LAST OF THE BATTLING SUFFRAGETTES
Shaking a good-humored fist at the world of men, occasionally even crashing its stags and backrooms, Charlotte Whitton has become a modern symbol of the militant female. Now deputy-mayor of Ottawa she’s all set to prod some life into civic politics with her housewife’s needle
A COUPLE of weeks after Charlotte Whitton, one of the last militant suffragettes, was elected as the first woman on Ottawa’s Board of Control she heard about the annual dinner for the 1951 council and the retiring council.
Charlotte called the City Hall. “Where’s my invitation?” she demanded.
“It’s a stag party, Dr. Whitton,” she was advised. “It’s a party for the City Council and I’m a member of that body,” Charlotte Whitton said bluntly. “I know my rights. I want my invitation and I want it now.”
“You wouldn’t want to come to the pre-dinner party,” the City Hall man told her. “You don’t drink. But if you wish I’ll send the dinner invitation over.”
“I’m coming to everything that’s going,” Charlotte said. “Whenever there’s going to be backroom talk I’ll be there, and I’ll be in a condition to learn a lot more than the rest of you. You’ll find out I won’t be pushed around just because I’m a woman. Get used to the fact that the City Council consists of the same number of members as before.”
Telling of this initial round later, Charlotte Whitton jokingly misquoted, “Hell has no fury like a woman crossed,” a fact, she had no doubt, the Ottawa council would soon find out.
Right crisply she started the new year by sticking to her prerogatives, or as she put it, “I stood firmly on m’hind legs.” She was the only woman among about 1,000 men to attend the Governor-General’s New Year’s levee. “As the deputy mayor of Ottawa I felt I should go to pay my respects,” she said. “I wore a black business suit like the rest of them, but as well as shaking hands I curtsied.” This good-humored pugnacity is concentrated in a small, five-foot one, cocky, vigorous woman of 54. She keeps her grey hair close-cropped, eschews lipstick, manages to give an impression of having thrown her clothes on in a hurry. Wherever she goes she dashes. She is in a constant tear from her 7 a.m. waking to after-midnight (sometimes she works until 4 a.m.) bedtime. She’s been in a rush all her life. That hurry has got her into newspapers, international affairs and a libel suit.
No Shirkers or Men Wanted
Most recently it got her elected controller (salary: $3,500, term: two years) with 38,405 votes, the biggest vote ever polled in Ottawa civic elections, topping the mayor’s vote by nearly 10,000. She’s elated about that majority, both because it makes her the deputy mayor and because she feels it enables her to demand the jobs she’d rather do.
“I don’t think the people of Ottawa intended me to take any left-over portfolio, not with the vote they’ve given me,” she declared before council decided to give her the important new public utilities portfolio. “I’m accepting no favors from City Council but I’ll certainly insist on my rights.” Up to now her energies have stirred in the field of social work, free-lance writing and speechmaking. Her colorful political campaign, however, has roused rumors that she’s heading into the federal field when her two years as controller are over.
The December civic campaign was the most lively Ottawa had ever seen. The Ottawa Journal attributed this to Charlotte Whitton. “Miss Whitton is something new and different in our municipal experience and we suspect a lot of people are saying to themselves that she would stir up the dry bones at City Hall, and a good thing too,” read a pre-election editorial.
The Journal, though Charlotte is a contributor to the opposition paper, the Citizen, joined the
Citizen in sponsoring her candidature. The paper kept publishing stories suggesting she should stand as a candidate, and quoting her typical Whittonism, “Well, Barkis is willin’ but has to be nominated.”
“I’ll stand,” she finally told the Local Council of Women, “but only if a responsible and representative committee is set up to handle my campaign now—tonight! You’ll have to get behind the campaign and push, or go back to your vacuum cleaners and mops.”
Early in campaign organizing it was suggested that a man head the finance committee. Charlotte squashed that promptly. “Naming a man would be an admission of defeat at the outset,” she snorted. “Let’s make this a women’s campaign as far as chairmen are concerned.”
