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Ruth Bullock, 1909-1994

Priorities, Spring 1994

by Cynthia Flood

For feminists and socialists in the 60s and 70s, the value of a visit to Vanguard Books at 1208 Granville in Vancouver was intensified by the presence there of Ruth Bullock. A woman of striking appearance—brilliant blue eyes, curly white hair, an upright bearing and expressive hands—Ruth spoke in confident, musical and sometimes acerbic tones. As the manager of a radical bookstore, she was efficient and knowledgeable; as a longtime activist, she modelled tenacity and conviction to younger comrades in the Trotskyist movement; and as a feminist, she heartened and strengthened every woman fortunate enough to spend time with her.

In her long and vigorous life, Ruth embodied many of the crucial political processes of this century. Born in the Interior and raised on Saltspring, as a young married woman she lived in the Fraser Valley, where her own difficult experiences led her into distributing birth control and helping women to obtain abortions. The risks associated with such illegal activities may be hard to imagine today; Ruth showed characteristic ingenuity and courage in this work. Her decision to leave her unhappy marriage, taking her daughter with her and to live with union organizer Reg Bullock also exposed her to social sanctions.

These classic women's experiences led Ruth to ask ever sharper questions about the society in which she lived. She became active in the CCF, participating enthusiastically in constituency work, study groups and women's organizations. She wrote essays and articles about the situation of women under capitalism. Then, the Depression and Ruth's radicalism deepened together. She came to believe that the reforms proposed by the CCF were insufficient to address the evils of the present social order, and became a Marxist. Together with her husband, Reg, she joined what became the Canadian section of the Fourth International, and embarked upon a forty year tour of duty as a revolutionary socialist. The Bullocks moved to North Vancouver, and Ruth held a series of staff positions with the Vancouver Trotskyist organization.

Ruth's political commitment took her through the 1940s, when she did political work among women employees at the new arms factories in Vancouver, and when she and her husband were editorially vilified by the local press for their position on World War II. It took her through the 50s, a decade in which every progressive movement and individual felt the profound darkness of the Cold War; the CCF abandoned the Regina Manifesto and became increasingly uncomfortable with radicals within its ranks (Ruth and other Trotskyists were expelled from the NDP in 1965). In 1959, however, came the blazing fireworks of the Cuban Revolution and a major involvement for Ruth in support work for Cuba. Soon after, the U.S. reached bloodstained hands towards Vietnam. The response to that war introduced the youth of a new generation to political activity, and their arrival on the political scene made the 70s a very different decade for Ruth.

Some older radicals disapproved of the young politicals' style, clothes and music, but Ruth welcomed these new comrades with full enthusiasm, the more so because so many were women—early participants in what soon became known as the women's liberation movement. To such women, Ruth gave most generously of her time, encouragement, knowledge and political skill. Most valuably, she gave us an example of a woman revolutionary.

In the 80s, after Vanguard Books was no more and Reg had died, Ruth continued as an activist on many fronts. She maintained close contact with radicals of all stripes in Canada, the U.S. and around the world. To the struggle for the repeal of the abortion laws, and later for the creation of Everywoman's Health Centre, she gave constant and vigorous support. On the North Shore, she was a lively member of her NDP constituency, canvassing tirelessly on foot until ill health made her turn to covering her polls by phone. Support for the Nicaraguan Revolution and for other Latin American struggles was important to her, and most recently she became involved in speaking to high school students on environmental issues.

On May Day, 130 of Ruth's comrades, friends, family and neighbours gathered. We sang "Bread and Roses," "A Person Like You" and "The Internationale." We heard messages of love and admiration from New Zealand, Montreal, Vancouver, California, Toronto, Nicaragua, Boston, Regina... We remembered Ruth's vitality, her hot temper, her enjoyment of good food and books, her love of cats, gardens and the beautiful landscape of this province. We mourned her loss—but we also celebrated our good fortune in having known Ruth Bullock.

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