Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A fascinating yet forgotten feminist

By Charlotte Gray
University Affairs

A Great Restlessness: The Life and Politics of Dorise Nielsen, by Faith Johnston

As a writer who has focused on women in Canadian history, I smugly assumed I had heard of most feminist achievers, from Flora Denison to Flora Macdonald. Yet until I opened this book, I had never heard of Dorise Nielsen, who was elected to the federal Parliament under the United Progressive Party label in 1940. She was the kind of strong-willed woman that we iconize today because she was an outsider in so many ways - the only woman in war-time Parliament, a single mother, from northern Saskatchewan. So a biography of this unconventional figure by Winnipeg writer Faith Johnston triggers several questions. The most obvious question is: What was Nielsen's story? But the most interesting one is: Why is she largely forgotten?

Any woman who ran for Parliament in 1940 was unusual, but several aspects of Nielsen set her apart from her Prairie neighbours. She had an education, accent and attitude shared by few of her Canadian contemporaries. Born in England in 1902, Dorise arrived in Saskatchewan after the First World War. A trained teacher, she crossed the Atlantic because she was bored, and determined to escape her stuffy family. Bleak, cold northern Saskatchewan, where there were no telephones, electricity or railroad, was a horrible shock to a woman who had grown up in a London suburb. But she was a woman who never let circumstances crush her: instead of retreating, she married a lanky farmer of Danish origin called Peter Nielsen and was soon a mother herself.

Dorise never fit in the hard-scrabble life of pioneer farming, but she was clear-eyed about the struggles faced by farm families as wheat prices fell, the rains dried up, and governments ignored the problems. Fired up by intellectual and marital frustration (Peter was a drinker), she turned to politics. She was soon involved with the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the CCF), a loose coalition of progressive farmers' groups, peppered with Marxists and Christian socialists. Local activists discovered that Mrs. Nielsen was a charismatic public speaker. Within a few years, and despite the convolutions of Prairie politics and her steady drift into communist ranks, she had arrived on Parliament Hill.

Ms. Johnston's narrative of these years is well-researched if a little plodding. She gives us few opportunities to hear Dorise's own voice or gain real insights into her. Although personal letters and diaries have survived, the author prefers to paraphrase rather than quote directly. The details of wheat prices, by-elections and in-fighting between factions overshadow the story of a woman driven by socialist ideals, indignation and maternal guilt. By now, Peter had disappeared from Dorise's life, and their two daughters and one son were shuttled from one boarding house to another. The impact on the children was disastrous, but Ms. Johnston is writing the biography of an activist, not an over-extended mother.

Defeated in the 1945 election, Dorise became a full-time employee of the Communist Party in Toronto. A trip to Moscow in 1949 convinced her that women and children were far better treated in the USSR than in the capitalist West. From today's perspective her conclusions seem impossibly naïve, but her bravery, in the face of party sexism plus the continuous police harassment of the McCarthy years, was remarkable. She ran again for Parliament in 1953, but suffered a humiliating defeat. She was now over 50: lonely, broke and marginalized.

But Dorise Nielsen was not prepared to shrink into apologetic old age. Now in love with a married engineer, Constant Godefroy, she remained committed to communism. Disillusioned about Stalin's USSR after the invasion of Hungary, she turned to that other socialist paradise: the People's Republic of China. In 1957, she and Godefroy moved to Beijing, where she lived as Judy Godefroy, an English teacher and editor, until her death in 1980. In letters home, she extolled the virtues of Mao's China. Faith Johnston comments: "If she had any doubts about her work or her situation, she kept them to herself. She had been a promoter for most of her life." Even the Cultural Revolution did not dent Dorise's faith. She happily denounced some of her fellow "foreign friends" to authorities.

Ms. Johnston includes some primary material for the Chinese chapters of Nielsen's story. Nielsen wrote to friends and relatives in the West about her activities, including her ruthless decision to eject Godefroy from her life. The glimpses of the life of an expatriate in Chinese communist ranks are fascinating: communal living, work pressures, summer trips through the Yangtze Gorges. But Ms. Johnston still finds it hard both to speculate on the inner Nielsen and to stand apart from her subject's ingenuous support of Chinese leaders. She prefers to share Nielsen's refusal to indulge in self-analysis or critical thinking about political events.

Nevertheless, the story that Faith Johnston has disinterred is intriguing. So why has Dorise Nielsen been largely forgotten, although the names of her political allies, including Tim Buck and Jacob Penner, crop up in histories of war-time Canada? I think it is because she was a difficult woman who espoused a difficult cause. She turned her back on Canada. She is just too ornery to celebrate.

A Great Restlessness: The Life and Politics of Dorise Nielsen, by Faith Johnston, University of Manitoba Press, 361 pages, $24.95

Ottawa writer Charlotte Gray is currently working on a book about Nellie McClung. She is the author of bestselling biographies of (among others) Susanna Moodie, E. Pauline Johnson, and Alexander Graham Bell.

Also see: Dorise Nielson: Saskatchewan's Communist MP and The Communists, the CCF and the Popular Front

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