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Bob Wakeham: Dotty did it first

Dick Green file photo/The Telegram<br />St. John’s mayor Dorothy Wyatt greets Marathon of Hope runner Terry Fox during a ceremony at city hall. Fox dipped his artificial leg in St.John’s harbour April 20, 1980 to begin his cross-country trek.
Dick Green file photo/The Telegram<br />St. John’s mayor Dorothy Wyatt greets Marathon of Hope runner Terry Fox during a ceremony at city hall. Fox dipped his artificial leg in St.John’s harbour April 20, 1980 to begin his cross-country trek.

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.

Bob Wakeham

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 public 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-profile 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.

 

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

 

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