British Columbia

'A woman ahead of her time': First female city councillor honoured in Vancouver

Vancouver's first female city councillor, Helena Gutteridge, was honoured as part of International Women's Day. A plaza behind City Hall has been named after her.

Helena Gutteridge was elected in 1937 after decades of fighting for women's and workers' rights

City dignitaries reveal the newly named plaza on International Women's Day. (Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC)

More than 80 years after she first walked into Vancouver City Hall as a councillor, Helena Gutteridge has been honoured with a plaza in her name.

Several dignitaries and community leaders were on hand Thursday to reveal a new sign that helps recognize her contributions to the city.

"It has been a long time coming," said Mayor Gregor Robertson. 

"Today is not just about honouring Helena Rose Gutteridge and her struggle for justice and equality, but it is about setting our intention going forward because her work, unfortunately, is continuing and has a long ways to go."

Gutteridge moved to Canada in 1911 and began work as a tailor. According to Irene Howard, who wrote a book about Gutteridge, she soon began trying to shake up the status quo, fighting for women's and workers' rights.

"She was a woman for heaven sakes, women didn't act like that. Not then," said Howard.

Irene Howard wrote a book about Helena Gutteridge, The Struggle for Social Justice in British Columbia: Helena Gutteridge, the Unknown Reformer. (Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC)

At 95, Howard has a unique perspective on how unique Gutteridge was in the early 1900's  — and how much of a struggle it must have been.

"I had professors say to me when I was wearing slacks 'You aren't wearing those, are you?'" she recalled.

Helena Gutteridge was inspired by the suffragette movement in England before she moved to Canada. (City of Vancouver Archives)

According to a government of Canada biography, Gutteridge joined the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council Executive, which was an umbrella organization for Vancouver's labour movement at the time.

She helped to organize female workers when there were few women in the work force and they earned 40 to 50 per cent less than men. And she was able to convince the trades and labour council to support equal pay for equal work for women.

She also helped form the B.C. Women's Suffrage League in 1913 fight for women's right to vote.

Even that was unusual, Howard said, because at the time, the women's movement didn't generally include working-class women.

"It was sort of, not exactly, a society thing, but it was women having tea together," Howard said.

Helena Gutteridge was the first woman to win a seat as a Vancouver city councillor. (City of Vancouver Archives)

Gutteridge was elected to city council in 1937. There, she brought various groups together to fight for a federally-funded program of low-rental housing, laying the groundwork for a social-housing movement in B.C.

Current city councillor Elizabeth Ball said she studied Gutteridge's background when she was thinking about getting involved in politics. She says she admired her fairness and determination to fight for a variety of issues.

"She was incredibly inspiring to any woman who comes onto council because she wasn't afraid to fight the prejudices at the time and work for the diverse population that existed," she said.

Helena Gutteridge, right, fought for women's and workers' right with a variety of organizations. (City of Vancouver Archives)

Former councillor Ellen Woodsworth said Gutteridge was a "force to be reckoned with. "She stood up, she spoke out and she was a woman ahead of her time," Woodsworth said.

Gutteridge died in 1960.