Mary Ellen Smith

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Mary Ellen Smith, from a 1918 publication.

Mary Ellen Spear Smith (October 11, 1861 or 1863 – May 3, 1933) was a politician in British Columbia, Canada. She was the first female Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia,[1] and both the first female cabinet minister and the first female Speaker in the British Empire.[2][3]

Early life[edit]

Smith was born Mary Ellen Spear in England.[4] Her father, Richard Spear, was a copper miner. She became a school teacher before marrying Ralph Smith, a widower and coal miner. She moved with him to British Columbia in the early 1891, shortly after their marriage.


Ralph Smith became a moderate trade union leader, and was elected to the BC legislature in 1898. He was elected to the House of Commons of Canada in the 1900 federal election. He returned to the BC legislature, and became British Columbia's Minister of Finance in 1916. Mary Ellen Smith had helped her husband's political career by campaigning for him and making speeches on his behalf when he was unavailable.[5]

She was also an activist in her own right as a member of the Suffrage League of Canada, president of the Women's Canadian Club and of the Women's Forum, regent of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, and an executive member of the Canadian Red Cross. She also raised money for war veterans, and helped establish factories to employ blind children. She founded the "Laurier Liberal Club", and was an active Methodist.

Ralph Smith died in February 1917, and Mary Ellen Smith ran to succeed him as Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Vancouver in a January 1918 by-election as an "Independent Liberal" on the slogan "Women and children first". She was elected by a wide margin, and said in a speech to the legislature that "Not only did the women of my fair city stand behind me... but the men were there, too."

She was re-elected as a Liberal candidate in the 1920 and 1924 general elections.

As a legislator, she introduced a law in 1918 establishing a minimum wage for women and girls, and helped enact laws establishing juvenile courts, allowing women to sit as judges, creating social welfare support for "deserted wives", passing laws protecting women in the workplace, and establishing a pension for mothers.[6][7]

Smith also supported anti-Asian and eugenicist politics in British Columbia, including the Women and Girls’ Protection Act of 1923, which restricted their employment by Asians. She also advocated the sterilization of the feeble-minded lest their reproduction contribute to ‘race suicide’.[8] She accepted the racial science of her day that justified legislation efforts to “protect our own [Anglo-Canadian] race.” (as cited in Kerwin, 1999, p. 95). By embracing racism and eugenics within her feminism, Smith reflected the ideals of feminists of her era.[9]

She joined the cabinet in of Premier John Oliver in 1921 as minister without portfolio,[10] but resigned after eight months as she felt that the rules of cabinet solidarity restricted her independence. In February 1928, she served as Acting Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, the first woman to hold the position of Speaker in the British Empire. She was defeated in the 1928 election that brought down the Liberal government.

In 1929, she was appointed Canada's delegate to the International Labour Organization conference in Geneva. She served as president of the BC Liberal Party in the early 1930s until her death due to a stroke in 1933.


  1. ^ "Canada 150: Mary Ellen Smith was first woman elected to B.C. legislature". Vancouver Sun, Stephen Hume, March 8, 2017
  2. ^ Cathy Converse. Mainstays: Women who Shaped BC. TouchWood Editions; 1998. ISBN 978-0-920663-62-2. p. 119–120.
  3. ^ Sterilized by the State: Eugenics, Race, and the Population Scare in Twentieth-Century North America. Cambridge University Press; 26 August 2013. ISBN 978-1-107-43459-2. p. 99–.
  4. ^ "Mary Ellen Smith" at The Canadian Encyclopedia
  5. ^ Jan Peterson. Harbour City: Nanaimo in Transition, 1920-1967. Heritage House Publishing Co; 2006. ISBN 978-1-894974-20-2. p. 38–.
  6. ^ Irene Howard. The Struggle for Social Justice in British Columbia: Helena Gutteridge, the Unknown Reformer. UBC Press; 1 November 2011. ISBN 978-0-7748-4287-7. p. 115–.
  7. ^ Their own history: women's contribution to the labour movement of British Columbia. United Fishermen & Allied Workers Union/CAW Seniors Club; 2002. p. 53.
  8. ^ The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics. Oxford University Press, USA; 24 September 2010. ISBN 978-0-19-537314-1. p. 531–.
  9. ^ Susan McNicoll. British Columbia Murders: Notorious Cases and Unsolved Mysteries. Heritage House; 1 February 2011. ISBN 978-1-926936-14-7. p. 110–.
  10. ^ R. Kenneth Carty. Politics, Policy, and Government in British Columbia. UBC Press; 1996. ISBN 978-0-7748-0583-4. p. 103–.