When the campaign headquarters had been picked she advised her co-workers: “You’d better put in at least two telephone lines. Remember this is a women’s campaign.” All donations would be welcome, from a nickel up, she declared, and laughed in raucous pleasure when one of the newspapers ran a campaign advertisement with the line, “Donated by a gentleman friend.”
Instead of a campaign button Charlotte’s cohorts stuck a needle and thread in their lapels, serving notice to voters that Whitton was ready to take on the city’s mending and sew up the loose ends at the board. Unexpected support came from widely divergent sources. Two cleaning women turned up at the Medical Hall offices used for campaign headquarters. “We’ve got no money to donate,” they reported, “but we’d like to clean up this place for you every night, free.” And they did.
Mrs. Cecilia O’Reagan, head of the “Whitton machine,” a big, handsome, Canadien woman, organized Ottawa women into a fighting phalanx. Her basic idea was deceptively simple. She directed that no one should be approached by a stranger when asked to vote for Charlotte. Human relations are so closely interwoven even in a city the size of Ottawa that it was possible to find somebody in every case who knew the next link in the chain.
Leaving her book-lined study and paper-littered desk (where the handiest drawer contains about 20 sticks of chewing gum and the Bible) after a brisk 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. stint at writing, Charlotte threw herself into the campaign. Her particular care each day were her shoes which are only size
two and a half though she is a sturdy 130 lbs.
“I get more tired using my feet than my tongue,” she said, pointing out that even one 30 to 40 minute speech is hard on the feet, and she’d make several daily. Abruptly she switched the topic, a Whitton mannerism: “My tongue often speaks before I think what I’m going to say. That’s my greatest tragedy.”
She and her committee members canvassed women’s clubs and they all lined up in her support.. She demanded that her supporters be as indefatigable as herself. “We’ll need at least 1,000 women on the day of election. Three women at each of the 351 polls, one to be Continued on page 58
Last of the Suffragettes
Continued from page 11
responsible for the voters’ list; another for telephoning; a third in charge of driving facilities.” She got them.
She got too—freely donated—the office furniture, stationery, typewriters and a radio for the campaign headquarters. Activity was tremendous. Newspaperman Ross Munro says, “She slugged the women into working.” She posed for pictures of herself cooking (“I’m fit, fiftyish, and can lay my hand to anything”). She attended a square dancing competition in the Ottawa Valley. (“Pulled a fast one on the boys there. An old country girl like me can square dance them under the table.”)
She was asked whether, like the other controllers, she would be using the city-owned, chauffeur-driven Cadillac, a perennially controversial topic in Ottawa papers. “Not me,” said Charlotte. “Got my own old car and the figure and the fitness to change a tire if needs be. I’ll keep clear of the Caddy.”
The Cops on Charlotte’s Side
Ata tough meeting in Lower Town, where trouble was expected from the disgruntled, slum-living voters, she gave hard facts on her housing development schemes. They questioned her politics.
“Conservative,” she shouted back. “If 1 could only find the conservative party!” She finished off with: “I’m calling for a new deal. Don’t you think it’s time you drew a Queen to three Jacks?” The card-playing audience caught the idea. She went out to shouts of “La petite Charlotteƒ” and, “Vote for Whitton!”
The whole city caught the spirit of the thing. Milkmen canvassed for Charlotte. Bus drivers on her district line would shout at customers: “Are
you voting for Charlotte? If not, there’s no room on the bus.” Her car was often recognized downtown and policemen, recently installed in waisthigh booths at some street corners, would stop her and beg, “Get us out of this kiddy coop.”
One day she left her car on Metcalf Street and when she came back she found a ticket charging her with every possible traffic offense. Four cops watched her fury mount, then came over to explain, laughing, “Look on the other side,” they said. “Good luck, Charlotte,” was written above their signatures.
This individual interest and the women’s vigorous canvassing brought out the largest vote Ottawa had ever seen, some . 60% compared with the usual 50%.
In the confused celebration of Charlotte’s victory (back home in the village of Renfrew her mother kept open house till close to dawn) there was one pathetic little voice. A small daughter of a member on the Whitton committee was seen tugging her mother’s coat and pleading, “Since Charlotte did get elected, could I now go and see Santa Claus?”
