Dotty did it first

The Pilot - - Editorial - Bob Wake­ham Bob Wake­ham has spent more than 40 years as a jour­nal­ist in New­found­land and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwake­ham@nl.rogers.com

Two days after she died, Dorothy Wy­att was elected to St. John’s city coun­cil, an ex­is­ten­tial tri­umph that must have made politi­cians ev­ery­where drool with envy, that of hav­ing a say, and of be­ing heard, from even the grave.

So when I sug­gest that Wy­att, a two-term mayor and long­time coun­cil­lor, is ap­plaud­ing with ex­u­ber­ance and sat­is­fac­tion from the here­after the elec­tion of five women to city coun­cil, it is not in­con­ceiv­able that nu­mer­ous town­ies — even those de­void of clair­voy­ant tal­ents — may have ac­tu­ally heard Wy­att’s en­thu­si­as­tic en­dorse­ment of the de­ci­sion by vot­ers to take a sledge­ham­mer to that male wall in place at 10 New Gower St. dur­ing the last four years.

After all, the on­go­ing cam­paign slo­gan for the flam­boy­antly ex­tro­verted Dotty, as loyal fol­low­ers called her, was a com­mit­ment to al­ways keep her tongue wag­ging: “Vote for Wy­att, She Won’t be Quiet!”

From inside the Pearly Gates — if, in fact, Wy­att be­lieved in such per­pet­ual ex­is­tence — she was prob­a­bly do­ing a vic­tory jig on elec­tion night.

(Just for the record, a by­elec­tion was held in 2001 to fill the seat won by the then re­cently de­ceased Mrs. Wy­att).

Hope­fully, the five women elected in St. John’s will rec­og­nize that their re­cent achieve­ment, as de­serv­ing of praise as it was — the op­tics alone of an all-male coun­cil had been an em­bar­rass­ing spec­ta­cle, as it would be for any ma­jor Cana­dian city in this sup­pos­edly en­light­ened day and age — ac­tu­ally pales in com­par­i­son to what Wy­att did in 1969.

Back then, Wy­att busted through a glass ceil­ing that had been solidly in place since the late 1880s. She was the first woman to be elected to St. John’s city coun­cil, a break­through in what had been a striking ex­am­ple of male dom­i­nance and pig­gery.

(Hav­ing just fin­ished Hil­lary Clin­ton’s en­gag­ing ex­pla­na­tion, or at­tempted ex­pla­na­tion, of why she lost to a “mo­ron,” as one mem­ber of the Don­ald Trump cab­i­net re­port­edly de­scribed him, I have that ex­pres­sion, glass ceil­ing — mean­ing, as far as I can gather, an in­vis­i­ble but im­preg­nable bar­rier of dis­crim­i­na­tion — on the brain; Clin­ton had thought, as did most of the free world, she was go­ing to crack that par­tic­u­lar glass ceil­ing, the U.S. pres­i­dency, to pieces. The book, as you prob­a­bly know, is called “What Hap­pened”).

When I was first sent by The Evening Tele­gram as a cub re­porter to take in the ac­tiv­i­ties at the New Gower Street cham­bers, it was ob­vi­ous, even to a neo­phyte ob­server like me, not yet in tune or well versed in so­ci­etal is­sues — women’s rights, for ex­am­ple — that Dorothy Wy­att should be given the high­est of po­lit­i­cal marks for not just hold­ing her own, but in fact, tak­ing her place as a force to be reck­oned with amongst an old boys’ club that, I’m sure, was any­thing but re­cep­tive to hav­ing who they un­doubt­edly viewed as a “girl” at the ta­ble.

Wy­att was sur­rounded by the St. John’s male es­tab­lish­ment — Brian Hig­gins, Jim Fa­gan, Ge­off Car­nell and com­pany — and she was ob­vi­ously an in­tru­sion, as far as they were con­cerned, and not a very shy in­tru­sion at that.

Clarence En­gel­brecht was an­other of the b’ys, the only politi­cian in New­found­land his­tory, I’m quite sure, who ac­tu­ally went by his “stage name.” In Clarence’s case, his pu­bic han­dle was Bob Lewis, a reader on what was then called CJON News, mak­ing him a lo­cal “star,” the big fish in a small pond. I can re­mem­ber Bob, or Clarence, ar­riv­ing late for an im­por­tant coun­cil de­bate, and be­ing mocked mer­ci­lessly by his fel­low coun­cil­lors be­cause his ex­cuse for tar­di­ness was a com­mit­ment to ap­pear with lo­cal celebrity Sally West in an advertising seg­ment on the Ge­off Stir­ling TV sta­tion.

Old­sters will recall the jin­gle Bob — or Clarence — a South Dakota na­tive who came to the province while in the U.S. mil­i­tary, may have been forced to sing: “Cream of the West Flour, al­ways the best flour, al­ways the best for your bak­ing!”

I don’t think Bob, or Clarence, would have sur­vived Andy Wells.

But I di­gress, to a fair de­gree.

Back to Dotty Wy­att: her elec­tion as the first woman coun­cil­lor was barely the start of her un­prece­dented suc­cess in the male-dom­i­nated world of city pol­i­tics. In 1972, Wy­att was elected as mayor, de­feat­ing Bill Adams, the in­cum­bent and es­tab­lish­ment mayor, a high-pro­filed lawyer and former Lib­eral MHA, in what had to have been one of the big­gest up­sets in the province’s po­lit­i­cal his­tory.

Wy­att was elected to a sec­ond term as mayor, but was fi­nally de­feated by John (Rags) Mur­phy, per­haps, at least in part, be­cause the nov­elty of her colour­ful and odd­ball per­son­al­ity had started to grow a bit tire­some.

Nev­er­the­less, the love af­fair be­tween St. John’s and Dorothy Wy­att was not over, not by a long shot, as lo­cal vot­ers con­tin­ued to ap­plaud her achieve­ments as mayor — the 1977 Canada Sum­mer Games, for ex­am­ple — and the fact that she had had the guts to go where no woman be­fore her had gone, and she was elected after her may­oralty de­feat as a coun­cil­lor on a cou­ple of more oc­ca­sions, in­clud­ing that suc­cess from the af­ter­life.

The group of five — Deanne Sta­ple­ton, Mag­gie Bur­ton, Hope Jamieson, Deb­bie Han­lon, and Sheilagh O’Leary — should not for­get her legacy.

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