In early September 1919, thousands of Women’s Labour League meeting attendees resolved to march to Manitoba’s provincial legislature and demand that jailed strike leaders be released from prison. After the police threatened to intervene, Edith Hancox and her four-year-old daughter, Jeannie, delivered a petition instead.
That same evening, bail was granted to the strike leaders. Hancox and her daughter joined a procession of 1,500 people to greet the released leaders.
Hancox was one of the many socialist activists and organizers involved with the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. Her story is often left out of historical retellings, but, thanks to the work of historian David Thompson and local historians Nolan and Sharron Reilly, more is known about her than ever before.
For Hancox and many others, the Winnipeg General Strike wasn’t the end of their struggle or organizing. Hancox specifically focused on issues other left-wing activists tended to dismiss. Unfortunately, her stances would see her pushed out of political life.
Hancox was an important political figure in Winnipeg’s history. Over the next three columns, I will reflect on Hancox’s life, her evolution as a political activist and organizer and her eventual retreat from political life.
Examining Hancox’s life can help explain the interwar years in Canada and challenge assumptions about what first-wave feminism looked like at that time. Feminist movements of the period are often depicted as purely maternal and middle-class. Hancox, however, championed feminist issues while also advocating for the poor and unemployed, demonstrating that first-wave feminism was far from homogenous.
Her politics also stood out at a time when much of the focus was on workers’ rights, and feminist issues were either dismissed or met with outright hostility. Hancox’s views and activism likely stemmed from her experiences as a woman and a domestic worker.
Hancox was born when her mother was 18 and working as a domestic servant in England. Hancox’s father abandoned the family. With few economic options, Hancox worked as a child servant and later a general domestic servant. Hancox was only able to leave domestic servant life after she married. These experiences with the conservative and patriarchal order undoubtedly had a major effect on Hancox.
Hancox came to Canada in May 1904 as a soldier in the Salvation Army. Women regularly gave speeches on behalf of the Salvation Army in crowded halls, but Hancox reportedly tired of the task. In 1921, she organized a protest over living conditions in the Salvation Army’s hostels and wrote scathing critiques of the organization’s practices.
Hancox’s politics were transformed by the Labour Church and William Ivens and J.S Woodsworth, who spoke about gender equality and workers’ rights. Her experience in the Labour Church set the scene for her involvement in the Winnipeg General Strike and her political organizing in the 1920s.
Scott Price is a labour historian based in Winnipeg, Man.
Published in Volume 77, Number 16 of The Uniter (January 26, 2023)