"The Wild Woman of the West" was a Winnipeg trailblazer overlooked for years by those studying the 1919 General Strike. Happily, her story is now being told as historians recognize women too often are left out of the history books, despite the important roles they play.
Helen Armstrong was a tenacious labour activist and president of the local chapter of the Women’s Labour League. She was arrested multiple times during the General Strike, as she organized female workers on the strike committee. Known affectionately as "Ma," she was a warm and compassionate fighter for workers’ rights.
Armstrong was born in Toronto in 1875, one of 10 children for Alfred Jury and Emma Hart. It was in her father’s tailor shop that Armstrong was given her education about labour issues. Her father was the co-founder of the Canadian chapter of the Knights of Labour and, according to historians, his shop was often the location for energetic discussions about topics of the day.
She travelled to Winnipeg in 1905 with her husband, George — who was in construction — and their three children, because he was looking for work. (A fourth child, a boy, was born in 1907.)
George was also a labour activist: a founding member of the Socialist Party in Winnipeg and a member of the carpenters’ union.
The Armstrongs were an integral part of the six-week Winnipeg General Strike, with Helen organizing female workers, picketing, managing a strikers’ soup kitchen, signing up new union members, speaking and marching.
Helen Armstrong was arrested twice, but she was released quickly, within days. George, unfortunately, spent nearly a year behind bars, leaving Armstrong to manage the household and children while her husband was in jail. (According to documentary film producer Paula Kelly, there are murky photos of Armstrong and other union supporters having a picnic at the prison farm east of Winnipeg.)
She ran for Winnipeg city council twice after the General Strike. This was at a time when women in politics were a rarity, but in the aftermath of the strike, civic politics became a continuation of old grudges between labour and business. In particular, the 1919 civic election was known as the "second round of the general strike," with labour candidates advocating for the reinstatement of civic employees fired during the labour unrest and the right to organize.
During her run for city council in 1923, Armstrong said: "I shall continue to work for more protection for our girls and women workers, also for the enforcement of all laws relative to wages, better conditions and our social welfare problems."
Before the General Strike, she actively fought against conscription during the First World War. Instead, she thought the federal government could improve voluntary enrolment into the military by improving financial support to military families. When conscription became law in August 1917, Armstrong supported those who were sentenced to prison for refusing military services by providing food and clothing. She was arrested in December 1917 for handing out anti-conscription pamphlets.
It capped a busy year for Armstrong, as she also revived the Women’s Labour League — becoming its president — and led Woolworth’s retail clerks out on strike.
She is to be thanked for ensuring there is a minimum wage for women in the province (although what it needs to be set at is still debatable). Armstrong successfully ran the campaign in 1918 to set minimum-wage legislation for women in Manitoba — one of the first two provinces to do so.
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In the 1920 provincial election, and despite the fact he was in jail, George was elected as a Socialist Party candidate. However, he failed to win a second mandate in 1922 and, unable to find work because of his involvement in the strike, the Armstrong family left Canada for Chicago.
Armstrong continued her feminist work in the United States, taking up the cause of the suffragists and the fight for women’s right to have the vote.
The Armstrongs eventually returned to Winnipeg and, into the 1930s, she continued to advocate for women. In the personal correspondence Kelly discovered for her documentary The NotoriousMrs. Armstrong, she continued to provide for widows and single mothers.
Armstrong died in 1947 in California. Because of her, Manitoba women can enjoy labour rights many of us now take for granted.
Perhaps a silent thank you should be given to the "Wild Woman of the West" when the next paycheque arrives. We’re certainly reaping the benefits she fought for.
Shannon Sampert is a retired political scientist and runs the communications consulting company Media Diva. She is working with the Nellie McClung Foundation on the 150 Women Trailblazers Awards. Nominate a trailblazer at wfp.to/trailblazers.
Searching for trailblazing women
The Nellie McCliung Foundation is looking for female Manitoba trailblazers in advance of the province's 150 anniversary — and they want to hear from you. Nominate a trailblazer and share her story about show she made the province great at wfp.to/trailblazers