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Ruth Bell (in blue) with her friend Dorothy Phillips at Rideau Hall in November, 2006, when she received the Governor-General’s Persons Award. (Courtesy of Andrea McCormick)
Ruth Bell (in blue) with her friend Dorothy Phillips at Rideau Hall in November, 2006, when she received the Governor-General’s Persons Award. (Courtesy of Andrea McCormick)

Women’s rights advocate Ruth Bell refused to be a ‘nice girl’ Add to ...

Ruth Bell, teacher, fierce advocate for women’s rights and breaker of glass ceilings, gave meaning to the term “girl power” – again and again.

In 1976, for example, during the annual shareholders’ meeting of the Royal Bank of Canada, she bristled when asked to sign over her voting proxy, noting that there were no women on the board.

Bank president W. Earle McLaughlin replied that there were none qualified for the role. Then, he said: “Why don’t you be a nice girl and let me exercise your ballot?”

The comment, casual and condescending, spurred Ms. Bell to compile a list of qualified women from across the country, using her extensive list of contacts in government, academia and business.

“Behold the turtle,” was her motto. “She makes progress only when she sticks her neck out.”

A complex mix of sweet and spice, with generous quantities of opinion, quick wit and political acumen thrown in for good measure, Ms. Bell, who died in Ottawa on Dec. 16 at the age of 96 from complications of pneumonia, spent much of her life sticking her neck out, no matter the consequences. In an era when women were expected to stay at home, have babies and care for their husbands, she had other plans, amassing a lengthy list of credentials that included being one of the earliest members of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, helping to found the Canadian Commission for Learning Opportunities for Women and influencing the drawing up of the Family Law Reform Act in 1978 that gave women a fairer deal in divorces.

In 1984, in recognition of more than 20 years of service and mentorship, Carleton University granted honorary doctorates to her and her second husband, Richard Bell, a former minister of citizenship and immigration in the government of John Diefenbaker.

“Ruth’s accomplishments go on and on,” said Andrea McCormick, who helped write Ms. Bell’s self-published memoir, Be a Nice Girl. “I can’t remember Ruth ever using the word ‘feminist,’ but she wanted to ensure women had opportunity, and she believed you did that through education and legislation.”

Citing the memoir, Ms. McCormick went on to say that her friend strove for a time when women and men would come together simply for the benefit of all humanity, period, sans political motives or selfish machinations.

As Ms. Bell wrote, that would “be a power such as the world has never known.”

Ruth Marion Cooper was born in Detroit on Nov. 29, 1919, in the middle of a raging winter storm that knocked power out at the hospital. She was the only child of Roy Laurence Cooper and Olive Pearl (née O’Mulvenny) Cooper. Her father, an auto-parts salesman who doted upon her, soon moved the family to Atlanta, Ga. Her early years were idyllic, with parents who stressed the value of books, imagination and a good education.

When she was 10, everything the girl knew was suddenly upended. Roy Cooper lost all his money at the start of the Depression and committed suicide, leaving his wife and daughter to fend for themselves in a world where desperation reigned. But his widow did not hesitate. Originally from Ontario, she moved with Ruth to Toronto, where she had family who could care for the girl if anything ever happened to her.

As a single parent, Mrs. Cooper found work selling insurance, arranging her working hours around her daughter’s schedule. She also honoured her late husband’s wish that young Ruth be educated at the best of private schools, ensuring that she attended St. Clement’s, an independent Anglican school for girls.

Stand on your own two feet, was the mother’s message. Never depend on anyone else to support you and always have a sense of your own self-worth.

In response, young Ruth, red of hair and fiery of mien, got top marks and came first in her class until her senior year, when she was distracted by a boyfriend and let her grades slip a notch. The result was that she didn’t get a scholarship for university, a transgression for which her mother returned all her graduation gifts and told her to get a job.

For a time, she worked at the American consulate in Toronto, interviewing and screening Canadians who wanted to move to the United States. One of the people she interviewed was the man who would become her first husband: William Kirby Rolph, an academic historian who first caught her attention when she overheard him explaining American history to a group of acolytes on the street.

“Ruth thought it was delightful that she got to ask the questions of someone who struck her as a very interesting person,” Ms. McCormick said.

The couple married in 1945, travelling the world as Dr. Rolph pursued his teaching career, from New York to New Orleans, from London, Ont., to Canberra in Australia. Along the way, the then-Mrs. Rolph took courses toward a bachelor of arts in political economy, which she would finally complete 10 years later at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College.

But after suffering the death of her father as a young girl, tragedy visited her again in Australia just before Christmas, 1953: Dr. Rolph was rushed to hospital with a hemorrhaging ulcer, received a blood transfusion and died from a resulting infection. He was 35 years old.

The new widow returned to Canada on a freighter, learning how to play poker during the long journey and more determined than ever to make it on her own. Her first job was as a researcher with the Progressive Conservative Party in Ottawa; soon, she moved on to a food production company in Montreal where she was invited to join its senior officers at a dinner. When one of them asked her to dance, she declined.

The next day, she was fired on the grounds that she “didn’t know her place.”

Oh, but she did. And in her next job, as a research economist for the Bank of Montreal in 1957, she became an advocate for women, period. Why, she asked, were male employees able to contribute annually to their retirement pensions but female employees only received a retirement amount at the discretion of their bosses, based on their good behaviour?

“Women don’t support their families,” she was told.

Said Ms. McCormick: “One can only imagine what her response was to that.”

While at the bank, Ms. Bell continued to study public finance part time and in the early 1960s was hired as a lecturer and dean at a college affiliated with the University of Waterloo. The first time she entered the engineering school to teach, she was asked to leave because she was a woman and had not been invited into the all-male enclave.

She stood her ground. And teach them she did.

In 1963, she was invited to be a delegate at the PC Party’s annual meeting in Ottawa, where she reconnected with Richard Bell, John Diefenbaker’s former minister of citizenship and immigration and a widower whom she had met when she first returned to Canada.

Five dates later, they were married, and she moved into Fairfields, a heritage house in Nepean, Ont., where his family had lived for five generations.

For the next half-century, she worked tirelessly to better the situation of women and children around the world. She volunteered for more than 50 local, national and international organizations, was the first chair of UNESCO’s Sub-Commission on the Status of Women and always maintained close ties with her beloved Canadian Federation of University Women.

In 2007, 19 years after Mr. Bell’s death, she established the Dick and Ruth Bell Chair for the Study of Canadian Parliamentary Democracy at Carleton University to honour his political career.

As her own health declined, Ms. Bell moved into a care home. Blind, she kept a pile of books by her bedside that a stream of visiting friends read to her.

In accordance with Mr. Bell’s wishes, she donated Fairfields to the city of Nepean (now part of Ottawa).

In addition to the honorary doctorate, Ms. Bell garnered a host of other accolades, including the Governor-General’s Persons Award, a recognition of lifetime achievement from the YMCA-YWCA Women of Distinction, Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee Medal and, in 2008, the Founders Award – Carleton University’s highest non-academic honour.

“Nicest” of all, in 1981, she was named to the Order of Canada, the same year as bank president W. Earle McLaughlin, who’d asked her to be “nice girl” only five years earlier.

Besides her two husbands, Ms. Bell was predeceased in 2000 by her stepdaughter, Ontario Supreme Court Justice Judith Miriam Bell. She leaves her many friends, whose lives she changed for the better.

Said Ms. McCormick: “Ruth believed [that] creating a dialogue requires us to suspend our own opinions when we are listening to others, and we have to persuade men and women to look beyond a person’s physical appearance to discover his or her essence.”

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