Ariticles

SHE'S THE ONLY ONE OF HER KIND

JIM NESBITT September 1 1950
Ariticles

SHE'S THE ONLY ONE OF HER KIND

JIM NESBITT September 1 1950

THERE’S a solemn procession each day in the parliament buildings at Victoria, B.C. Sergeant-at-Arms Capt. W. R. Webster booms out: “Make way for Madame Speaker.” Members of the legislature stand. The world’s only woman Speaker, a newspaper columnist named Nancy Hodges, walks in measured tread through wide doors, mounts three blue-carpeted steps to her dais and sits down in a throne-like chair of carved oak. She wears the black silk Speaker’s robes and tricorn hat of British tradition.

When Premier Byron Johnson announced Liberal M.L.A. Mrs. Hodges as Speaker of the British Columbia House last December fan mail began to pour in. Practical Mrs. Hodges, a newspaperwoman for more than 30 years, seized some of it for her column in the Victoria Times. One letter from Nassau in the Bahamas said: “Most Esteemed Lady—I am 30 years old, married, father of three children by such marriage. May I have autographed picture of you? Would you be kind enough to also make me small donation?”

Mrs. Hodges, who has been in the legislature nine years, is used to this dubious sort of accolade. She is less used to being officially silenced by the neutrality of the Speaker’s position. She has always had lots to say. Now she must hold her tongue. She must never toss the tart replies for which she has become known. She gives weighty decisions on constitutional points and rings her bell and cries “order, order” when members call each other nasty names. She may be stern, never rude. The legislature is a duller place with Nancy Hodges out of the fray.

A Profit From Emily Carr

She was at her best when five women were in the House. She and a brilliant debater, Mrs. Dorothy Steeves, of the Opposition CCF, battled many times. They were good friends behind the scenes but in public enjoyed knock-’em-down drag-’em-out political fights. When Mrs. Steeves called her an old Pollyanna, Mrs. Hodges said Mrs. Steeves was just a Cassandra.

“I’d rather be a Pollyanna than a Cassandra,” taunted Mrs. Hodges.

“Cassandra was right,” Dolly Steeves rapped

“Perhaps she was,” snapped Mrs. Hodges. “But look what happened to her. She got killed by her rival."

When Dolly Steeves was beaten at the polls Mrs. Hodges was disappointed. She wants women in public life. Their political stripe doesn’t matter.

From 1941 to 1945 Mrs. Hodges, Mrs. Tilly Rolston (Vancouver-Point Grey) and three CCF women (Mrs. Steeves, Mrs. Laura Jamieson and Mrs. Grace Maclnnis) kept the B. C. House in a lively state. They squabbled about politics but occasionally presented a solid front. They ganged up to force the Government to buy seven Emily Carr paintings. Male M.L.A.s thought it a foolish waste of money, but gave in. They’d never heard of Emily Carr; now that she’s recognized as a foremost Canadian painter they’re glad the women won, for Government got a bargain ($1,100).

Today only Mrs. Hodges, Liberal, and Mrs. Rolston, Conservative, are in the legislature. They used to share the same sessional room where they sometimes argued about temperature. Orchid type Tilly Rolston liked windows closed, heat on full blast, fur jacket about her shoulders; Girl Guide type Nancy Hodges liked heat off, windows wide open. To ease the tension separate rooms were found.

After the CCF women were defeated in 1945 Mrs. Hodges concentrated her political gunfire on Bert Gargrave (CCF, Mackenzie). One day Nancy repeatedly interrupted his speech. This repartee followed.

Gargrave: You can make a speech when your turn comes. I’ve heard women talk a lot, but never in my life have I heard one talk as much as this one.

Hodges: You talk a lot yourself.

Attorney-General Wismer: Keep after ’im, Nancy—you’re doing fine.

Hodges: I’ll handle him—don’t worry—I’ve handled his kind before.

Gargrave: There she goes again. I’d hate to be her husband.

Hodges: I wouldn’t be your wife.

Gargrave: Nobody asked you.

Mrs. Hodges, who boasts she never drinks anything stronger than tomato (she pronounces it tomahtow) juice, once told the House: “I’ve had enough tomato juice at cocktail parties to float a battleship. It’s abuse, not use of liquor that’s harmful.”

Tom Uphill, Labor member for Fernie, mumbled: “And abuse of tomato juice, too.”

Hair-trigger came the reply from Nancy: “From one who’s not familiar with tomato juice to one who is, I’ll accept that even abuse of tomato juice can be harmful.”

