SKINNER, EMMA SOPHIA (Fiske), linguist, suffragist, and social reformer; b. 23 Oct. 1852 in Saint John, daughter of Samuel Skinner, a carriage maker, and Phoebe Sherwood Golding; m. there 15 June 1876 John MacKenzie Campbell Fiske, a dentist, oculist, and aurist; they had no children; d. there 29 Oct. 1914.
Emma S. Skinner lost her mother at age 11, but presumably she and her youngest siblings were cared for by their father and three eldest sisters. Little is known of Emma’s youth. Raised a Baptist, in adulthood she was recorded as a Unitarian and later an Anglican. She probably attended local schools and may have received further education elsewhere. An accomplished linguist, she gave instruction in French, German, and Italian and reportedly taught English literature and French in the local high school. The premature death of her husband in 1877 had perhaps led her to a teaching career. Her personal misfortune possibly also made her conscious of women’s economic insecurity, for later she supported the position that women should have wage equality with, and the opportunity to secure financial independence from, men.
Of the 13 Skinner siblings who lived to adulthood, most participated in public affairs. Emma carved out a place in the social, cultural, and political life of Saint John. Described in the press as “one of the best known and most active women in the city,” she involved herself with the Saint John Art Club, the ladies’ auxiliary of the Natural History Society of New Brunswick, the Associated Charities of Saint John, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the Red Cross Society, and the Women’s Enfranchisement Association. An entertaining speaker, she lectured frequently on travel, art, literature, and historical topics. The industrialization of Saint John having been accompanied by the growth of both social ills and reform movements to combat them, she also spoke out eloquently on social issues.
Emma’s public activities connected her to the city’s leading and reform-minded citizens, notably educator George Upham Hay and Fabian socialist, politician, and businessman Warren Franklin Hatheway*, both of whom belonged to the Natural History Society. As a member of the city’s tightly knit reform circle, Fiske helped spearhead various campaigns. In 1900, as president of the suffrage club, she organized a public meeting to promote compulsory schooling, and she subsequently served on a committee with Hay, Hatheway, Mabel Phoebe Peters, and others to press this issue. Four years later she formed part of a Saint John delegation drawn from women’s societies, labour groups, and the Fabian League which lobbied Lemuel John Tweedie’s government for the passage of factory laws. Upon Hatheway’s recommendation, she sat as a member of the government-appointed factory commission which toured New Brunswick’s leading industrial communities in 1904 and 1905 gathering evidence. These campaigns culminated in the passage of the New Brunswick Factories Act of 1905, which regulated child factory labour and industrial working conditions, and the 1906 law requiring school trustees to hold a public vote annually on the question of compulsory attendance.
Emma directed most of her time and energy towards advancing New Brunswick women’s political rights. Although in the 1880s the WCTU promoted women’s suffrage, which it was to add to its platform in 1895, she worked primarily through the Women’s Enfranchisement Association, organized in Saint John in 1894. Foremost a woman’s rights group, the association was the province’s first and only reform society with equal suffrage for women as its primary objective. Emma Fiske became its driving force. A founding member, she was elected second president in 1898 and held that post until her death. In 1894 she represented her club at the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association annual meeting held at Ottawa. Here Fiske was appointed vice-president-at-large for the Maritime provinces and organizer of women’s suffrage clubs in New Brunswick. However, her Saint John activities and the WEA’s small membership precluded her from effectively performing these duties. Locally, she worked tirelessly for the suffrage cause, helping prepare and collect signatures on petitions and chairing and addressing public meetings. In 1908 she led a suffrage delegation to Fredericton in an attempt to win support for the introduction of a bill, drafted by Mabel Priscilla Penery French*, to extend the provincial franchise to unmarried women possessing the necessary property and income qualifications. Despite Fiske’s forceful arguments, the measure was turned aside by Premier John Douglas Hazen*.
Unafraid to challenge the status quo, in 1908 Fiske introduced outspoken Canadian woman’s rights activist Flora Macdonald Denison [Merrill*] to a Saint John audience, and in 1912 she appeared on the platform in the Port City with militant British suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst. As a designated suffrage club organizer and head of the provincial WCTU’s suffrage department, she travelled throughout New Brunswick educating men and women on the subject of equal rights. Following her address to a Moncton audience in 1912, a decision was made to organize a local suffrage club. Fiske carried her message to several parts of the province, but Saint John remained both her and the WEA’s centre of activity.
The WEA had not always been able to sustain the momentum of its crusade. In 1899, following the defeat of several suffrage bills, the campaign lost impetus. WEA members turned to the study of collectivist theory, particularly the ideas of American author Edward Bellamy. For approximately four years readings, mock debates, and presentations on socialist themes highlighted club meetings. The women became so absorbed that they discussed turning their association into a Fabian society. Fiske and Ella Hatheway, wife of Frank, were appointed “to act as a committee to advance the cause of collectivism.” During this period Fiske and other members campaigned for compulsory education and factory laws and pressed the WCTU to assist them in securing a committee to inspect hospitals, almshouses, and other public institutions. The WEA nevertheless remained dedicated to its primary objective.
Fiske did not live to see that goal realized. She died unexpectedly in 1914, five years before New Brunswick women won the right to vote in provincial elections. To perpetuate the “helpful influence” of their friend and long-serving president, WEA members established the Emma S. Fiske Memorial Fund, which took the form of a shower of materials suitable for sewing into children’s garments. In her memory the Associated Charities distributed hundreds of items of clothing to the city’s needy boys and girls.
Fernhill Cemetery Company (Saint John), Burial records, lot no.934 (Samuel Skinner). NA, RG 31, C1, Saint John, Prince Ward, div.1, 1871: 41; 1891: 9; 1901:6 (mfm. at PANB). N.B. Museum, Reg. of marriages for the city and county of Saint John, book I (1875–80): 254 (mfm. at PANB); Women’s Enfranchisement Assoc. of Canada, Saint John branch, minute-books, 1894–1919. PANB, RS9/1904/22–22.1; RS113/3/20; RS250, evidence, 1904–5; RS315, A, 1: 848. Daily Evening News (Saint John), 5 July 1877. Daily Telegraph (Saint John), 18 Feb. 1908, continued by Daily Telegraph and the Sun, 16 Jan. 1912. Saint John Globe, 18 April 1894; 14 April 1899; 13 Feb., 21 Nov. 1904; 13 May 1908; 9–10 April 1912; 29 Oct. 1914; 28, 30 Jan. 1915. St. John Daily Sun, 19 Jan. 1900; 19 Feb., 8 April 1901; 5 June 1902. St. John Standard, 29 Oct. 1914, 30 Jan. 1915. M. E. Clarke, “The Saint John Women’s Enfranchisement Association, 1894–1919” (ma thesis, Univ. of N.B., Fredericton, 1980). C. L. Cleverdon, The woman suffrage movement in Canada, intro. Ramsay Cook (2nd ed., Toronto, 1974). Directory, Saint John, 1876/77: 114. N.B., Acts, 1905, c.7; 1906, c.13. The New Brunswick census of 1851: Saint John County (2v., Fredericton, 1982), 2. Elspeth Tulloch, We, the undersigned: a historical overview of New Brunswick women’s political and legal status, 1784–1984 (Moncton, N.B., 1985).