Hello and welcome back to Newfoundpod, a bite sized podcast about Newfoundland. I’m your host, Debbie Wiseman and in today’s mini episode, I’m going to tell you about Lady Helena Squires.
Helena Squires was born Helena Strong in 1879 in Little Bay Islands. She attended the Methodist College in St. John’s, Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Emerson College and Harvard in Boston. She returned to Newfoundland and married Richard Squires in 1905. They settled in St. John’s where Richard set up his law practice. He also spent 23 years in the House of Assembly. Part of his time in the House was spent blocking the efforts of the suffragettes to get women the right to vote. It’s kind of surprising, then, that his wife would become the first woman to be elected to the House of Assembly.
In 1929, the MHA for Lewisporte died suddenly, and a by-election was held the following year. Helena ran and won by a landslide, receiving 81% of the votes. She ran on a platform of raising the standard of living in Newfoundland, improving child welfare and public health. As you can imagine, some men were not happy having a woman in the House. I can’t imagine it was easy for her. Frederick Alderdice, the opposition leader said “I know she will take a large part in government affairs, but hope her actions will never be such as to cause us to name the government a petticoat government.” I’m sure he thought that was hilarious. Lady Squires, known for her wit, just replied, “Ladies are not wearing them now.”
Lady Squires took her position seriously, though, and spoke up for the people she served. In 1932, Richard Squires was the Prime Minister of Newfoundland. The liberal government was losing public support, and this came to a head in April of that year, when a riot broke out, trapping Richard and Helena in Colonial House. They escaped unscathed, but both lost their respective elections a couple of months later. Of all the candidates, she came closest to being re-elected, losing by only 273 votes.
By the way, I will be doing an episode on this riot very soon.
Helena Squires trained to be a teacher and was considered a social activist at the time. She founded a teachers school and a maternity hospital. She also served as the President of the Grace Hospital Auxiliary and was always active in charity work and in the church. When Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, she became the first president of the provincial Liberal Association, a position that she held until 1958. She passed away in 1959. On a final note, I noticed in my research that Lady Helena was often not written about in a favourable light, which I feel was due to her husband and his efforts against the women’s vote and frankly, his corruption. I think this is unfair. It’s assumed because her husband continued to oppose a woman’s right to vote, that she did as well. In fact, I read that she was involved in the suffragette movement but when she married and her husband became involved in politics, she stopped participating, but still thought women deserved the right to vote. We have to remember that this was a different time, and for better or worse, she supported her husband. I think her run for the House at least signifies that she thought women belonged in politics and her charity work showed that she believed women deserved better in life.
Sources on the website newfoundpod.com