George Black had been the Yukon’s Member of Parliament for nearly 15 years when he became ill and was hospitalized in January 1935. He was not able to run in the federal election that came later in the year, so his wife, Martha, stepped forward to campaign for a seat in parliament in his place.
It was a formidable challenge for Mrs. Black; women had only had the right to vote in federal elections for less than 20 years, and only one woman, Agnes McPhail, had won a seat in the House of Commons since that time.
But Martha Black was a formidable woman. She came from a wealthy American family (the Mungers of Chicago) and gained her Canadian citizenship by marrying New Brunswick born lawyer, George Black. Mrs. Black had learned all the rules of social behavior in finishing school and had once taken tea in the White House.
Nor was she unfamiliar with political life. Ever since their marriage 31 years before, Martha Black had been immersed in the world of politics. George had been on the Yukon Territorial Council for three consecutive terms, and had then governed the territory as commissioner from 1912 to 1918. He was subsequently elected to parliament in 1921 and had successfully held his seat through four elections.
Martha’s father, George Munger, also tried his hand at politics, running unsuccessfully as a Populist candidate in Kansas.
The Blacks had never sought personal gain while serving their constituents. During the summer of 1935, when Martha was invited to run in the forthcoming election by her constituents, she wrote to Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, asking for financial assistance to run the campaign.
“We have absolutely no means, as I have carefully explained to you,” she wrote, “to finance an election, or, in fact, to any more than barely support ourselves —-and that, only an existence.”
“We have both been hard working, consistent Conservative Party workers for over 30 years. We have spent our money freely for, as we thought, for the good of the Conservative Party whether in office or not. That is the reason we are distressed now.”
She received the financial support she asked for, and her success in the election was, in greater part, due to her work on the campaign trail, where she travelled to the widely spread and remote parts of her riding. The population of the territory was, at that time, much smaller than it is today, and Mrs. Black knew a large segment of that number personally.
The Yukon electorate had a choice between a known entity, and a relative newcomer to the territory who was running for the Liberals. She won the election handily, defeating barrister John Patrick Smith by a margin of 696 to 555.
When Mrs. Black returned to Ottawa as Canada’s second female Member of Parliament, she was the subject of considerable media attention. Having climbed the Chilkoot Pass during the gold rush of 1898, she was a very colourful personality even before the election, and had spoken widely in Canada, the United States and Great Britain on hundreds of occasions.
Her first appearance on the new medium of radio took place in early February of the following year, when she spoke for 15 minutes on the topic of “Women of Today and Yesterday.”
Because she had called herself an Independent Conservative, she was not installed in an office near other Conservatives, but was given space in another location on Parliament Hill, opposite the only other woman sitting in the House of Commons, McPhail. Her seat in the Green Chamber was placed on the opposition side in the front row adjacent to H.H. Stevens (a former Conservative cabinet minister) and James S. Woodsworth, the leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (C.C.F.) party.
Mrs. Black rose from her seat on Feb. 9, 1936 to give her maiden speech, of sympathy for Queen Mary, on behalf of the women of Canada. Queen Mary was the wife for 44 years of King George V, who had passed away on Jan. 20, 1936.
Mrs. Black admitted she was frightened by her first speech in Parliament. As she rose to give her address, the chamber was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.
“I wish one had,” she said,” as I have never felt such an appalling lack of sound.
“I have addressed audiences of 30,000 people and have been sitting in the gallery of the House during session for 15 years,” she continued, “wondering why they did not do [speak] better – now I wonder how they did so well.”
It didn’t take her long to assume the role of Member of Parliament. She was the first woman to ever attend a Conservative caucus meeting in Canada.
But she found much of the debate in the House of Commons to be tedious, or irrelevant. And she was blunt about it.
“I came up to the room [office],” she wrote, “as I could not stand being in the House any longer and listening to the agricultural committee talk on diseased cattle, hogs and poultry. The discussion almost convinced me that I should be a vegetarian.”
She spoke out in the House about the poor treatment afforded Yukon senior citizens, and the raw deal given retired Yukon civil servants by “a most unjust and absolutely dishonest ruling.”
Roads needed improvement and a minimum wage and improved conditions for mine workers were required too.
She was critical of the intense partisanship in debate.
“A little more common sense and a little less partisanship is what the House of Commons needs, in the opinion of Mrs. George Black, Conservative member for Yukon,” reported the newspapers.
Out of boredom brought on by the dullness of the session (the worst in 15 years), and perhaps because of the attention the press usually paid to how the lady parliamentarians were attired, McPhail and Black retaliated, by devising a list of the handsomest men in Parliament – (Denton Massey, Conservative, Toronto, topped the list) while Mrs. Black rated C.H. Cahan (Conservative, Montreal) as the most rugged and arresting member.
But within weeks, Mrs. Black was saying there were no handsome men.
“How can I truthfully say that the men are handsome when their ears stick out and their waistlines bulge?”
During her time in office Martha Black proved to be a blunt and outspoken advocate for her constituents and critic of parliamentary antics. Over the following years, she would achieve some high moments. Her autobiography, co-written with Elizabeth Bailey-Price, was serialized in Maclean’s Magazine in 1937, and later published under the title of My Seventy Years.
But within a year, of entering Parliament, she lost her brother, George Munger, and two of her three sons, Lyman, in an automobile accident, and Warren, of a heart condition.
And she was to face some issues of serious consequence to her constituency. In 1937, the federal government and the province of British Columbia began negotiations to annex the territory into its southern neighbour. But that’s a story for another time.
Martha Black was the first of several female parliamentarians who have served the Yukon with honour over the last century.
Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His latest book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Whitehorse stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org