Whitton didn’t pause to rest on her laurels. The day after the election she was in Washington attending the fifth White House Conference on Children, a once-a-decade convention to discuss progress in child and youth work.
In Ottawa the women were so pleased with their work that they have decided to keep their committee intact, their lines to the ranks open. Charlotte thinks this is a good thing; it’ll give her the strength of support she feels she’ll need to cope with the all-male Board. Also she’s looking ahead. “We are working on the 1952 campaign now,” she said. “And I
wouldn’t consider they were plowing the furrow well if they ran only one woman in the civic elections two years from now.”
She came back to some 600 letters of congratulation including a message from her own church of St. Albans, suggesting that she might like to consider the memorial pew of Sir John A. Macdonald her own, from here in. And the trouble she had expected was waiting for her at City Hall.
The custom has always been to allow the controller who polls most votes (in this case Charlotte) to choose his own department as well as to be considered the deputy mayor. She found that this year, since she was a new member, there was some disagreement over this prerogative. She got into a rip-roaring argument immediately.
“I’m going to claim the right of selecting the Portfolio of Defense,” she told City Hall over the telephone. “The women want me to take it. It’s the most important.” (The Ottawa Board, influenced by the proximity of the Federal Government, has got into the habit of referring to the various departments as “portfolios.”)
“They want me to take on the Fire Department?” she trumpeted. “Charming as the Fire Chief is, we’ve nothing in common except that he has hose and ladders and I have ladders in my hose.”
She leaned back in her chair after she’d hung up the phone and stared sharply at the death mask of Queen Elizabeth of England, an item of her vast collection on the Queen whom she considers the first modern woman. “I’m not so sure that’s the toughest job,” she said thoughtfully. “Now housing for low - paid employees — there’s a real stinker! I’m going to see what’s the toughest job going and I’m going to exercise my right to get it.”
What happened was that a new department was formed to accommodate Miss Whitton’s abilities. It took two by-laws to achieve an integration of interests that’s not been tried on civic boards of any other Canadian city. It is a new social utilities portfolio, and her duties will include health and hospitalization, social aspects of
housing, child care, aged and infirm, charitable institutions, social aid assistance, delinquency and community agencies. In addition, the Board appointed Charlotte to the Civic Hospital Board, the Ottawa Recreation Commission and the Board of Health. Her fellow members obviously plan to keep her busy enough to stay out of their hair.
In a lifetime of sponsoring causes —social service work in its earliest stages, adoptions, nursing, health, housing, and liquor problems-her chief interest has always been women and their rights.
This is the women’s era, she insists, often in language redolent of Emmeline Pankhurst and Susan B. Anthony. “Everything in life is a partnership and we women should take the partnership of home into the community. We have been sluggards. We haven’t used our franchise as we should. We must strike off our shackles and claim our freedom.” She points out cheerfully that in the first half an hour of this year 10 babies were born across Canada and seven of these were girls. In the pair of twins born, the girl came first. Her vital statistics usually lead with the announcement that more women were elected in Ontario civic government in the past year than in all the previous 25 years.
“There is consternation on the Hill, believe me,” she says with a darkly gleeful nod in the direction of Ottawa’s Parliament Buildings. “I’ve been asked point blank if there is an underground women’s party movement. Now I don’t care what party a woman belongs to just so she’ll get Continued on page 60
Continued from page 58 out and do her public duty. The world needs a bit of female common sense these days.”
She talks in a voice big for her physical size. Her jaw looks like a small, hard anvil. Her mouth seems shaped by the hundreds of speeches she has made; even when she sits thinking her mouth shapes words silently. When they come out in sound they either tumble out like small, round stones or drop with the cracking sound of bricks. She’s made words her business.
They serve her well, particularly in repartee. At one campaign meeting a heckler demanded to know her religion. Charlotte threw the truth at him. “ My mother’s a Catholic. My father was an Orangeman. Where does that leave me? Right in the Anglican Church.”
If she’d wished to go farther she’d have told them how her Irish mother ran away with her father by horse and buggy to be married by the next village’s Anglican minister.