As the argument went on John Hart, then Premier, sent a big glass of tomato juice to Mrs. Hodges’ desk. She took a gulp, smacked her lips. She knows there’s nothing like a stunt to make headlines and catch votes.

Can an M.L.A. Bake a Pie?

She boils over when anyone says married women shouldn’t work. In 1946 she attacked the Government for replacing women with veterans. “If this discrimination continues,” she cried, “I’ll go on the hustings for pensions for women at 40. I give that warning to this House.”

Her 46 male colleagues squirmed uneasily, tom between women’s votes and soldiers’ votes. Firing of women, even from federal offices in Victoria, stopped.

Mrs. Hodges has used a housewife’s logic in her campaigns. During an attack on the wide-open sale of flavoring extracts she pointed out that “Storekeepers should know that if a decrepit old man wants a 16-ounce bottle of lemon extract every few days he isn’t baking lemon pies.” Male M.L.A.s, no pie makers, hadn’t thought of that.

Now that she’s Speaker, Nancy Hodges won’t be able to take part in the bantering repartee of the House which she helped spark. Next time a country member asks for an increase on the wolf bounty she won’t be able to quip, “Two-legged wolves?” Nor will she and Finance Minister Herbert Anscombe be able to make a play on the word “soft shoulders” as they did in the last debate on B. C. roads.

She was trained in the gift of repartee as a girl for she was ninth in a family of 10 and had six big brothers to tease her. She was born 62 years ago in England. After graduation from London University she became a magazine writer and wed newspaperman Harry P. Hodges. They came to Canada in 1912 when a doctor told her husband he’d have to leave England’s damp climate or die of TB. They chose B. C. because it was three weeks closer to home than New Zealand.

In Kamloops Harry Hodges beat TB. He and his wife took over the local paper, the Inland Sentinel. In 1916 they went to Victoria where Hodges became legislative correspondent of the Victoria Times which he edits today. Mrs. Hodges figured she was through with newspaper work for good.

“I was vacationing up-Island,” she remembers, “when Benny Nicholas (then the editor of the Times) called me in a great state—his only woman reporter had left. Would I fill in? I said I would for a few days. That was in 1917; I’m still with the Times.”

Why did she go into politics? “Because the Liberal Association asked me, I guess. At first I said no and then I said yes.”

On her first try for the legislature in 1937 she was defeated. But after her election in 1941 she quickly became a Liberal Party power.

Her baptism in political rough-and-tumble came a few months after her election. Liberals didn’t have a safe House majority. Mrs. Hodges joined those who demanded coalition with the Conservatives. T. D. Pattullo, then Premier, fought Mrs. Hodges and her side.

She listened, grim-faced, while Pattullo shouted: “Coalition with the Conservatives will be the end of the Liberal Party in B. C.”

Then she strode to the platform and yelled into the din: “Coalition won’t kill any party which hasn’t germs of decay in it already.”

Coalitionists won that day and still hold power in B. C.

Her Most Exciting Day

In 1947 Nancy Hodges scrapped her way through another political melee. John Hart was retiring as Premier and the party was choosing his successor. Both Byron Johnson and Attorney-General Wismer wanted the job. Mrs. Hodges sided with Johnson. The convention was heavily loaded for Wismer. She jumped to the platform, howled down Wismer supporters and in a fighting speech nominated Johnson.

Her speech turned the tide. Johnson won by eight votes. Press reports said a cabinet post would be her reward. Mrs. Hodges was infuriated. She said such talk embarrassed the Premier. She said she wouldn’t take a cabinet post—not then or ever.

Her reward came this year when the Premier gave her the Speakership. It was the most exciting day of her life.

“But I soon found it had some drawbacks,” she says. “I often itch to get in the debates, but I think I control myself admirably.”

Madame Speaker, who gets $3,000 a year as M.L.A., plus $1,800 as Speaker, has a luxurious three-room suite in the Parliament Buildings. Her office has wall-to-wall carpet of deep red, a gleaming mahogany desk. Overstuffed chairs and lounges are of silk damask, drapes of heavy chintz. There’s a bust of Laurier on the fireplace mantel, a small library where Mrs. Hodges studies legislative rules.

She’s a striking Portialike figure in her $250 robe and hat, made specially in Toronto and paid for by the government. She’s irked when she must doff her tricorn to bow to members. Womanlike, she says it musses her hair.

When a legislative sitting ends Mrs. Hodges rushes home to relax cooking dinner for her husband. Her head bursting with politics, she clears it by weeding her garden, bird-watching, or taking a godchild to the beach.

She starts her day at 6.30.

