Like the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), Social Credit started as a grassroots movement, not a political party. In the early 1920s, an engineer from England, Major C.H. Douglas came up with a theory to explain why there was so much "poverty in the midst of plenty." His theory of Social Credit blamed banks for tying up capital that could be circulated by the general public.
William Aberhart, a high school principal and radio
evangelist, was influenced by this theory and began introducing it in his radio program, "Back to the Bible Hour." He formed a Social Credit League and wrote a pamphlet on Douglas economics, which came under much criticism for not fully understanding Social Credit theory. However, Aberhart's charisma and appeal to people's religious values carried him through and he remained as leader of the organization.
At first Aberhart was not interested in contesting for political power; however, when the UFA made it clear it was not very interested in implementing Social Credit theory, he decided to run in the 1935 election. The UFA was as yet unable to remedy Alberta's economic plight during the Depression and people were ready for change. As a result, Social Credit won a sweeping majority and Aberhart was declared premier. The next few years were rocky ones for the new government as numerous obstacles prevented them from introducing Social Credit reforms and Aberhart faced a revolt in his own party. To stifle criticism, the government passed the Accurate News and Information Act allowing for the censorship of all news media. However, the Act was immediately ruled unconstitutional.
In 1943, Aberhart died unexpectedly and
stepped up to replace him. He abandoned many of the party's social credit policies, purged the party of the "Douglasites" (many of whom were starting to express anti-Semitic leanings) and transformed it into a more right-wing party. The oil boom began in Alberta in the late 1940s and Manning worked towards developing the oil and natural gas industry, including building the Trans-Canada Pipeline. Steady revenue flowed into Alberta allowing the Social Credit government to develop the health and education systems to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population. By the 1960s, however, the Social Credit party with its rural and religious background increasingly appeared outdated to
the more urbanized and educated population in Alberta. In 1971, it lost the election to the Progressive Conservatives under
Peter Lougheed ending a
36-year stay in government.
Like the UFA, many women were attracted to the Social Credit Party in its early grassroot phases. Aberhart's interpretation of Douglas' theory promised to benefit women in a number of ways. Firstly, his belief in the right of every citizen to economic security included women. He promised that they, like men, would receive (although this policy never came about) $25 dividends whether or not they were married. Some criticized this promise for encouraging the independence of single women, thereby undermining the family base of society, but he responded by stating that, "Economic security is the right of every citizen, male or female. Women were never intended to be slaves, but helpmates. There would, no doubt, be more wholesome marriages consummated. They would not need to marry for a meal
Secondly, Aberhart encouraged women's involvement in political organization. In line with his Social Credit theories, he argued that the patriarchal system had failed to protect women and their private sphere and, therefore, women had the right, and even the duty, to enter the public sphere and fight for a more caring, maternal world. He promoted women to high-ranking administrative positions in the organization and encouraged them to run for election. Like the UFA, Social Credit developed a women's auxiliary called the Alberta Social Credit Women's Association (ASCWA). The ASCWA was made autonomous because it was felt that women would have a better chance of achieving positions of high rank and responsibility and, therefore, would receive more training to become political candidates. Many of its members did succeed in becoming candidates and even legislators. For example, Cornelia Wood was elected as a Social Credit MLA in 1940. She fought for women's rights, including the right of women to have equal voting rights to men in
Medicine Hat civic elections and equal entitlements to the benefits of the Veteran's Land Act for women in the armed services.
With Aberhart's death and the succession of Manning as premier, women's role in the party diminished. Many of the strong women activists in the party, like Cornelia Wood, were Douglasites (that is they prescribed strongly to the theories of Douglas). When Manning purged the party of most of the Douglasites, many of these women, like Wood, managed to stay on; however, their power was severely diminished as Manning had no patience for those who still promoted Social Credit theory. Therefore, women's grassroot activism declined partially due to the overall decline in grassroots activity in the party.
No strong women leader in the mainstream league of the party emerged to replace the old grassroots leaders.
Historian Bob Hesketh argues that this may be because the party increasingly relegated women's role to those areas that were in line with her domestic virtues. For instance, the ASCWA started to focus more on women's traditional concerns, such as health care and welfare. Also, Hesketh states that "Whether the Social Credit women were fighting finance, the
Communist menace or the conspiracy of opposition political parties, their chief weapon seemed to be the bake sale and bazaar."
Therefore, the ASCWA's role seemed to have dwindled to just being the submissive helpmate of the male-dominated party. In addition, he explains how the ideal image of the Social Credit woman became that of the wife of the Social Credit man; the epitome of which was Mrs. Ernest Manning. She exemplified the wife-nurturer image; poised and serene, she was devoted to her family and helping her husband in his career. She wrote an article entitled "Politics - A Women's Sphere" for the provincial party magazine entitled
Busy Bee in which there was no mention that a woman's sphere might include running for political office.
Early 20th-century Alberta seemed to be a breeding ground for women's activism in politics. Many of the most notable Canadian women's activists, including the Famous Five, were Albertan. Women were heavily involved in the party politics of the periods; they played an important role in organizing the grass root party movements and they became MLAs, using this position to fight for women's rights and social programs. Even if their activity was still justified according to traditional notions of women's domestic sphere, they were at least effecting radical changes and gaining positions of unheard of authority in the political sphere. However, by mid-century, women's activism in Alberta politics had diminished. They were increasingly relegated to roles of limited responsibility and the ideal political woman did not run on her own platforms, but rather stood behind political men.
Sources and Suggested Readings:
Hesketh, Bob. "From
Crusaders to Missionaries to Wives: Alberta Social Credit Women,
1932-1955." Prairie Forum 1993 18(1): 53-73.
Alberta: Home, Home on the Plains
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