The role of women in the creation of public housing

“100 women, armed with briefs and indignation urged council to throw off its indifference to the plight of slum families by making an immediate start on public housing.”

It was only after “some 100 women, armed with briefs and indignation urged council to throw off its indifference to the plight of slum families by making an immediate start on public housing,” that in March 1961, Winnipeg city council gave its approval to it first public-housing project.[1] [The Free Press for that day has a photo of the women.[2]

It was not until the early 1960s that Winnipeg city council and the provincial government were finally prepared to work with the federal government to build two housing projects in North Winnipeg. When asked to explain why Winnipeg city council was finally prepared to act, Winnipeg city council member Mark Danzker credited the change in political atmosphere from 1953 to 1961 to the work done by “church, labour, women’s clubs and the chamber of commerce.”[3] Church organizations and unions had long been supporters of public housing, while the support of the chamber of commerce for public housing, even in the 1960s, was lukewarm. But Danzker was certainly correct in identifying the role that women’s organizations had played in the campaign for public housing.

The support goes back to the early twentieth century. The Social Science Study Club, an organization founded and led by women, held seven monthly meetings in 1913-1914 on social issues including one titled “Housing—Why has Winnipeg a housing problem?”[4] Some of the concerns reflected a middle-class bias: “Becky” the editor of “Woman’s Empire,” the women’s page of the Winnipeg Tribune, wrote in 1907 that she thought “it would be an excellent plan if some of our Winnipeg ladies who have ample time to dispose of” were to “materially assist in the problem of better housing for the working classes.”[5] In 1908 the woman’s column in the Tribune (Tea Table Talk) wondered sniffily “Who, I wonder, is going to educate the laboring classes on the necessity of healthful surroundings? Take for instance, the foreign element at the north end, where the people and their dwellings are none too clean.”[6]

Among the most consistent advocates of public housing were women’s organizations affiliated with the labour movement. In 1937 the Labor Women’s Federation of Manitoba called on council to “institute a proper housing scheme.”[7] Labour member of the Winnipeg school board, Jessie Maclennan, told an International Women’s Day meeting held at the Peretz School, a left-wing school operated by the Winnipeg Jewish community, in 1939 that women could “do much to improve education and housing conditions if they protest to the governments responsible.”[8] Feminist and labour activist Beatrice Brigden told a housing rally sponsored by the Manitoba Division of the Community Planning Association in 1950 that “older people in Winnipeg were being forced to live in basements and attics because no other accommodation was available.” She also called for the construction of bachelor apartments for “business girls.”[9] . Margaret McWilliams, Liberal member of city council, said she was not opposed to the city getting into housing, noting that “Every city in Great Britain was renting homes.”[10] While she had commissioned a report that outlined the social costs of poor housing, she tended to blame the failure to make progress on the provision of public housing on a lack of political will.[11]

In the 1950s, Monica McQueen, the executive director of the Welfare Council of Greater Winnipeg, said that “Winnipeg and Manitoba are letting their low-income families down,” by failing to take advantage of federal funding to build low-income housing. She pointed out that there was always “organized opposition” to low-income housing. Leadership on council was required to overcome such opposition. [12] Mrs. W.J. Shepherd the national councillor of the Community Planning Association of Canada, and the executive secretary of the Association’s Manitoba division was another supporter of public housing.[13] The Manitoba division of the Community Planning Association of Canada endorsed the scheme in January 1952.[14]

By the end of the 1950s, pressure for improved housing was beginning to come from the people who lived in what was increasingly referred to as ‘slum’ housing. In November 1960 a fifty-member committee of residents of “blighted areas” formed the Citizens’ Committee for Low Cost Housing. The committee was supported by Juba, alderman A.E. Bennett, Winnifred Noble (often described as a volunteer social worker), and representatives of the Winnipeg ministerial association and business community. The Committee’s president was Doris Binding, Olga McLean was vice-president, Lee Gawryluk was secretary, and D. Unrau was treasurer.[15] In 1960 group of women from what was described as “Winnipeg’s slum areas” met with Juba on at least two occasions to urge him to proceed with urban renewal.[16] Several women’s organizations, including the Council of Jewish Women, the Ukrainian Women’s League, and the Catholic Women’s League called for a start on what was described as the city’s “much-discussed slum-clearing program.”[17]

In March 1961 the Winnipeg Council of Women established what it termed a continuing committee on low-rental housing. The decision was made after the organization’s president Leslie Hancock took a tour of the city’s slum areas. She and the women who accompanied her visited families “paying $60 a month for very inadequate houses where there were fire hazards, poor lighting and heating. These homes could have been condemned 30 years ago.”[18] The women kept the pressure on all three levels of government in the early 1960s, making sure that promised developments were not scuttled by political footdragging or backsliding.

Back to The Struggle for Affordable Housing in Winnipeg

[1] “$8.4 million housing approved by council,” Winnipeg Tribune, March 7, 1961

[2] “Minister shocked by city’s slums,” Winnipeg Tribune, May 23, 1962.

[3] “Bad public view stalled public housing: Danzker,” Winnipeg Free Press, October 10, 1961.

[4] Mary Kinnear, Margaret McWilliams: An interwar feminist, Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s Press, 1991, 57; “The little club among women’s organizations,” Manitoba Free Press, November 29, 1913.

[5] Becky, “Woman’s Empire,” Winnipeg Tribune, November 2, 1907.

[6] “Tea Table Talk,” Winnipeg Tribune, June 20, 1908.

[7] “Labor Women seek housing improvement,” Winnipeg Free Press, April 9, 1937.

[8] “Mrs. Maclennan urges slum action,” Winnipeg Free Press, March 8, 1939.

[9] “Manitoba needs law to obtain new house aid,” Winnipeg Tribune, January 6, 1950.

[10] “Revival of housing scheme is favored by civic committee,” Winnipeg Free Press, March 7, 1935; “Two million civic housing scheme recommended,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, March 7, 1935. For McWilliams’s election see: “Mayor Webb again returned to office by large majority, Winnipeg Free Press, November 25, 1933; “Gunn, Andrews and Mrs. McWilliams are elected in Ward One,” Winnipeg Free Press, November 27, 1933.

[11] For the report on housing conditions, see: Stefan Epp-Koop, “Class, Capitalism, and Construction: Winnipeg’s Housing Crisis and the Debate over Public Housing, 1934-1939”  Histoire sociale/Social history, 43, no. 86 (2010), 411. For concerns over lack of political will, see: “Speakers see lack of ‘Will for housing,’” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, March 22, 1939.

[12] “Council panned for housing delay,” Winnipeg Free Press, February 26, 1951.

[13] Verena Garrioch, “Presenting twelve Winnipeg women of the year,” The Winnipeg Tribune, January 2, 1950.

[14] “Community planning group endorses 850-family housing plan for city,” Winnipeg Free Press, January 26, 1952.

[15] “Slum Dwellers Unite,” Winnipeg Free Press, 30 November 1960; H.H.W. Egler, “Housing Conditions Are As Bad As Refugee Camps,” Winnipeg Free Press, 3 June 1961; “Tuesday is Date For Coffee Party,” Winnipeg Tribune, 27 May 1961; “North Centre Focal Point P-C Women Are Told,” 14 May 1962.

[16] “Slum Wives Heard,” Winnipeg Free Press, 12 August 1960.

[17] “Women Want Slum Answers,” Winnipeg Tribune, 6 March 1961.

[18] “Women’s club endorses slum clearance stand,” Winnipeg Free Press, April 11, 1961.