Sketches of Parliaments and Parliamentarians of the Past

Article 15 / 15 , Vol 43 No 1 (Spring)

Sketches of Parliaments and Parliamentarians of the Past

Sarah Ramsland: Pioneer in Politics and Library Service After winning a by-election caused by the unexpected death of her husband, Sarah Katherine Ramsland became Saskatchewan’s first woman MLA in 1919. Serving until her defeat in 1925, Ramsland then made the transition into the province’s Legislative Library from 1926 to 1930. Noted for her dignity, firmness, and forthrightness, Ramsland is celebrated in Saskatchewan for her pioneering role as first female MLA, her pioneering contributions to library services, and for keeping her watchful eye on the Library Reading Room for one hundred years!

Melissa K. Bennet

In today’s Canadian parliamentary environment, the policies and practices of non-partisan legislative services would bar a politician from crossing over to a non-partisan role in the legislative service. In earlier days, however, this was not always the case. In Saskatchewan, the Province’s first female Member of the Legislative Assembly, Sarah Katherine Ramsland, served as MLA from 1919 to 1925 and then worked for the Saskatchewan Legislative Library from 1926 to 1930.

Sarah Ramsland was born Sarah McEwen in 1882 in Minnesota. She taught school in Minnesota until she married Magnus O. (Max) Ramsland. Historians note that Sarah always had an interest in politics. Her grandfather had been a member of the Minnesota Legislature and Max’s father was a member of the Minnesota Legislature as well. Sarah and Max moved to Saskatchewan in 1906, where they farmed and Max brokered real estate, loans, and insurance. They had three children.

Max Ramsland successfully ran as a Liberal candidate for the Pelly constituency in Saskatchewan’s 1917 provincial general election. A year later, tragedy struck when Max died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. The Liberal government of the day, faced with calling a by-election, asked Sarah to run for the vacated seat and she agreed. Historians believe that the Liberals backed Sarah Ramsland as their candidate because they thought she would generate a sympathy vote and they wanted to provide an income for her and the children.

During the by-election campaign, a newspaper headline of the day declared “Mrs. Ramsland is Making Strong Run in Pelly: With a Woman Friend, Tours Rough Country Canvassing for Votes.” The friend was Sarah’s sister-in-law. They had toured the northern part of the constituency by car and addressed two meetings a day. Newspaper coverage of a campaign event reported that Ramsland spoke “in a clear and emphatic way” and “showed the people that she was strong for Liberal principles and the Martin government.” It went on to conclude that she “amply demonstrated to the electors that a woman can represent a farming district such as Pelly.”1

Sarah Ramsland won the 1919 by-election and was seated in the Legislative Assembly that November, making history as the first female Member of the Legislative Assembly in Saskatchewan. In a letter to her parents the next day, she reflected on the significance of the event, the warm welcome she had received by Members of the Assembly and women’s organizations, and her intention for handling herself in the role. She stated, “If for one moment I thought I could not be the same lady I had always tried to be I would never have entered politics. And I am sure my own good judgment will be used in every instance and my vote during my political (career) can never be bought.”2

Sarah Ramsland served as an MLA for six years. She was re-elected in the 1921 provincial election but defeated in the 1925 election. Contemporaries noted her dignity, firmness, and forthrightness. Her speeches as an MLA suggest an individual who was aspirational, and positive, articulate, aware of the complexities of issues, and inclined towards moderation, incremental change, and consensus building. She took particular interest in promoting improvements to Saskatchewan’s education system.
In the last year of her political service, she introduced a resolution in the Legislative Assembly calling for equal rights for women in divorce proceedings (all MLAs voted in support of the resolution). In her inaugural address to the House, she stated that the aim of the Legislative Assembly should be to make Saskatchewan the best-governed province in Canada.

After her defeat in the 1925 election, the Legislative Library employed Sarah Ramsland. Library records indicate that she initially worked as a Library Clerk and that the Library advanced her to Assistant Librarian in 1927 managing the Travelling Libraries service.

The Travelling Libraries program provided recreational reading material to Saskatchewan residents living in communities without public library services. This was a time when public library services were still a pioneering endeavor and much work remained in the development of the regional library systems that serve the province today. The Legislative Library worked with executive government to initiate Travelling Libraries and continued to provide staff and support as an adjunct to its primary function as a Legislative Library until executive government took on administration of the program. Sources suggest that Ramsland was employed by the Legislative Library until 1930 and in charge of Travelling Libraries for the Province until her second marriage in 1943.

In addition to her political career, work in libraries, and her role as parent, Ramsland served as president of the Saskatchewan Canadian Club, grand matron of the Eastern Star, and as one of the early presidents of the Regina Business and Professional Women’s Clubs. When Ramsland passed away in 1964, the Leader Post remembered her alert, methodical, and perceptive mind; precise way of thinking and speaking; and “ability to circumvent triviality and guide a meeting purposefully through to a successful conclusion.”3 Ramsland’s daughter remembered her as a wonderful single parent through difficult years; who had a great love of books and hats and “followed political issues completely.”4

In 1920, while Ramsland was still an MLA and prior to her service in the Library, the Legislative Assembly installed her photograph in the Legislative Library Reading Room to honour her status as the first female MLA in Saskatchewan. The Library holds a special esteem for Ramsland; for her pioneering role as first female MLA, her pioneering contributions to library services, and for her watchful eye on the Library Reading Room for one hundred years!

Notes

1 “Mrs. Ramsland is Making Strong Run in Pelly,” The Leader (July 23, 1919), p. 2.

2 “Breaking New Ground: Sarah Ramsland, MLA, 1919-1925,” Documents and Newspaper Scrapbook, Saskatchewan History 43, No. 2 (Spring 1991), p. 54.

3 “First Woman MLA,” Leader Post(April 8, 1964), p. 23.

4 “Breaking New Ground,” p. 52.