Epidemics are the revelators. They show us things we’d like, normally, to fail to notice. They are also forces of entropy – the big jumblers – taking the puzzle pieces of our lives, tossing them in the air, and forcing a reckoning, a process of reconfiguring. This disarranging is not random. It takes what was already there and creates chaos out of it. For some this is a temporary chaos, for others it becomes permanent in the sense that their lives are never the same. This reassembling is a moment of potential or it can be a struggle to survive; a time of human agency or that of lost opportunities.
The social-science roots of modern history look for causation in historical events. Drawing out the intersections between epidemics and labour unrest is important, and I enjoy taking a close look at how historical context influences, strengthens, or suppresses forms of resistance. But it is the humanities side of history, its comfort with uncertainty and complexity, that has always seemed most important to me in interpreting moments of chaos. So rather than assemble a picture with tidy angles, I prefer to focus on the disassembling, messy impact of pandemics. I’m interested in how things come apart, and how we as humans try to put them back together, with our weak glue.
One of my unfinished pandemic-era tasks has been to write a short biographical piece on Helen Jury Armstrong, the organizer of working class women, and the embodiment of love and fire in the Winnipeg General Strike. Thanks to historians including Mary Horodyski and Linda Kealey, and filmmaker Paula Kelly, we know a fair bit about ‘Ma’ Armstrong, as she was called. A gifted tactician, who was fearless and who I have always thought found her courage in the commitment to fight for others, Helen Armstrong built support for labour rights and social equality not just in the workplace unionism dominated by Anglo-Canadian white men (where she was unsparing in her criticism of its attitudes toward women), but also in the home and the neighbourhood. She recruited young women workers to the Women’s Labour League, but she also knew that family and the bonds of human relationships were the centre of any movement.
Armstrong had that rare ability to draw together all the sources from which we find meaning, into one common cause. Her political achievements, forgotten as they were by historians for most of the 20th century, were impressive. She seized the opportunities created by World War I and a brief flowering of more liberal political forces in western Canada and wasted no time working for women’s suffrage, minimum wage law, and mothers’ pensions. We owe those, in part, to her.
But there are two stories about Helen that help me see who she was as a person. One is told by Paula Kelly in her film ‘The Notorious Mrs. Armstrong.’ It is about a locket Armstrong wears around her neck in some photos taken of her. According to Kelly, who learned it from Armstrong’s grandchildren, the locket was a gift from a family whose child she saved from drowning. If you ever have a chance to watch the film, you will see her granddaughter, an elderly woman herself when interviewed, moved to tears. Her tears expressed pride but also respect for a grandmother she knew was a special person.
The other story involves Armstrong’s response to the influenza pandemic. She was one of those who struggled during the pandemic to help her neighbours. She helped to raise money to feed families who lost breadwinners, and to pay for their loved ones’ burials. Always able to channel her rage, she successfully pushed for a civic inquiry into the high price of burial, which made it impossible for poor pandemic victims’ families to bury their dead with dignity.
Both of these stories illustrate for me that the power of Armstrong’s brand of social justice lay in its kindness. Its humanity. Alongside its bravery. As I’ve written about in my own work, the influenza pandemic required working people to rely on mutual aid, on each other, often literally for survival. It is easy to understand, then, why a leader like Armstrong rose to such prominence in its aftermath. She was the right leader at the right time.
There’s always been far too much focus in labour history, of course, on male political voices, and on history’s own obsessions with Canada’s biggest labour revolt: who was right, the moderates or the socialists? was the strike a victory or a disaster that set back labour for decades? was it revolutionary? was it based in soldiers’ moral authority? These questions are defined not only by gender, and the silencing of women’s historical roles, but also by a limited imagination for what ideas matter in history and why.
With the vulnerability of the working body made evident in the deaths of hundreds of working people who lost their lives to influenza in Winnipeg, the threads that bound together Armstrong’s approach to unionism were suddenly the threads that sustained everyone. When influenza threw lives up in the air, they could be reconfigured through a new form of justice, and as a new movement. One that drew upon a different sensibility in which collectivity was based not just in male experience at the workplace, but also in the lived experience of the family and in the care and nurture of the body.
The vulnerability created by poverty, illness, disability, and income and social inequality found its answers in the social and the political. Political, in the sense of care of and responsibility for others, and in the commitment to use the state to do good.
Armstrong’s combination of love, courage, and rage has never entirely deserted labour, but it is not exactly the spirit of this current moment. Did this pandemic, our pandemic, turn us outward or inward? Did it build community or erode it? Did it create new forms of resistance? I hope that these questions will be the subject of historical writing in the future. Historians of disease don’t think enough about them. Neither do historians of labour.
We choose whether our pandemic, our revelator, draws out our collective strengths, or highlights our tendency to let collectivity fray, move past us, and become forgotten. History forgets more than it remembers. Against that tide of pandemic amnesia, ten years from now I’d like to be writing about the Helen Armstrongs who came our way and how we were stronger for that. I’d like to have that to remember and to have it make history.