Gert Harding as a youth.
In 1913, at the age of 23, a plucky New Brunswick farm girl moved to London, England, with her sister's family. Soon she witnessed a poster parade of women protesting for the right to vote. "This struck a chord in me that I never knew I had."
Within days she disobeyed her family and shunned convention to join this radical organization, the militant suffragettes of Great Britain, which sanctioned violence to push for its cause. Her first mission was to scout a tourist attraction to see if it could be bombed without hurting anyone. It couldn't, so the plan was dropped. Next, she staged a midnight attack on rare orchids at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, which organizers knew would rile up the complacent public and get attention for the cause. She then worked on the newspaper, driven underground by the government for a time, eventually becoming its editor. Impressed by Harding’s daring and resourcefulness, the commanders of the organization asked her to head up the secret bodyguard assigned to protect their leader from constant re-arrest by Scotland Yard and to help other Suffragettes on the run.
Wearing disguises that would impress Sherlock Holmes, Harding lived the life of an outlaw. She rubbed charcoal on her cheeks and slipped through the back alleys of London, always one step ahead of her pursuers. While they were sometimes badly beaten, she and her bodyguard outwitted and humiliated Scotland Yard detectives, often thwarting their attempts to arrest Mrs Pankhurst, their leader.
It's time for Canadians to celebrate Gert Harding: rebel, outlaw, hero.
Gert Harding, appearing earnest, offers to sell The Suffragette newspaper to the head of Scotland Yard. She must stand off of the curb, by law.
To counter the bobbies' truncheons, the bodyguard armed themselves with Indian rubber clubs and trained in jujitsu. While they were sometimes injured and arrested, they managed to employ clever techniques to outwit Scotland Yard, such as planting a decoy Mrs Pankhurst.
In 1989 I finally took my mom's advice and read the memoirs of Auntie Gert, my great-aunt. In my thirties by then, I was a fledgling writer. Gert's story changed my life. As I flipped through the yellow pages of her scrapbook, I sat mesmerized: simple sketches from her childhood in Welsford, New Brunswick in the late 1800s; charming memories of her two years in Hawaii; and then the gripping stories of her and her Suffragette pals in London as they broke the law to change the law. I now had a focus for my need to tell stories; it has stayed with me for 30 years. First I wrote her biography, With All Her Might, which sells in three countries. As I wrote the biography, I pictured the compelling tale as a movie, the kind of movie that women rarely see but long for: a female protagonist with a political goal, not just a personal one. Think of all the war movies produced, about all the wars throughout history, fought mainly by men. This push for the vote by the first wave of feminists is a unique war and needs to be told in many forms. And unlike most groups of men who used swords and guns in their fight to have a say in their own governance, the Suffragettes attacked property only, never people or animals. So the day I finished writing the biography, I began a screenplay, which was selected for development in an Atlantic Canadian competition. Period pieces with crowd scenes and fights are very expensive, however, and I haven't found a producer yet to get her story on the big screen. In writing the screenplay, I couldn’t possibly fit in all the drama. Besides Gert’s attack on Kew Gardens, the espionage around printing the underground newspaper and the intrigue and excitement as head of the bodyguard, Gert was pelted with rotten fruit while on parade and, in 1915, spent several months working as private secretary to Christabel Pankhurst (the brains of the organization), in exile in Paris. The only drama I fictionalized was a love interest; Gert was a lesbian and did not include her love life in the memoirs. Needing to do something for the cause of women and politics, I next produced an educational video about the topic, where my spiritual guide is Auntie Gert. Menocracy is distributed across Canada by Moving Images. In 2013 I tried another medium: a stage play. After some success with my one-act drama, Orchids Can Be Destroyed, I decided to expand the story into a feature play... but as a musical. Why not? So that's where we are now, my two fabulous music composers and: we're developing a musical about Gert Harding. - Gretchen Kelbaugh