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Two Hamilton women who made a difference


Two Hamilton women who made a difference

On this International Women’s’ Day the Bay Observer looks at the careers of two Hamilton women who were pioneers in the political realm. Nora Francis Henderson is well known to Hamiltonians, but May Carpenter, in some ways was an even more consequential figure in Canadian Politics.

Norah Frances Henderson: Champion of social justice, equality for women

Nora Frances Henderson didn’t make many friends as the only female on Hamilton’s Council and Board of Control for 17 years but she served as a role model for socially conscious women in the 1930’s and 1940’s; and in some ways her legacy grew after her death. Today, both a hospital  and more recently,  a public school bear her name. Before entering politics, Norah enjoyed a successful career as a journalist with the Hamilton Herald, serving as “women’s’ editor.” But far from covering society teas and charity bazaars, Henderson was writing about such subjects as  the plight of beggars in Hamilton, the need for women on hospital boards and City Council. She was active in the local Council of Women, and, with the onset of the Depression and unprecedented social problems, it was this group that urged Henderson to run in the 1931 municipal election.

Henderson campaign ad

Successful in her first attempt at elections, the feisty Henderson entered council declaring herself ready “to begin irritating people on a large scale.” And so she did, championing the policies of the League for Social Reconstruction founded by left-wing Canadian intellectuals. Soon she was advocating a complete re-thinking of the Canadian financial system. In 1935, backed by the same Council of Women that had first elected her to council, Henderson captured a vacant seat on Hamilton Board of Control. She advocated for an increase in the city’s welfare budget to support the more than 8,000 families on relief but was unsuccessful. Quickly realizing she could not bring about fundamental change from a post at the municipal level, Henderson ran in the 1935 federal election. She had chosen to run as a candidate for the Reconstructionist Party- an offshoot of the Conservatives and was soundly defeated. Back at council, she urged the shift of welfare expense away from municipalities to the provincial government—with some modest success. Her remining time in public office was marked by a strange mix of social justice advocacy coupled with advocating prudent spending. 

Henderson talking to picketers at the 1946 Stelco strike

With the end of the war, labour unrest was rampant in Canada, and in perhaps the most notorious event in her career, Nora Francis Henderson, 5 feet 1 inch, crossed a steelworkers picket line in the 1946 Stelco strike. She braved catcalls, jostling and a kick from an angry crowd of 1,000 picketers. The issue for her was the fact that the strikers were occupying the plant and holding prisoner a group of workers who had refused to join the union. She took the position that even though she favored the right of workers to organize and to strike, it was wrong to hold the workers against their will. The incident marked a watershed for Henderson who realized her crossing of the picket line would alienate many voters.

She did not run in the 1947 election and instead took a position as executive director for the Children’s Aid Society. In a parting shot to council, who snubbed her by not inviting her to the 1948 Council inaugural, she said, “may you have a minimum of headaches and enjoy yourselves in your solitary male splendor.”  Nora found the CAS work much more satisfying than endless jousting with council colleagues, but the respite was relatively short-lived. She contracted an undisclosed illness that hospitalized her, and she died in March 1949 at age 51.

May Carpenter, Hamilton’s First Female Political Heavyweight.

When history buffs think of Hamilton female political pioneers, normally the names of Nora Francis Henderson and Ellen Fairclough come to mind. But May Carpenter was ahead of them all. Before Norah Henderson became Hamilton’s first female alderman and later, controller, May Carpenter had already become one of the most politically influential women in Canada. Born in Dutton, Annie May Cascaden , attended the University of Toronto, married lawyer Harry Carpenter in 1898 and moved to Hamilton. It’s unclear when she first became politically active but she caught the eye of future prime minister Mackenze King during the 1911 Ontario election when they were both campaigning for candidates in Hamilton. He recalled her from university days describing her as “a charming women… lots of character and sound commonsense.” By the early 1920’s May Carpenter was a leader in both the Hamilton Council of Women and the National Council of Women and extremely active in national and provincial politics. Women now had the vote and in the 1921 federal election which saw Mackenzie King become prime minister, May Carpenter campaigned across Ontario, culminating with her sharing the podium with King at a massive rally in Toronto.  

Turning her attention to provincial politics in 1922 May Carpenter became president of the Ontario Women’s Liberal Association and was actually nominated for the party leadership, which she declined. 1926 was another year of firsts as husband Harry unsuccessfully contested a seat in the September federal election and then two months later, May became the first woman nominated as a provincial Liberal candidate in Hamilton. An advocate of prohibition, May was roundly defeated in a city where workingmen preferred the Tory promise to legalize the sale of beer.

Prime Minister Mackenzie King relied on May Carpenter to deliver female votes

Clearly the Carpenters had proven their loyalty to the Liberal cause and in 1928 Harry Carpenter’s name was put forward for a vacant judgeship. Carpenter won the appointment but King’s diary made it clear Harry…”owes his appointment mostly to his wife who has been a great worker in the Liberal cause…It is very hard to get good men…”

Following Carpenter’s appointment to the bench May had to reduce her partisan Liberal activity, but she still felt free to take an interest in municipal politics. In November of 1931 she became the first woman ever to run for Hamilton Board of Control, finishing 7th in a race for 4 positions and capturing a respectable 7,000 votes. After this, May Carpenter appears to have pulled back from her political activism, sticking to Council of Women’s activities. 

The Carpenters had no children and in 1937 Harry died. May lived on in their home on 30 Hess Street in Hamilton until her own death in 1949.

Although elected office eluded her, May Carpenter’s career is noteworthy. Her nomination for the Ontario Liberal leadership and her election to the party executive were proofs of her skill at gaining the confidence of both men and women. Her pioneering political efforts were an inspiration to people like Norah Henderson and Ellen Fairclough who followed her lead into politics.

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