A Liberal-Labour Lady

The Times and Life of Mary Ellen Spear Smith

By Veronica Strong-Boag
Categories: Gender & Sexuality Studies, Women’s Studies, History, Canadian History, Political Science, Canadian Political Science, Literature & Language Studies, Auto/biography & Memoir, Regional & Cultural Studies, Canadian Studies
Publisher: UBC Press
Hardcover : 9780774867245, 288 pages, November 2021
Paperback : 9780774867252, 288 pages, August 2022
Ebook (PDF) : 9780774867269, 288 pages, November 2021
Ebook (EPUB) : 9780774867276, 288 pages, November 2021

Table of contents

Introduction: Worker, Settler, Liberal, Feminist

1 Setting the Stage in British Mining Villages, to 1892

2 Replenishing the Empire, 1892–1900

3 From Nanaimo to Ottawa and Back Again, 1900–11

4 Boom, Bust, War, and Death, 1912–17

5 Independent Liberal Lady? 1917–20

6 From Hope to Disillusion, 1920–28

7 On the Margins, 1928–33

Conclusion: British Columbia’s Famous Pioneer

Politician: Making History

Notes; Index


A Liberal-Labour Lady restores British Columbia’s first female MLA and the British Empire’s first female cabinet minister to history. An imperial settler, liberal-labour activist, and mainstream suffragist, Mary Ellen Smith (1863–1933) demanded a fair deal for “deserving” British women and men in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Born in England in 1863, the daughter and wife of miners, she emigrated to Nanaimo, BC, in 1892. As she became a well-known suffragist and her husband Ralph won provincial and federal elections, the power couple strove to shift Liberal parties leftward to benefit women and workers, while still embracing global assumptions of British racial superiority and bourgeois feminism’s privileging of white women. Ralph’s 1917 death launched Mary Ellen as a candidate in a tumultuous 1918 Vancouver by-election. In the BC legislature until 1928, Smith campaigned for better wages, pensions, and greater justice, even as she endorsed anti-Asian, settler, and pro-eugenic policies. Simultaneously intrepid and flawed, Mary Ellen Smith is revealed to be a key figure in early Canada’s compromised struggle for greater justice.


As an acclaimed scholarly chronicler of Canadian, especially British Columbian, herstory, Veronica Strong-Boag is determined that Mary Ellen Spear Smith will not slip from recorded memory.

- Phyllis Reeve

Not quite a woman for her times, let alone ours, Smith seemed destined to disappear. Until, that is, Strong-Boag took on the task, uncovering both the good and the bad, using Smith as a lens onto gender relations and gender politics, British Columbia and Ottawa, and electoral politics and the power of connection. The result is a refreshingly complex picture of early twentieth-century Canada and of the crooked path to power.

- P.E. Bryden, University of Victoria