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Mary Ellen (Spear) Smith

Photograph of Mary Ellen (Spear) Smith

Born in Devonshire, England on October 11, 1861.
Died in Vancouver, B.C. on May 3, 1933.

First woman to be elected to the British Columbia Legislative Assembly.

First woman in the British Empire to be appointed a Minister and to serve as Acting Speaker of the Legislature.


Political Affiliation: Independent; Liberal

Legislative Career: First elected to the British Columbia Legislative Assembly in the 1918 by-election as member for Vancouver City. Served until 1928.

Appointed to the Cabinet as Minister without Portfolio March 24, 1921 to November 19, 1921.

Mary Ellen Smith's contribution was as a social reformer and her cause was improving conditions for women and children, including women's suffrage. Raised in England, she moved with her husband in the early 1890s to British Columbia, settling first in Nanaimo and then in Vancouver.

There she assumed a longtime and leading role in organizations such as the National Council of Women, Women's Canadian Club, Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE), Red Cross of British Columbia, and Vancouver Women's Liberal Association and founded the Laurier Liberal Club. She was an active member of the Methodist Church.

Her husband was a sitting Liberal member of the provincial legislature when he died in 1917. Mrs. Smith won the seat in the subsequent by-election in 1918 and became the first woman in the British Empire to take over her husband's seat. She originally ran as an Independent under the slogan "women and children first" and subsequently ran as a Liberal, winning big majorities in 1920 and 1924.

She was appointed Minister without Portfolio on March 24, 1921, becoming the first woman in the British Empire to do so, but resigned this office in November 1921. She preferred to achieve her goals from the floor of the chamber. She served as Acting Speaker briefly in February 1928, thus achieving another first for women in the British Empire.

Her concerns throughout her political career were a wide range of legislation aimed at improving the rights and conditions of women and children, for example the 1918 Minimum Wage Act for Women and Girls. She was a popular speaker, sought after both within and outside of Canada, notably in Europe where she spoke on behalf of the federal government about emigration to Canada as well as representing Canada in 1929 at the International Labour Conference in Geneva.


Forbes, Elizabeth. — Wild roses at their feet: pioneer women of Vancouver Island. — s.n., c. 1971. — P. 120-122.

Gough, Lyn. — As wise as serpents: five women & an organization that changed British Columbia. — Victoria: Swan Lake Pub., 1988. — ISBN 0969340508

McLeod, Kelsey. — "Mary Ellen Smith". — British Columbia Historical News. — Vol. 30, no. 2 (Spring 1997). — P. 17.

Norcross, Elizabeth. "Mary Ellen Smith: The Right Woman in the Right Place at the Right Time". — Not just pin money: selected essays on the history of women's work in British Columbia. — Ed. Barbara K. Latham and Roberta J. Pazdro. —Victoria: Camosun College, 1984. — ISBN 0969184409 — P. 357-364.

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