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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.