Helen "Ma" Armstrong

(1875-1947)

“The Wild Woman of the West” was a Winnipeg trailblazer overlooked for years by those studying the 1919 General Strike. Helen Armstrong was a tenacious labour activist and president of the local chapter of the Women’s Labour League. She was arrested multiple times during the General Strike, as she organized female workers on the strike committee. Known affectionately as “Ma,” she was a warm and compassionate fighter for workers’ rights.

Armstrong was born in Toronto in 1875, one of 10 children for Alfred Jury and Emma Hart. It was in her father’s tailor shop that Armstrong was given her education about labour issues. Her father was the co-founder of the Canadian chapter of the Knights of Labour.

She travelled to Winnipeg in 1905 with her husband, George — who was in construction — and their three children. (A fourth child, a boy, was born in 1907.) Labour activism was in the Armstrong family, too. Helen was a tenacious activist and George was a founding member of Winnipeg’s Socialist Party and a member of the carpenters’ union.

The Armstrongs were an integral part of the six-week Winnipeg General Strike, with Helen organizing female workers, picketing, managing a strikers’ soup kitchen, signing up new union members, speaking and marching.

She was arrested twice, but released quickly. George, however, spent nearly a year behind bars, leaving Armstrong to manage the household and children while her husband was in jail.

She ran for Winnipeg city council twice after the General Strike. This was at a time when women in politics were a rarity. In the aftermath of the strike, civic politics became a continuation of old grudges between labour and business. In particular, the 1919 civic election was known as the “second round of the general strike,” with labour candidates advocating for the reinstatement of civic employees fired during the labour unrest, and the right to organize.

During her run for city council in 1923, Armstrong said: “I shall continue to work for more protection for our girls and women workers, also for the enforcement of all laws relative to wages, better conditions and our social welfare problems.”

Armstrong’s fight for social justice preceded the General Strike. She actively fought against conscription during the First World War. She thought the federal government could improve voluntary enrolment into the military by improving financial support to military families. When conscription became law in August 1917, Armstrong supported those who were sentenced to prison for refusing military services by providing food and clothing. She was arrested in December 1917 for handing out anti-conscription pamphlets. That year she also revived the Women’s Labour League — becoming its president — and led Woolworth’s retail clerks out on strike.

Armstrong successfully ran the campaign in 1918 to set minimum-wage legislation for women in Manitoba, one of the first two provinces to do so.

Armstrong died in 1947 in California. Because of her, Manitoba women enjoy labour rights many of us now take for granted.

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