a hand in some piece of immigration legislation, or trying to help the Pensions get out of a tangle. She went through the trying ordeal consequent upon Sir William Petersen’s death, with rare steadiness. Indeed, she was the one steady person in the group connected with the late shipping magnate.

An interesting contrast is presented when observing Miss Cummings and Miss McCool. The former seems to illustrate the dictum that secretaries are born and not made. The latter suggests that you can make a secretary out of a sweet and pliable little person—of the type that tradition calls “the womanly woman.” Miss Cummings is silent, her great luminous eyes being the only evidence of the great power concealed in her delicate frame. Miss McCool, on the other hand, talks—with a simplicity and naivette that makes one wonder how she could ever “handle” anybody— to say nothing of these rough-and-ready Reds! In her more than any other, there is lacking the outward and visible sign of the capable and efficient woman—the sign that so many men abhor and to which they give the unpleasant term of “hardness.”" And assuredly, she is the more dangerous because of that!

Thinking of these women secretaries who have so intimate a connection with the destiny of our country, remembering that they are discriminating guardians, ever-ready and gracious executors of the most disagreeable and difficult tasks, department hostesses, mind-readers, trainednurses, and friction-breakers, among other things, one recalls, with some derision, the story of the brain specialist.

This eminent surgeon contended that women’s brains were smaller and less capable of intellectual development than men’s. Upon his death it was decided to compare his brain with those of several women.

His was the smallest of the lot!