A century of women’s rights: A struggle that continues
TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published On Tue Mar 08 2011.
The struggle for women’s political and economic rights was big news in Old Toronto, 100 years ago. British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Sylvia were drawing sizable crowds to Massey Hall and other venues. And editors at the Toronto Daily Star devoted much of the front page to eldest daughter Christabel Pankhurst’s stunning declaration in London that the suffragists had embarked on a “real war” to claim women’s rights.
“First we talked,” Pankhurst said after a march in London turned ugly on Nov. 22, 1911. “Then we took to peaceful demonstrations. Next we began interrupting public meetings, and to forcing our way into the House of Commons . . . As a third stage we began destroying property. As time has passed we have become more and more violent, and we shall get more so.”
By the time the dust settled, 223 British women were arrested after marching on the National Liberal Club, blocking traffic, scuffling with police and hurling stones at windows. Many showed up at court “badly battered,” with black eyes, scratched faces and torn clothes. They seem to have given as good as they got, using brass knuckles, hat pins and stones on the cops. They certainly weren’t cowed; they vowed to trash the prisons from the inside.
Those traumatic days seem distant, as Canadians mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. But the battle for equality was real, dangerous and waged with passion. The Pankhursts might well argue that even now it is only half-won.
Back then, some in the Canadian establishment shared the British prosecutor’s aversion to such “disgraceful and discreditable . . . organized disorder.” A not-so-funny quip in the Starsuggested that “a fashion note from England intimates that penitentiary stripes will be much worn by suffragette ladies this winter.”
But even in those early days, the Pankhursts were not without admirers here. Dr. Margaret Gordon and the Toronto Suffrage Association were active from offices on Yonge St., across from what is now the Eaton Centre.
In Toronto, more than 2,000 packed Massey Hall to hear Sylvia Pankhurst argue for the vote for Ontario women, as well as equal pay for work of equal value at a time when women were lucky to earn half men’s wages. Late that year, Emmeline Pankhurst made a “magnificent address” of her own at Massey Hall, declaring that “taxation (of women) without representation is tyranny.” Around her, banners read: The time has come to enfranchise the women of Canada and Ontario women need the ballot.
It would be some years before Canadian women got the vote, first on the Prairies in 1916, then in Ontario the following year. But 1911 was a watershed. The suffragist message about voting rights for all women, a fair break for working women, and the need to tackle poverty and hunger was gaining converts here with every passing day. A century later, we honour their courage and their tenacity.
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