When women got the vote

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
January 25, 2016.    Allan Levine

Near the end of the Manitoba election campaign of August 1915, Tobias Norris, the provincial Liberal leader — who had become premier three months earlier after Conservative Premier Rodmond Roblin had been forced to resign because of a scandal — declared that he would introduce a bill to amend the Manitoba Election Act to grant women the right to vote, providing he received a petition with at least 20,000 names on it. Four months after Norris and the Liberals had won the election, two petitions were submitted with more than 40,000 names on them, signed by both men and women. True to his word, Norris, the consummate reformer, introduced the women’s suffrage bill in mid-January 1916 and on Jan. 27, the bill was formally passed. It came into effect the next day.

Though “widows and spinsters” and married women owning property already had been given the vote in various municipalities across the country, for the first time in Canadian history, women could cast a ballot in a provincial election. It was the culmination of a hard-fought battle that had been waged in Manitoba for many years and by Canadian women more generally for close to four decades.

The Canadians were more moderate “suffragists,” who were committed to the ideals of what has been referred to as “maternal feminism.”
It was a joyous scene at the Manitoba legislature. When the bill finally received third reading, hundreds of women, who had crowded into the visitors’ gallery, rose to sing O Canada. This was followed by two rounds of “Jolly Good Fellows” — one by the women in a salute to the “courageous” male politicians who had done the impossible and the second belted out by the men on the floor in reply. Many of these men had no doubt agreed with former premier Roblin’s contention that “nice women don’t want the vote.” Now, they were of a different mind.

Several members of the Political Equality League, a group of Manitoba women who had campaigned tirelessly for this day, had been invited onto the floor of the legislative assembly — another first. Absent from the group, however, was one of the league’s key organizers, Nellie McClung, who had moved to Edmonton from Winnipeg with her family in the summer of 1915.

McClung’s motto was: “Never retract, never explain, never apologize — get the thing done and let them howl.” She lived up to those words in every respect — but in a gentle Canadian way. British suffragettes (as depicted in the new film, Suffragette) led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, opted for a no-holds-barred protest that included violence, arson and property damage.

Canadian women would never have gone to such extremes. (Neither did American suffragettes who were slightly more aggressive than the Canadians, but definitely not as militant as British women.) The Canadians were more moderate “suffragists,” who were committed to the ideals of what has been referred to as “maternal feminism.” As wives, sisters and mothers, these mainly middle-class white Anglo Protestant women desired to maintain their traditional role in the household and cure the world’s many ills. The vote, they believed, would give them the required power to reform Canadian society — a society under pressure from industrialization, urbanization, immigration and especially alcohol abuse. Flora Macdonald Denison, president of the Canadian Suffrage Association from 1911 to 1914, stated in a newspaper interview in 1913 that “the primal mission of women is to get married and have children.”

McClung, born Helen “Nellie” Mooney near Owen Sound, Ont., in 1873, would not have disagreed. She grew up in southwest Manitoba after her family moved to the province. In 1896, she married Wesley McClung, a pharmacist and the son of a Methodist minister, and they eventually had five children. In 1911, the McClungs relocated to Winnipeg. By then, Nellie, a teacher, had written her first of several Canadian bestsellers, Sowing Seeds in Danny, which glorified pioneer life.

Her activism had begun as a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which she joined to fight the evils of drink, in her view the cause of family hardship and a menace that had to be obliterated. Recognizing that she and other women needed the vote to halt the liquor traffic, she transformed herself into a popular and passionate orator and one of the leaders of the women’s suffrage campaign in Manitoba. The highlight of the women’s battle took place on Jan. 28, 1914, exactly two years before the vote in the Manitoba legislature, when McClung and the members of the Political Equality League staged a “Mock Parliament” that brilliantly satirized the archaic and foolish objections of Roblin and his government to granting women the vote.

McClung, however, was not a saint, as she has often been venerated. Like prime ministers John A. Macdonald and William Lyon Mackenzie King and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, castigated for their racist opinions, she, too, was a woman of her time. From our perspective, her views were just as prejudiced as her male counterparts. She worried about the negative impact “foreigners” would have on the country and could not fathom how men who could barely speak English were given the right to vote, while white Anglo women were not. Together with several other leading female members of the so-called “Famous Five” — the women who fought the Persons Case in the late 1920s, which established that women under the law were “persons” and therefore eligible for appointment to the Canadian Senate — she was an advocate for eugenics and sterilization of the “feeble-minded.”

Other provinces soon followed Manitoba’s lead in granting women the vote — the lone holdout was Quebec, which took until 1940 to do so. On the federal level, all women 21 years of age and older — except aboriginal, Asian and Hindu women (as well as men), who would be disqualified for decades — could vote nationally in the federal election of 1921, which was also was the first time a woman, Agnes Macphail of the Progressive Party, was elected to the House of Commons.

A hundred years ago, the Manitoba government passed an important piece of legislation pushing Canada out of the dark ages. Still, it was only a tiny step. Society did not crumble, family life was not destroyed and marriages did not dissolve because women got the vote, as many traditionalists had ominously predicted. At the same time, many women were content to remain subservient in a man’s world and many men were content to maintain the status quo. It would be up to the generations of women who followed the suffragists to lead the struggle for true equality.

National Post

Historian and writer Allan Levine’s most recent book is Toronto: Biography of a City.

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