For over a century, women have had the right to vote in Canadian federal elections and most provincial elections. We take it for granted now, but the fight to get to that point was a long one for the women who wanted equal rights when it came to voting.
Today, I am looking at the road to women’s suffrage.
The history of women voting actually dates back much farther than most people realize. In the Lower Canada election of 1825, 27 Kanyen’keha’ka women from Kahnawake cast ballots. As well, some Catholic, Protestant and Jewish women who owned property in early Lower Canada elections. These would be outliers in the push for voting rights for women though, and it would be another half century before the cause was taken up.
Prior to 1851, some women could vote if they had property qualifications in elections in the Province of Canada. Various places would begin to exclude women including the Province of Canada itself in 1849.
When Canada was formed in 1867, the British North America Act gave the vote to Male British Subjects who were over the age of 21 and owned property. This resulted in only about eight per cent of the population being able to vote in Canada’s first election in the late-summer and early-Autumn of 1867. While more white males would get the vote over the course of the next few decades, women were excluded completely.
During the Victorian Era, women were expected to stay at home, preserve culture and produce children. They were not expected to take any part in political life.
For women, as the 19th century went on, began to push against this belief, giving rise to the Suffrage Movement.
One of the first women to take up the cause of women’s suffrage was Mary Ann Shadd, a Black abolitionist, who came to Canada after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. In 1853, she began to publish the newspaper the Provincial Freeman, where she wrote articles advocating for women’s rights. Her newspaper would help the cause in other ways, including by publishing where suffrage meetings were being held in Canada, as well as the United States. Shadd would return to the United States in 1860 to begin campaigning for the Union during the American Civil War.
The next person to push Canada along the path of suffrage was Dr. Emily Stowe. Dr. Stowe was the first female physician in Canada and the second licensed female physician in our country. While both of those are immense accomplishments, it was her help in founding the women’s suffrage movement in Canada that she left her biggest mark on Canada. She would help form the Toronto Women’s Literary Club in 1876. With her daughter Augusta Stowe-Gullen, she worked to build up the influence of the club to aid women’s suffrage.
In 1883, the TWLC became the Toronto Women’s Suffrage Association.
As the 1880s wore on, various union organizations began to endorse women’s suffrage, including the Knights of Labour.
Suffragists did not just focus on gaining voting rights for women. They would also take up causes related to public health, employment equality, women’s education, social assistance and condemning violence against women. Eventually, temperance became a cause of many suffragists, leading to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the largest women’s group in Canada, lending their support to suffrage believing that women voting would lead to prohibition and a decrease in violence against women.
In 1885, the Federal Electoral Franchise Act is passed, which gives the right to vote to male persons. Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald raises the prospect of expanding the vote to unmarried women and widows with property but opposition to this causes the proposal to be dropped.
It was also in 1885 that Liberal MPP John Waters introduces the first proposal to give women the right to vote in Ontario. It would fail but he would continue to submit the proposal until 1893.
In the 1890s, women in Nova Scotia began to launch campaigns to get the vote after being excluded from it since 1851. In Halifax, the movement was the strongest and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was a main force in the province for pushing the cause.
Around this same time, the women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Halifax Local Council of Women submit 34 petitions and support six suffrage bills in Nova Scotia.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was also in New Brunswick since the 1880s and had helped women get the right to vote in municipal elections, but not provincial. The Women’s Enfranchisement Association of New Brunswick would be formed in 1894 to push for women’s suffrage in the province.
Prince Edward Island did not have any major group campaigning for women’s suffrage and women had seen any chance at the vote revoked since 1836.
On Feb. 9, 1893, the first mock Parliament is held in Winnipeg when Amelia Yeomans, a pioneering doctor, had submitted a petition and was ignored. In response, she helped organize the mock parliament. The tactic would become a common practice throughout Canada for the next two decades.
On May 8, 1895, the first motion for women’s suffrage is presented in Parliament by Nicholas Flood Davin. The motion called for enfranchisement for women who met property qualifications but did not include anything for women to run for political office.
The Montreal Gazette reported quote:
“He mentioned Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots and other women famous in history in proof of feminine political ability and reviewed the progress the question had made in the British House of Commons.”
While Wilfrid Laurier, who would become prime minister the next year, was not against suffrage he did not feel it was a federal cause. He would put in an amendment that stated quote:
“That the question of women’s suffrage is one which, like other questions concerning the suffrage, more properly belongs to provincial jurisdiction.”
One MP named Craig stated that he wanted no politicians around his house and that it would take away from a woman’s charm if she was allowed to mix into politics.
The opponents to the motion state that the proper sphere for a woman is in the home, and it is defeated 105 votes to 47.
Slowly, things began to change. By 1900, some suffragists had won voting rights in various cities in Canada, while others could vote in elections for park, library and school boards.
Things would begin to change in the early 1900s thanks to formal schooling beyond elementary school. Prior to this, such schooling was limited for women. Women began to attend colleges and universities, which would begin to influence their beliefs on suffrage and equal rights for women.
