Gertrude Harding

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Gertrude Menzies Harding (1889-1977) was a suffragette born on a farm in rural Canada. She happened to arrive in London, England, in 1912 at the height of the militant suffragette movement, which she quickly joined, one of only a handful of Canadians to do so. Gert Harding remained as one of the highest-ranking and longest-lasting members of this organization, the Women's Social and Political Union. British women were granted a partial vote in 1918.

Early years[edit]

Gert Harding was born the last of seven children on a farm in Welsford, New Brunswick, Canada. Her sketches of the time show her escaping housework to hunt, fish and camp alone in the woods, with a pet raccoon as companion. When Gert was 18 years old, a doctor pronounced that she had a heart murmur, considered a serious condition at the time. She was pleased to be invited to travel to Hawaii as companion to her older sister Nellie Waterhouse and family. Eventually she was asked to teach sewing classes to local women and to care for a boy crippled by polio, and this sparked an interest in working with the poor.

Suffragette career[edit]

In 1912, aged 23, Gert Harding was invited to join the Waterhouse family in London, England, where Dr Ernest Waterhouse had business interests. Within days, Gert witnessed her first poster parade of women carrying placards with slogans such as “Votes for Women” and “No Taxation without Representation”. Drawn to the cause (which had begun 47 years earlier), she was soon a paid Women's Social and Political Union organizer, financially independent. She moved out on her own for the first time.

Gert’s first big ‘job’ was to stage a midnight attack on rare orchids with comrade Lilian Lenton at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew (Lilian soon became a daring arsonist for the cause). The women entered the Gardens by day, posing as tourists, and discovered the best places to attack. That night, during a thunderstorm, they broke into two little glass houses with the rarest orchids, intent on wreaking as much damage as possible before being caught. The night watchman didn't come. The next day a dozen newspapers reported ‘the outrage' at Kew Gardens, two claiming it must have been male sympathizers to the cause, as only men could scale the six-foot wall to escape.

Deciding she didn't want to perpetrate violence anymore, Gert Harding found other ways to help the cause. She worked on the underground newspaper, The Suffragette, eventually becoming its editor; she was private secretary to Christabel Pankhurst when Christabel was exiled in Paris (1915); and she headed up the secret bodyguard of women assigned to protect their leader, Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, from constant rearrest by Scotland Yard during the Cat and Mouse Act. The bodyguard learned jujitsu from Edith Garrud and carried Indian clubs. Despite this, the women often were badly injured, from contusions to broken bones, dislocated joints and concussions. Their best successes against bobbies and Scotland Yard detectives came from outwitting them, using disguises, decoys and other forms of subterfuge.

When War broke out, Gert Harding remained as part of the skeletal staff of the WSPU, remaining loyal to the Pankhursts in their allegiance to the British Government during the war effort. The Suffragette newspaper was renamed Britannia, and Gert edited this for five months. Eventually the Pankhursts had to let her go through lack of funds. Gert landed a job at the Gretna Munitions factory, providing social assistance to the women who worked there under terrible conditions.

Later years[edit]

Gert Harding moved back to Canada in 1920 to live in a cottage on a field of the William and May Harding farm in Hammond River, New Brunswick. After a year, she landed a job as Welfare Supervisor in Plainfield, New Jersey, which she kept for 13 years.

In her middle years, Gert volunteered with many organizations, fighting for peace, women’s rights, animal rights and the poor. After typing out her memoirs, she pasted them into a scrapbook, added photos and her own sketches and gave it to her niece, Peggy Harding (Kelbaugh), 'to do with as she pleased'. Gert kept in touch with family in New Brunswick and returned there, sick with cancer, to live with niece Audrey (Harding) Starr in 1976. She died a year later, aged 88. She never married and had no children.

In 1996 Peggy's daughter, Gretchen Wilson (Kelbaugh) published With All Her Might; the Life of Gertrude Harding, Militant Suffragette,[1] which includes the contents of Gert's scrapbook.

Portrayals[edit]

Harding is portrayed in Ann Bertram's play The Good Fight, the story of suffragette Grace Roe performed by Theatre Unbound.[2]

Harding and her sister (Nellie Waterhouse) are also portrayed, with latitude and name changes, in Peter Hilton's fanciful play Mrs Garrud's Dojo.[3] The play, written for and performed by The Lady Cavalier Theatre Company of New York, includes the character of Edith Garrud, who trained the Bodyguard in juijitsu.

Gert Harding partially inspired the fictional character Persephone Wright in the graphic novel trilogy Suffrajitsu: Mrs. Pankhurst's Amazons (2015) and appears under her own name as a supporting character in the spin-off novellas The Second-Story Girl and The Isle of Dogs.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Wilson, Gretchen, With All Her Might; the Life of Gertrude Harding, Militant Suffragette, 1996: Goose Lane Editions, Fredericton, NB, Canada. ISBN 9780864921840|url=http://www.gooselane.com. 1998: Holmes & Meier, New York. 1999: Txalaparta, Spain, as Con todas sus fuerzas; Gertrude Harding, Militante Sufragista.
  2. ^ Everett, Matthew (October 1, 2012). "THEATER REVIEW Theatre Unbound's jujitsu suffragettes fight "The Good Fight"". Daily Planet. Retrieved November 21, 2012. 
  3. ^ Hilton, Peter, Mrs Garrud's Dojo; A play in two scenes and three songs, 2003, New York, NY.