Early feminist had a rough ride in the Klondike

I belong to the "lower classes;" That's a phrase we often meet.

I belong to the “lower classes;”

That’s a phrase we often meet.

There are some who sneer at working girls;

As they pass us on the street,

And stare at us in proud disdain

And their lips in scorn will curl,

And oftentimes we hear them say:

“She’s only a working girl.”

So said one of the Yukon’s early poets and woman activists, Marie Joussaye Fotheringham. I find her an intriguing character in Yukon’s early history, and a representative of one aspect of Yukon’s hidden history: working class women.

Yet there is much more to be learned about this enigmatic woman. While there are other accounts from the early days by working class women, the narratives are, according to scholar Carole Gerson, “marginalized in the prevailing master narratives of Canadian Cultural History.”

Fotheringham can be labelled in many ways. She was a labour activist, an author, a journalist and poet, a suffragette, a public pest, and an ex-con. Regardless of which you apply, she is an enigmatic and little known character from Yukon’s early twentieth century history.

She was born Marie Josey in Belleville, Ontario, in 1864. Her labourer father Michael, died when she was young, and her working life started when she was just 11 years old. At age seventeen, she was a servant in the household of a widowed Belleville lawyer with two young children.

Self educated, she never was never afraid to express herself; some recipients of her correspondence included, the Prime Minister of Canada, the Commissioner of the Yukon, and even the future King of England. She was competent in verse, and she did not appear to be ashamed of who she was – a working girl, who earned her way from a young age. The first woman labour poet in Canada, her poems began to appear in newspapers and labour journals as early as 1886, when she was just 22 years of age.

By 1893, she was well known in Toronto for organizing domestic servants into the Working Women’s Protective Association. She championed Sunday streetcars, for those who had to work on the Lord’s Day. Gerson states that her newspaper articles were described as “brilliant” or “clever, though bitter.”

She published her first book of poems, Songs that Quinte Sang, in 1895, at which time she started travelling west, ending up in Vancouver in 1901, and then moving to Dawson City in 1902. A year later, she married David Hetherington Fotheringham, a young Mountie from South Africa, who was assigned to show her around the district when she first arrived in Dawson City.

Their lives together led over some rocky trails. A year after their wedding, she was convicted to two months of hard labour over questionable dealings related to mining properties and the misuse of another woman’s diamonds. She was involved in a number of legal tussles in the ensuing years, including a long-simmering dispute with a mining developer named Margaret Mitchell. She also vociferously protested the corruption of the liberal administration of the period.

Unpaid debts related to a failed venture to revive a Dawson hotel landed both her and her husband in the slammer for month in the fall of 1912.

When husband David enlisted during George Black’s recruitment campaign in 1916, Marie remained in Dawson, but again became a visible social activist. She was the Secretary of the Yukon Women’s Protective League and Franchise Movement, and a founding member of the Yukon Progressive League, whose platform included an eight-hour work day, the vote for women, workmen’s compensation, and an elected school board.

I can’t say how her efforts or those of the organizations she was involved in affected the decision, but women were granted the right to vote in the federal election of 1917 and in territorial elections by 1919.

When she was warned not to be so vocal or it might land her in jail, she responded: “I’ve been in jail so often … I could find my way in blindfolded, and I will give an address on ‘How to get Into Jail and How to get Out.’ It is easy for some to get in, but they cannot all get out.”

During the war, while she was confined due to illness, she produced another book of poetry. Titled Selections from Anglo-Saxon Songs, it was the first book of poems, as far as is known, to be published locally in the Yukon. Half of the proceeds raised by the sale of the 2,000 copies, which were printed and bound by the Dawson News, were to go to provide relief for Yukon men serving on the European battlefront. One of the poems was titled, Good Luck to the Yukon Contingent.

After the war, she continued to champion social causes. During the 1920 territorial election, she spoke publicly in favour of prohibition. She also joined some of the most socially prominent women in the Yukon in signing an appeal in the Dawson newspaper asking electors to vote “No” to booze in the forthcoming election. Maintaining her practice of social action, she ran for Klondike seat on the territorial council in the 1925 election, but came in third.

During this time, she continued to write poetry including a Christmas pamphlet in 1926 titled Season’s Greetings to You. When they moved to Mayo, where her husband operated a small riverboat on the Stewart River, she started and edited the Mayo-Keno Bulletin, a small newspaper produced with “a typewriter, some bundles of typewriter paper and a few score sheets of carbon paper as its mechanical plant.” She got fresh news from the newly established government radio station that linked Mayo with Dawson. Her outspoken opinions were not always welcomed in the community.

Eventually, she moved to Vancouver, where she lived until her death in 1949, while husband David continued to work as a miner at Keno Hill. From her coastal urban setting, she continued to produce and send out broadsides of poetry during the 1930s.

The question that arises when I consider her interesting place in Yukon’s history is: how should she be remembered? She certainly was outspoken. Many of the issues she championed during the early days in Dawson (when she wasn’t in jail of course) would resonate with social activists of later years. Workers compensation, hours of work, and women’s rights were all issues of concern.

Marie Fotheringham, was a poet and social activist, but unsuccessful in politics. Certainly, having served two terms in crowbar hotel didn’t improve her chances of getting elected, but she spoke out on issues that were important to the working class, and wasn’t afraid to venture into political territory generally unfamiliar to women of the era.

Scholar Gerson said that Fotheringham’s “assumptions, as far as they may be discerned, contrast starkly with the prevailing models of self-representation available to her generation of Canadian women…”.

I think it’s fair to say that she was a woman ahead of her time.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, History Hunting in the Yukon, is now available. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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