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Jo Vellacott: Recollections and a Tribute by Margaret Kamester

June 10, 2019
By Margaret Kamester

Dr. Jo Vellacott came to the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University as Visiting Professor in 1982. She already had an established reputation as scholar and historian, having published in 1980 a book, originally her doctoral thesis, on Bertrand Russell’s work with the conscientious objectors in World War 1, which has recently been republished. During her research for this book, she had come across many references to Catherine E. Marshall (CEM) who had been a leader in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), before the outbreak of war. Jo had discovered and sorted CEM’s papers, and was now writing her biography.

At this time, I was a “mature student” enrolled in the Women’s Studies Certificate programme at the Institute, with a UK background, a B.A, in history, and a Graduate Diploma in Library Studies from Concordia. I was immediately interested to hear about Jo’s arrival, and determined to take her courses.

When I met her for the first time, I was greeted (as was everyone she encountered) with a warm smile on her lovely round face and an immediate feeling of personal contact. We were soon immersed in the history of the NUWSS, which was a country-wide organization, democratically run, and committed to peaceful, lawful methods of operation. Jo had their weekly journal, The Common Cause, on microfilm, and trustingly lent me several rolls for the subject I chose for my first essay for her. She was always very generous in making the many unique original sources in her possession available to interested students.

Her classes were rarely straight lectures; there was a lot of student involvement, discussion, and role playing. I remember one class, when we were discussing the treatment of conscientious objectors in Britain during the First World War, when we were paired off and had to talk to each other as if we were mother and son, then reversing the roles, the role of “son” being that of a conscientious objector.

I cannot remember how long I had known Jo before she asked me if I would work for her as research assistant. I do know that I had no hesitation in accepting. It seemed that my background in history, my library science skills, and my feminism had all joined together in this opportunity toward with such a respected and increasingly well-loved scholar.

My work as research assistant was fascinating. I gradually became familiar with C.E.M.’s papers, xerox copies of which filled at least one large filing cabinet in Jo’s apartment, as I was delegated to replace the material with which Jo had been working. Another part of my job was making clear transcriptions of CEM’s rather difficult handwriting, not made more legible by her habit of writing while travelling by train. These transcriptions made it much easier for Jo to refer to the sources while writing the text of her biography. I became very familiar with the original handwriting and enjoyed this task enormously.

 I also worked a lot with the microfilm of The Common Cause, finding articles of interest. This  led to a bigger project: references to a pamphlet titled Militarism versus Feminism led Jo on a hunt which eventually found a copy in the library of the House of Commons, of all places! Together with some shorter essays on a similar theme, and an introduction written by both of us, this was published by Virago Press under the title Militarism versus Feminism : Writings on Women and War. There was a book launch at the Institute; the photograph of Jo and myself is a treasured possession, and a copy I have had made will be at the Memorial to Jo on June 14th 2019.

Perhaps the most rewarding part of our partnership was the award in 1987 by the Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada of a grant which would enable us both to go to England and work on the original C.E.M. papers in the Cumbria Record Office, in Carlisle. One of the anonymous reports on the proposal which Jo had sent states,  “Dr. Vellacott’s publications include … a scholarly, perceptive and well-written monograph … [this] shows her to be a highly competent scholar, and rarer still, a sensitive biographer. [A grant would] enable her to complete her work on Catherine Marshall which is … long awaited.” This trip was truly a red-letter experience for me; to handle the original papers and find items which were missing from the copies Jo already had was a huge thrill.

All too soon, Jo’s years at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute came to an end; she moved on to Kingston, Ontario, where she had a position with Queen’s University – I do not remember and have not been able to find out exactly what that was. She bought a small, old and charming house near the centre of Kingston; I visited her there several times as her work on the C.E.M. biography drew to a close. It was to be published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. Jo asked me to make a stylistically correct version of the bibliography, and the page of abbreviations and their meanings, and to help with the index.

Finally in 1993 the book was published, with the title From Liberal to Labour with Women’s Suffrage : The Story of Catherine Marshall. It received critical acclaim from scholars in the field, who recognized the importance of the re-setting of the balance between the influence of C.E.M. and her like-minded group in the NUWSS, and the Women’s Social and Political Union, led by Emmeline Pankhurst, with its resort to violent methods of pressure such as window breaking and arson, which of course had and still has received the most notice in the popular imagination.

The book ends with the sudden outbreak of the First World War, and the split in the NUWSS between those who felt the necessity of supporting the war effort, and those, like Catherine and her friends, who wished to use the publicity machine of the organization to educate the public about the necessity of a just and universal peace agreement after the conflict. This group eventually broke away and were instrumental in the founding of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, for which Catherine worked during the war. They were among the first to condemn the overly-harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles as setting the stage for further conflict, a view which is now universally recognized as correct.

Jo had always hoped to write the second volume of Catherine’s life; she produced several draft chapters and always sent me a copy for proof reading and criticism. Increasingly the work became too much for her, and has been passed on to an interested British woman historian. She continued to write and publish on the history of the period and on non-violent and feminist theory; also a personal memoir. Due to several happy circumstances which involved a descendant of Catherine’s, Jo has been able to visit the UK several times recently to speak at conferences and meet other historians, gradually finding support for her views. I know this gave her great satisfaction in her last years.

Jo was a Quaker, and a pacifist, although she joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service during the Second World War, recognizing like many other pacifists that Nazism was an evil that had to be rooted out. The way she lived out her beliefs has been an inspiration and blessing for the many people she has known during her long life.

We kept in touch right until her last months; she was  true and much loved friend and mentor. I have found her kind words about my part in her work very humbling; I always felt myself to be a complete amateur compared to her immaculate scholarship and depth of knowledge. I know it was the most worthwhile and also the most enjoyable part of my limited working life, and I will always treasure the memories.                                                                                              

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