Ruth Bell was born in Detroit one hundred years ago on Nov 29, 1919. Her mother was Canadian; her father was in the auto parts business. The family was prosperous and happy. But when Ruth was 10, her father died. He left a small insurance policy but few other assets.
Ruth and her mother returned to Canada. They settled in Toronto and her mother went to work in the 1930s, not coincidentally selling life insurance to families. The family did not have sufficient means for Ruth to attend university, so she entered the office workforce for several years.
In 1945 she married a University of Toronto history PhD student, Bill Rolph. The couple moved around for several years as Bill held temporary teaching positions at Western Ontario, New York University, and the University of Saskatchewan. Bill then secured a fellowship at the Australian National University in Canberra. They sailed to Australia in 1952. Ruth found Australians to be very friendly and “the most active party-goers in the world.”
But after a year, Bill died of a haemorrhaging ulcer.
Now widowed, Ruth decided to return home to Canada. (She learned to play poker on the ship and won enough to buy gifts for the crew.)
She enrolled in the University of Toronto. In her years as a faculty wife she had taken university courses at five different institutions, calling herself the “most educated BA-less women in the world.” Her transfers allowed her to graduate in 1955 with a BA in Political Economy. She was recommended for a PhD but was ineligible for a Canadian Federation of University Women scholarship because she was over 30.
Through a friend, Ruth got a job in Ottawa working as a researcher for the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. Her secretary was Flora Macdonald. She then worked for five years as a economist for the Bank of Montreal. She remained active in academic circles and attended the Learned Societies meetings of both political scientists and historians. Her academic connections eventually led to being appointed as Dean of Renison College at the University of Waterloo, where she also taught political science to engineering students.
She kept up her Progressive Conservative connections. In 1963 she met Dick Bell, an Ottawa MP and cabinet minister. Dick was a widower. Within six months they were married, on the Waterloo campus. They honeymooned in Europe and she encountered the ship that had brought her home from Australia. The crew remembered her.
The couple settled in Ottawa. Ruth enrolled again for more study - in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University. She may have been the first woman graduate student ever in Carleton’s political science program. In 1965 she was awarded her MA, writing a thesis on Conservative Party leadership conventions. Her supervisor was the eminent party scholar Khayyam Paltiel.
Now Ruth Bell, she became a powerful force of civic activism. An MP’s wife of that era was expected to be a semi-public figure, but in benign fashion. Ruth Bell was far more than that. She became highly active in local, national, and international public affairs.
The driving force in Ruth Bell’s activism was the advancement of the political and economic status of women. Her mother’s trials and her own decades of making her way largely by herself, in a world dominated by men, equipped her with a deep passion and direct knowledge of the barriers faced by women.
Among her priorities were equal pay, pension rights, and education for women. She founded, led, or was otherwise active in the Canadian Federation of University Women (where she pushed to change the scholarship rules), the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, the Canadian Commission for Learning Opportunities for Women, the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, and many more organizations. She was awarded the Order of Canada in 1981 for her work on behalf of women’s rights.
Ruth Bell was a strong and determined person. Among her favourite sayings was “behold the turtle! She only makes progress when she sticks her neck out!” One of her prized stories was a 1975 encounter with the president of the Royal Bank of Canada, when, as a stockholder, she withheld her vote because no women were on the board of directors. The executive said to Ruth, age 56, “Why don’t you be a nice girl and let me exercise your ballot?” She had the last word and titled her 2004 memoirs Be A ‘Nice’ Girl!
Dick Bell was a strong supporter of his wife. Dick’s political career ended in the wave of Trudeaumania and he returned full-time to law. The couple was immensely prominent in Ottawa civic affairs in the 1970s and 1980s, both independently and jointly. Among their involvements was Carleton University, where Dick sat on the board of governors, and in 1984 they received simultaneous honourary degrees and addressed the convocation jointly.
Dick Bell died in 1988.
Dick had a daughter from his first marriage, Judy Bell. Judy Bell was herself a trailblazer, entering law school in the early 1960s and building her own legal career that led to her appointment to the bench in 1986. She also sat on the Carleton board of governors. However, Judy herself passed away unexpectedly in 2000.
In his will Dick Bell left a legacy for an annual lecture at Carleton University on public affairs, and it is now known as the Dick, Ruth, and Judy Bell Lecture. The family also donated the Bell homestead, “Fairfields,” in the family for 175 years, to the city of Nepean. It is now a civic museum at 3080 Richmond Road close to Bayshore Mall.
In old age, Ruth Bell remained a force. She wrote her memoirs in 2005, from which almost of this is based.
In addition to her passion for women’s rights and equality, Ruth Bell never lost her taste for the rest of the discipline of political science and especially political parties and Canada’s system of parliamentary democracy. She was an active member of the Canadian Study of Parliament Group and sat on its board. And in 2008, she gave a major gift to Carleton University to establish the Honourable Dick and Ruth Bell Chair for the Study of Canadian Parliamentary Democracy. The first holder of the chair was my distinguished colleague Bill Cross, who has served as the Chair for two terms from 2009-2019. I will assume the Chair as of July 1, 2019.
Ruth Bell passed away in December 2015 at the age of ninety-six.
I met Ruth Bell several times at dinners and events before her passing. She was a lively personality and despite her age and failing health, the strong determination that stared down the Royal Bank president was clearly evident. Among her legacies was a portrait of herself at her desk, which was donated to the Department of Political Science. It hangs in our lounge with a small plaque honouring her as our 1965 MA alumna.
It’s my honour to assume the duties of the Bell Chair, honouring this remarkable woman and her partner Dick Bell.