Charlotte Whitton, C.B.E., D.C.L., LL.D. (“Those are honorary degrees. And don’t go calling me Doctor. I don’t want to be turned out on an obstetrical case in the middle of the night”), worked her way through Renfrew High School, taking accounting at night, and put herself through Queen’s University with the aid of several scholarships and by having simultaneously three jobs in the summer.
Life Was Never Boring
She graduated with a fistful of academic prizes, an accomplishment she attributes to her Grandmother Whitton who would never let her make a list of the week’s supply of groceries she was sent to buy as a small child, but forced her to use her memory. In later years other academic honors came to her; the Doctor of Civil Law from King’s College, Halifax, in 1939, the Doctor of Laws, Queen’s University, 1941, and another D.C.L. from Acadia University, Nova Scotia, 1948. These were matched by service decorations: the Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1934, the Jubilee Medal in 1936, and the Coronation Medal in 1937.
On graduation she got a job as an assistant to the Historical Manuscripts Commission, now part of the Archives. She was eligible because of her high marks and medals, but a disabled war veteran wanted the position too. “Now it’s up to you,” said the Dean of Queen’s, “but every Queen’s woman . . .”
“Oh, certainly. Let him have it,” said Charlotte.
A week later she had a job with the Social Service Council, then an adjunct of the Christian Church Council in Toronto. When people ask whether she ever took courses in social service she’ll reply: “Before they were, I was,” meaning that they just didn’t exist at the time.
During the depression years she’d travel into the outposts of B. C. and to prairie farms beyond the rail to study conditions and find ways to help those in need. These studies she did sometimes for the Canadian Welfare Council of which she was a full-time director from 1926-1941, and sometimes for the Manitoba Royal Commission, or directly for the Dominion Government.
She tackled many projects -a book on lumbering in the Ottawa Valley and trips to Europe as a delegate to world meetings on social questions.
Through it all, most of all, she wanted to write. The 60 pamphlets she has turned out on everything from delinquency, community organization, social security and immigration to a report for the I.O.D.E. on child welfare
in Alberta didn’t quite satisfy her. This last report landed her as a witness in a provincial libel suit. The suit was dropped but a Royal Commission endorsed many of her findings and new laws controlling adoptions have been drawn up.
Her urge to write finally found an outlet a couple of years ago when publishing - broadcasting tycoon Roy Thompson accepted her column, “Woman on the Line,” for his 10 papers. She also writes for the Halifax Herald Chronicle and a thrice-weekly column, “Every Other Day,” for the Ottawa Citizen. The 9,000 words that make up her weekly output sound just the way she talks and are first penned in longhand. She has complete freedom in subject matter.
Carpentry for Relaxation
Besides this she writes pamphlets to order, such as the 6,000-word review of the history of education in Ontario for Ottawa Normal School and the book-length “The Dawn of Ampler Life,” a study of social work for ex-Conservative leader John Bracken. She is as familiar a figure in the lofty Parliamentary library as she is on the lecture podiums of Canadian women’s clubs and in schools, colleges and hospitals.
All this activity is conducted from a spacious two-floor flat behind Rideau Gate on the edges of Ottawa’s swank Rockcliffe residential district. The slightly Victorian, petit point, mahogany-and-dark-rugs decor was contributed by Margaret Grier, a close friend who shared the flat with Charlotte for 30 years and died while Dr. Whitton was on witness duty in Alberta. Charlotte describes her still as “my better judgment.”
When the pace gets too strenuous the controller goes to her island cabin on McGregor Lakes and indulges in one of the few hobbies she has time or patience for, carpentry; or to her home in the valley village of Renfrew where her mother lives.
Bounced, She Bounced Back
The contrasts of her busy life in the cities of the world and the quiet of the Gatineau Lakes and the Ottawa Valley please her. Somehow, the abrupt difference reminds her of the time, on her last visit to England, when she was thrown out of the rush seats at the Royal Tournament at the Olympia by a surly guard. Three days later she was right hack this time in the Royal Box as the guest of Princess Alice, wife of one-time Canadian Governor-General the Ear) of Athlone. The Princess, who’d known her in Ottawa, heard she was in London and sent her an invitation.
“That’s life,” says Charlotte. “Always unexpected.” ir
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