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With All Her Might; the life of Gertrude Harding, Militant Suffragette

 

Author Gretchen [Wilson] Kelbaugh's Comments:


Writing this biography of an unknown Canadian heroine has been especially rewarding to me because Gert Harding was my great-aunt. I grew up on stories about Auntie Gert's exploits, and I remember visiting her on occasion until she died in 1977, when I was 21. Lucky for me, she gave her scrapbook of typed memoirs, sketches and photographs to my mother, who gave it to me, after I became a writer. Gertrude Harding and the other Militant Suffragettes were heroines whose courage has been ignored by history books, but I'm sure that women around the world will be inspired to read of their exciting fight for the female vote. Each generation should hear their story.

Gert's life is doubly compelling because it's so easy for us to relate to her. She wasn't born into a political or wealthy family but was raised on a dairy farm in New Brunswick, Canada in the 1890's. She happened to land in the right place, London, England, at the right time, 1912, to seize the opportunity to join the world's most radical group of women fighting for a woman's cause - the WSPU - and to do so at the very height of its militancy.

Gert's first big 'job' was to stage a midnight attack on rare orchids at Kew Gardens. Later, she worked on the underground newspaper, "The Suffragette"; she was private secretary to Christabel Pankhurst, the brains of the organization; and she headed up the secret bodyguard of women assigned to protect their leader, Mrs Pankhurst, from constant rearrest by Scotland Yard using the infamous 'Cat and Mouse' Act.

After the partial vote was won in 1918, Gert spent most of the rest of her life in New Jersey, remaining a social activist. The biography includes the memoirs, sketches and photographs from her scrapbook. I'll finish by quoting the end of my Introduction to the biography:

It is difficult to understand why women felt justified in committing such acts of violence as attacking works of art and setting empty buildings ablaze. Often the women themselves found their acts repulsive. As I contemplate Gert and her comrades, I'm drawn into the mind of the individual woman as she argues with herself over whether to throw her first stone through a window. If she throws the stone, she will be hurtling herself away from comfort and into the world of the Other, of the few people who cross the border of perceived civilization in order to expand it. If she throws the stone, it will be the single most significant act of her life. Lord Frederick Pethick-Lawrence said of the thousands of suffragists throughout the world, both the famous and the unknown, "their lives are woven into the fabric of human civilization." Their lives may be woven, but not many people have seen the cloth.

The push for the vote by women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries created worldwide upheaval that eventually changed the way society views women. Without political equality, social equality would never come. Yet the total picture of the struggle for female suffrage has been packaged in short paragraphs in our history books, and so has the violent revolt by British women. It was a movement without precedent, yet it continues to be treated without prestige. At seven, all I wanted was the intrigue. Auntie Gert was seventy-four and tired. At seventeen, I bragged with clumsy questions about women's lib. She wouldn't commit herself and hardly spoke. At thirty-seven, I felt that I knew what she wished I had asked.

MORE INFO: section 15.ca: Rebels without a Clause
 

Critical Acclaim

 "The next time you hear a woman apologetically say, 'I'm a feminist, but...', give her this book. Feminists are no longer arrested, pelted with rotten fruit or incited to blow up public monuments. For that, thank women like Gert Harding."
       Heather Robertson, The Globe and Mail  


"Most intriguing is the juxtaposition of Harding's personal perspective with Wilson's concise, clearly written history of women's increasingly desperate, unprecedented push for the vote in Great Britain.

       Publishers Weekly

"Wilson's first book, from one of Canada's oldest small presses, deserves a standing ovation."
       The Ottawa Citizen


"Wilson has written a good book about the life and times of Gertrude Harding...Wilson has employed a clever technique in presenting Gertrude Harding's own memoirs, which permits Gertrude to tell her own story, so far as possible. Extensive quotation from other major figures is also effective: it completes the reader's understanding of Gertrude Harding."
       Gillian Thompson, The New Brunswick Reader  

"Sometimes it seems as if all the good stories have been told. The recent biography of Gertrude Harding...proves, however that our past still holds many narrative treasures."
       Atlantic Books Today  

"With All Her Might is a fascinating story and Gert Harding is a fascinating heroine."
       The Daily Gleaner  

"With All Her Might is far from just another feminist biography. For readers wanting to expand their knowledge of 20th century politics and social history, it's a great read and a keeper as an excellent reference book."
       The Chronical-Herald/The Mail-Star