Interview of Ella Manuel

From Women Speak (PACSW Newsletter), Vol. 3,  #3, 1985
Interview (in Women Speak), orignally from Broadside Sampler, Vol. 3, #7, May 1982

Ella Manuel 1911-1985
Ella Manuel, noted Newfoundland author, feminist and peace activist died on November 24, 1985 at the age of 74. Ella was a pioneer — an early feminist with a varied career. She was born in Lewisporte, the daughter of Robert William and Jessie Sophia (Reader) Manuel. She studied at Boston University, receiving a bachelor of science degree in 1930.
Ella had a varied career as a social worker in England prior to the Second World War; broadcaster and operator of a sports fishing lodge in western Newfoundland and an author. One of her best known books That Fine Summer, published in 1980, is set in rural Newfoundland about 50 years ago.
She presented a brief on her own behalf to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in 1969. She was national vice-president of the Voice of Women and helped organize the women's peace movement. She received the Person 's Award, the top women's rights award in Canada, from the Governor General in 1980.
Ella travelled widely but spent her last number of years in Woody Point, Bonne Bay, enjoying the panoramic view of the mountains and the water.
As a tribute to Ella the following article by Judith Lawrence is being reprinted with the permission of Broadside, a feminist newspaper. It first appeared in the Broadside Sampler, Vol. 3, No. 7, May 1982.
A Person in Her Own Right
By Judith Lawrence
In November 1980, the Governor General presented the second annual "Persons" awards to Canadian women in recognition of their contributions to their communities. One of these "Persons" is Ella Manuel, a seventh-generation Newfoundlander who lives in Woody Point, at the entrance to Gros Morne National Park on Newfoundland's west coast. A woman of deep warmth and compassion, Ella has spent much of her life working for justice and peace. She is also a very private person, given to love of solitude and contemplation. She lives alone in a small hilltop house overlooking the village, with an ever-changing vista of sea, sky, and mountains beyond the windows of her book-lined living room. During a trip to Toronto she shared highlights of her life with close friends Judith Lawrence and Beverley Allinson of the Broadside Collective.
I think from the time I was ten until I finally went away at 15, my whole family's life was geared to having enough set aside for me to have an education, and my sister, too. If I wanted something — and I remember I desperately wanted a fountain pen; I thought if I had a fountain pen I'd have 'er made — my father and mother would say, "We can't afford to give it to you to go to college." People said my father was mad, quite mad, to send two girls away to college. But we did go to college. I was sent to Boston when I was 15, but first I had to do a year of high school, because I had no sciences up until then.
When I was sixteen I entered Boston University, and by the time I graduated it was the depression and jobs were very hard to find in Boston. In those days Newfoundlanders never thought of coming to Canada. The idea of coming to Toronto never occurred to me — it sounded just too utterly boring for words. So I went home to Lewisporte. I stayed there for a year and saved my money, working with my father in the store and teaching piano, until I had enough money to go to England.
I stayed with friends in London, and eventually got a job with Marks and Spencer as a welfare worker. This involved organizing canteens in the shops (there were 200 of them at that time) for the staff, most of whom were women. They could have a hot meal at noon for sixpence and tea for four pence, and then we went on to seeing that they got free uniforms, and a raise automatically on every birthday. It ended up that we had a fabulous outfit: we had doctors hired; these women got mostly free medical attention, free dental attention, paid vacations; we set up camps where they could spend their holidays — I remember spending almost all my holidays one summer in North Wales. It as (sic) a fabulous, marvellous experience.
Broadside: You married a man who worked for Marks and Spencer?
Yes, and this was around the time of the Spanish Civil War. We realized the need to do something bout (sic) the Spanish children. We persuaded the British government to allow a certain number of them to come in if we could prove we could sponsor them. We all donated as much as we could of our incomes, and these children, mostly Basque children, were brought up in groups, and sometimes with their priests and teachers. They weren't necessarily orphans, but children who had no homes and were in great danger and who'd been under bombing. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, but a lot of them didn't go back. There were about 3,000 children brought in at that time. Some of them I met later in the most extraordinary ways — I met one years and years later in Greenwich, Connecticut.
B: When did you leave England?
It was after my first son was born. We went to the States just before the war broke out. We started working with the Jewish Joint Distributing Committee, organizing the placement of refugee children from Europe. When the United States entered the war my husband was offered an administrative job in the army in Washington because of his experience at Marks and Spencer. But I remember we told them we were peace-loving people who just wanted to continue being peace-loving, so we didn't do it.
B: So you were a pacifist back then when it wasn't too popular, weren't you?
Oh yes, I think we were definitely watched then, too, because the FBI would turn up in odd places. It was very strange, because we lived on Long Island Sound, on the Connecticut side, and we used to go for walks on the beach, and that was very suspect in those days, especially after sunset. We were always in some kind of hassle — never very serious. I would have been insulted if I hadn't been watched in those days!
