Reviewed by Samira Saramo (York University)
Published on H-Canada (July, 2012)
Commissioned by Jane Nicholas
Rose Henderson was, in the words of her eulogizer, G. R. Booth, “‘ever impatient in the presence of injustice’” (p. 272). Peter Campbell introduces readers to Henderson’s remarkable and multifaceted public life of activism from the early 1910s to her death in 1937. Henderson, as Campbell outlines, did not sit back for social justice to be won, but harnessed her “impatience” to leave a mark on Montreal’s, Toronto’s, and, more broadly, Canada’s women’s and youth’s rights, the labor movement, peace activism, and public education. Though Campbell clearly details Henderson’s fundamental impact on such issues as mothers’ pensions, the youth justice system, corporal punishment, the Toronto District School Board, the foundation of Canadian Labour Party politics, the One Big Union, and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF)--to name only a few!--he also notes that her characterization “continues to float just beyond our grasp” (p. 231).
By demonstrating the futility of trying to pin Henderson to a particular movement, Campbell successfully shows the merit in exploring, through Henderson, the intersections of the labor movement, feminist movement, and other elements of early twentieth-century social activism. Campbell recognizes that an intellectual analysis of Henderson’s thought and work cannot succeed without embracing her entwined understanding of the co-functioning of socialist and maternal feminism, and her contributions must likewise be assessed through an integrated class-gender analysis. Throughout her active life, Henderson proved consistently hesitant to commit wholly to a singular organization or cause and unwilling to waver from her personal convictions. Henderson was a utopian “in the best sense of that word,” and Campbell presents a woman whose ferocious desire to enact positive change in the lives of families led her on a continuous political journey in search of like-minded allies (p. 278). Though so little is known about Henderson’s personal life, Campbell sheds light on her life-long “spiritual quest” that brought her into contact with the Methodist Church, the Bahai faith, Theosophists, and the Quaker Society of Friends (p. 116).
In her time, Henderson was well-known and claimed by many political parties and social causes, but her involvement in so many groups created a distance that meant that “she was always in some sense an outsider in whatever organization she was a part of” (p. 236). Judging by her track record of tireless organizing and touring, though, Henderson seemed little affected by her outsider status. Campbell argues that the more significant consequence of Henderson’s distance was that “her legacy has suffered for it” (p. 126). Though mourned after her death by newspapers from the whole range of the political spectrum, historians, in Campbell’s view, have denied Henderson her due place. Campbell denounces how, for the historical record, “she was never ‘pure’ enough” to merit a role in the partisan or narrow-focused studies of Canadian social justice activism (p. 276).
Beyond rectifying the legacy of Henderson, Campbell’s work also makes a contribution to historical understandings of Canadian political currents and social activism. In Henderson, Campbell has found a remarkable thread that weaves together multiple aspects of early twentieth-century left politics. In all of her activism, Henderson appeared to embody a socialist popular front, even when such cooperation was unwelcome. Seemingly having a hand in every major Canadian labor union and organization and left political party, at least at some point in her career, Henderson brought to life the contestation and cooperation at play in the Canadian negotiations for a voice for the working class and a place for women and children. For example, through a study of Henderson’s participation, Campbell’s work offers new insights on the work between Canadian Labour parties; the Canadian evolution of the women’s peace movement, through organizations like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Women’s Peace Party, and the Women’s Peace Union; and the struggles in the formation of the CCF paired with a revisionist reading of Henderson’s role. Campbell also uses Henderson’s work to show the dawn of the Communist Popular Front at a time considered to be the last phase of the Third Period. Likewise, by tracing where in the country Henderson’s lectures and articles were most welcomed, Campbell has found a barometer for assessing regional political currents.
Campbell assumes that his readers have come to Henderson’s story with a solid background in Canadian history, and especially, of the left. Even with this background though, readers may find themselves craving more contextualization of the social climate and times in which Henderson worked. Campbell does provide an artfully written background to Toronto at the turn of the 1930s, which serves to confirm that such situating effectively enlivens the work and better highlights how Henderson and the organizations with which she worked fit into a broader context. Though not affecting the success of Campbell’s arguments, the work’s chapter layout and organization seem awkward; at points, the chapters’ main focus and Henderson’s activities get lost.
Campbell’s work, however, reveals a refreshing transparency that welcomes the reader into the processes of analysis and the challenges of where the sources fall short. Writing a biography of Henderson was surely no small undertaking. Henderson left no personal papers, making it difficult to find firsthand insights into her personality; nevertheless, Campbell does a commendable job of leaving readers with a sense of her character and an indisputable belief in the value of her contributions. Readers will also trust Campbell’s portrayal because the historian’s voice clearly interjects where questions arise. Campbell recognizes and reveals where “choices must be made” and proves able to “resist the temptation of going beyond the evidence in search of the ‘real’ Rose Henderson” (p. 188). For example, readers will be intrigued by the fact that Henderson was linked with the titles of assistant judge from her days working in the Montreal Juvenile Court, and, later, with a PhD designation, yet no proof of these designations were found. Campbell shows when these titles began to be used, notes that his research did not find evidence of official conferral, and points to the questions raised. Campbell does not jump to conclusions; he neither defends nor accuses Henderson, but simply shows that she had been tied to these titles in the media. Campbell points out that, given Henderson’s wide sociopolitical interests, “it is not surprising that the historian is able to ferret out inconsistencies in her ideas and discrepancies between her theories and her practices. Were it otherwise, she would not have been human” (p. 38). Campbell also concludes that Henderson “tended to be influenced by where she was and by the nature of her audience” (p. 116). Statements like these demonstrate Campbell’s keen ability to analyze Henderson’s thought and contribution, viewing both the positive and negative, without faulting or excusing the readily available contradictions. This ability allows Campbell to humanize Henderson’s character, and furthers the argument that she exemplified a sincere multifaceted commitment to humanity and justice above any specific party or credo.
Campbell’s Rose Henderson brings lost attention back to the “enigmatic figure” of Henderson (p. 236). This careful intellectual biography reveals a woman who undoubtedly believed in her ability to better the lives of working families and who did, in fact, make an impression on Canadian daily lives, through her advocacy of mothers’ pensions, the juvenile justice system, the political party structure, public education, internationalism, and pacifism. Her contribution, however, was not limited to the success of an individual or of a time; as Campbell shows, Henderson’s work has left an indelible mark on the Canadian political and social historical landscape. With Campbell’s study, it is unlikely Henderson will be forgotten again.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-canada.
Samira Saramo. Review of Campbell, Peter, Rose Henderson: A Woman for the People.
H-Canada, H-Net Reviews.
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