“The minute I get up I put the oven on and put the fish in for breakfast. Harry’s on a diet, so he can’t have fried fish and baking it takes longer.”

Sometimes she’s asked how she keeps her figure. Does she diet? “Oh, help no!” she says, sort of turning up her nose. And then, “Perhaps if I did I wouldn’t have this middle-age spread. I used to be tall and willowy. But I’ve got good health. I couldn’t have done all the things I’ve done without good health.”

She says that in all her married life she never left home with dishes unwashed or beds unmade. “It’s just that I don’t like things in a muddle; I know if I’d been blessed with children it might have been different now and then."

Grey Locks in a Boy-Bob

After breakfast, in good weather, Mrs. Hodges goes into her garden. She prowls a bit among the rocks, thinking out her daily column. She writes it in the kitchen, in a window looking to the garden. Then she plans the day’s meals: Maybe veal cutlets for noon-time dinner, a jellied salad for supper, perhaps a chicken casserole. The meals ready, she drives to town, maybe to see the Premier, interview a constituent wanting an old-age pension, talk to a school graduation, open a bazaar, a garden party, a flower show, a circus, a dog show or judge a Klondike beard contest.

Mostly she wears tailored clothes, spurns flouncy styles, costume jewelry and corsages, which remind her of funeral parlors. Defying fashion’s whims she does her grey locks boy-bob style, sticks to that old-fashioned hairdo because she’s wise enough to know it’s very becoming.

She averages two speeches a day. Recently she talked to a breakfast club at 7 a.m., a service club at 6 p.m., a political gathering at 8 p.m. She jumped so much into the public eye as Madame Speaker that this year she has been flying about the continent making speeches. In May she went to Santa Barbara to talk to Californian Business and Professional Women’s Clubs. In June she was in Ottawa talking to the Women’s Canadian Club and the Canadian Federation of Liberal Women. She flew back to Victoria, a week later she took off for St. John’s to represent B. C. at Newfoundland’s 453rd birthday party. In July she went to Halifax for the biennial convention of the Federation of Canadian Business and Professional Women’s Clubs which made her “Canadian Woman of 1950.”

Nancy Hodges made the business and professional women sit bolt upright when she bypassed the usual treacly phrases and hit out with: “You’ve got to stop passing resolutions and thinking they are the be-all and end-all of all things. Get right down and fight with the strongest weapon you have—and that is the vote.”

Seven years ago Mrs. Hodges gave up reporting to write her daily column, “One Woman’s Day.” It’s a variety of chitchat, old epitaphs, poetry, comment on good safe subjects. Once when she had a cold she wrote, “As might be expected it settled in the weakest part of my anatomy—my head.” She gave this impression of a new photo of herself: “Those lines, which you had kidded yourself were mere faint etchings limned on your face by time, stand out like erosions.... and.... sagging contrours look as if needing repairs by a seamstress or a facial surgeon.”

She replied to eastern Canadians who poked fun at Victoria’s recent rough winter: “After all, we aim to please them with replicas of their ‘main streets’ and ‘hamburger heavens,’ so why not follow suit with a replica of the weather they are accustomed to.”

Though she’s been a newspaperwoman for 30 years, politics have made her sensitive to newspaper reports critical of her or the government she supports.

Once the Vancouver News-Herald reported that the Lieutenant-Governor’s wife scolded legislative wives who were late at a swish Government House luncheon. A few days later the wives planned a luncheon to honor the Governor’s lady. The News-Herald said: “Nancy Hodges, M.L.A., and Tilly Rolston, M.L.A., will chaperone the girls.... and see.... they do the things they should do and fulfill social obligations. There will be no drinking by the political girls at this bury-the-hatpin luncheon. Following the shock to the butlers at Government House and the hostess herself when one of the women guests arrived with too much liquor in her the word was passed around the wives to go easy on cocktails during the morning preceding the luncheon.”

This caused a furore in the legislature. Members said their wives had been insulted in public. They howled that the News-Herald had gone too far. Mrs. Hodges called the reports “a nasty piece of yellow journalism” and demanded the writer be hauled before the bar of the House and forced to retract and apologize. Nothing happened.

Mrs. Hodges likes campaigning in crossroads halls, under oil lamps. Here she finds column material. When silencing hecklers she’s likely to cry, “My friends, remember empty buckets make the most noise.”

Far in the B. C. hinterland one time she made what she thought a pretty good speech. There was no audience reaction. She might have been talking to wooden folk. Not a smile, not a snicker, not a boo. She was mystified until she learned that she’d been talking to Finns who didn’t know a word of English.