B: Did you have refugee children living with you?
Yes, four teenagers. And my own two small boys. But my marriage was deteriorating, and I had to find a refuge, I realized that I had started to think of my parents' home in Newfoundland as that refuge. I can't remember how I did it, but at some point I just packed up and went home, ostensibly for a holiday with my two little boys and just stayed. I never went back. We lived with my parents for a while but then I started looking for a way to support the three of us. We moved to Corner Brook and lived there for four to five years. That's when I started doing radio work. I started gradually working my way up, and then Confederation came and I had, I can't remember now, some connection with Halifax and Toronto. Quite suddenly I became spokeswoman for Newfoundland and got all sorts of requests for "do tell us about this" and "what do you think of this" and somehow I had, with the things I had done with my life, a way of bridging the gap, knowing what it was that the other Canadians wanted to know about us funny people out there in Newfoundland. First I started telling children's stories, and then I was hired to do a once-a-week program, so I got to be fairly well know (sic).
At that time people were always coming to me and telling me what was going on and how unhappy they were, and I would say: "For God's sake don't preach to the converted, go talk to soembody (sic) else." But there was no way they could talk to anyone else — the newspapers were throttled and very much censored so I went to Bowaters, the paper company, and asked if they would buy half an hour of radio time and I would run a citizens' forum, if you please — when I think about it now I blush. People were so ready for it that I could get hold of all kinds of people — heads of Bowaters, doctors, business heads, all sorts of people who would come and talk, and we discussed the things that were bothering people.
B: Newfoundlanders always seem to be Newfoundlanders first, no matter how long they are away or where they go and what they do — and not just your generation, but younger ones, too.
Absolutely. I think the ones much younger than I are just as bad (or just as good).
B. What is it that Newfoundlanders identify with?
We identify with the landscape and have a very, very unusual way of life, even now when we have roads and electricity and radio and CBC and all the other things. Our whole lives revolve around the weather and the sea and there is a sense of isolation. I can remember as a child, probably about 12, when in the winter the harbour would freeze over and the sky would be grey and the steamer would break its way through the ice on its last trip and blow its whistle goodbye and I would stand on the verandah (sic) of our house and get the feeling that I was hidden from the rest of the world, that I was isolated there and that no one would ever find me or know we were there. It was a most terrible sensation of absolute isolation.
B. And yet you broke that isolation with your lifestyle.
Yes, of course. Nearly everyone who had any ambition or any curiosity did go away. But I also came back.
You were the only person to have presented a brief to the Status of Women.
So they say. I didn't know that. The brief was about the status of women in Newfoundland. I said I was speaking on behalf of the women in the remote villages who couldn't speak for themselves. And as I remember now my main thesis was that there was no earthly reason why women shouldn't have the same opportunity for education and re-education as men were getting. Men were being sent off to trade schools and vocational schools and paid their living expenses and nobody ever did a damn thing for the women.
B: Did you have the satisfaction of seeing any of your suggestions bear fruit?
Yes, but I'm not sure it bore fruit because of what I said; it was part of the whole movement. Oh yes indeed.
B: When did you find out you were not the only person who had such heretical ideas and notions in her head as far as your status as a woman was concerned?
When I head (sic) about the Voice of Women. I was asked by Muriel Duckworth to go to a meeting and I'd never heard of the group before, but when I left I was the secretary of the group, or vice-president — I can't remember. But when I really came to myself was when I met you younger women — feminists — and you started feeding me all the feminist literature which I sat on the hill in Woody Point and read, and said, "Oh my God, you know the world is full of people like me." That is when I began to look back really without a sense of failure.
B: But isn't it incredible that a woman — a person — who has achieved as much as you have should have a sense of failure? Everything you've told us about your life is triumph over adversity and tremendous accomplishment.
I failed in the feminine role that was set aside for me and I didn't know anything about any other role. I'm infuriated when I think about the time I wasted feeling guility (sic) and inadequate. When I look at young women today I'm amazed. They are soaring! Sometimes I catch myself and say "is my optimism the result of pushing seventy, or is it a result of being able to examine my own life?" But I don't think it is just that!
B: You've just received the "Persons Award"; what did the citation say?
That I was somebody who had worked in the women's movement and had worked for peace, and if you stop to ask me why I got it I still don't know why — I still think somebody made a mistake! You couldn't really call any of us notable — we are just ordinary women who had all our lives been doing this, probably without thinking about it.
B: So what do they think of this back in Newfoundland?
Oh, they couldn't believe their ears. Now, I tell you, they pay some attention to me when I say something. About time, too!
(II, 4, February 1981)