On June 24, 1909, the suffragist movement would gain major support when the Toronto Globe, one of the most important newspapers in Canada, endorses suffrage in a headline that states quote:
“The time has come to enfranchise the women.”
The movement was growing strong enough that by Dec. 23, 1912, the suffragists met with Prime Minister Robert Borden, hoping that he would publicly state his support for a motion. He instead refuses to do so.
By 1914, women’s suffrage was gaining immense steam. Then, the First World War came along and the suffrage campaign was interrupted as many of its leaders and supporters started to focus on the war effort. The suffrage movement began to slow in central and eastern Canada during these years, but it would be in Canada’s west where it would suddenly start to grow stronger. Western Canada became extremely open to women’s suffrage for a number of reasons. First, the area was newly colonized and white settler women were relied on heavily on homesteads. It was also believed that giving women the vote would attract more white newcomers to the west.
That is not to say that every woman supported women’s suffrage. There were anti-suffragists who believed voting would lead to the discord within families and the breakdown of what they saw as the proper role of women in the home. Some claimed that mothers did not need to understand political affairs, while some even argued that women were not intelligent enough to engage in politics.
Western Canada had been endorsing women’s suffrage long before the First World War. In the 1870s, many Icelandic communities in Manitoba were endorsing it and it was from Manitoba many early suffragists would come along including Margaret Benedictsson, Francis Beynon and the most famous of them all, Nellie McClung.
I am going to pause here to talk about something that came along with the suffragist movement, eugenics, of which many early suffragists like McClung were in favour of. I am not going to talk about it here because I did an entire episode about it, and the link is in my transcript of this episode on my website. I felt it should be mentioned though, rather than glossed over.
McClung would write In Times Like These, which became a best seller and combined a serious argument with a sarcastic put-down of anti-suffragists.
In 1912, the Manitoba Political Equality League was established, and in 1914 it would hold a mock Parliament that was well-publicized and would become a common tactic of suffragists elsewhere in Canada. In this mock Parliament, suffragists would play the roles of politicians with McClung mocking Sir Rodmond Roblin, the premier of Manitoba at the time, in her debate of whether or not men should be given the vote.
McClung, during the 1914 election campaign, spoke 60 times in two months, sometimes three times a day, and she became a household name in the province with some calling her Manitoba’s prospective woman premier.
Maclean’s Magazine would write quote:
McClung would tell the members of the Manitoba Legislature quote:
“Have we not the brains to think? Hands to work? Hearts to feel? And lives to live? Do we not bear our part in citizenship? Do we not help build the empire? Give us our due!”
Premier Roblin would respond that most women don’t want the vote, stating quote:
“Now you forget all this nonsense about women voting. You’re a fine, smart, young woman. I can see that. And take it from me, nice women don’t want the vote.”
Thanks to events such as the mock Parliament, the 1915 Manitoba election would become a turning point in the movement in the west. The Manitoba Liberal Party promised to give women the right to vote, which gained it the support of suffragists throughout the province.
That election would see the end of Conservative rule that had lasted since 1900, with the Liberals taking 40 of 47 seats.
In December 1915, the Political Equality League of Manitoba delivered 40,000 signatures in support of women gaining the right to vote.
Premier Norris would assure the women who gave him the petition that a bill was being prepared to give women the vote in Manitoba and that he hoped to have it before the coming session of the Legislature.
The Liberal Party then made good on its promise by granting women the right to vote and hold provincial office on Jan. 28, 1916. When the final vote was done on the new law, several seats in the legislature were set aside for women to sit at. As the bill was read for a third time, the women rose in the Legislature and sang O’ Canada and then cheered the members of the Legislature. The MPs then responded with a cheer of their own for the women.
Dr. Mary Crawford, president of the Political Equality League in Winnipeg would say quote:
“Heartiest congratulations to the women of Manitoba on the passage of the suffrage bill. Through the efforts of its women, Manitoba has gained the enviable distinction of being the most progressive province in the Dominion. We rejoice with you!”
Suffragist Lillian Thomas would state quote:
This would prove to be the domino falling that suffragists were hoping for. Saskatchewan would give the vote to women on March 14, 1916, while Alberta would follow suit on April 19, 1916.
On May 1, 1916, Suffrage Day was celebrated not only across the United States, but also in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Both Alberta and Saskatchewan had seen a growing suffragist movement for years by this point, supported by the political parties that were springing up in the rural parts of the provinces. The Women’s Grain Growers Association was established in 1914 and was led by Violet McNaughton, the most powerful suffragist in the province. In 1915, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union merged with the Women’s Grain Growers Association to form the Provincial Equal Franchise Board. Their petition campaign would then lead to the Saskatchewan government following Manitoba’s lead.
In Alberta, the United Farmers of Alberta endorsed suffrage in 1912 and in 1915 the United Farm Women of Alberta was created to support suffrage. McClung then moved to Alberta and began working with Emily Murphy, Louis McKinney and Irene Parlby. Those four women, along with Henrietta Muir Edwards, would become the Famous Five, who in 1929 were successful in getting women declared persons and granting them the right to sit in the Canadian Senate.
McClung would speak on the floor of the Alberta Legislature stating quote:
“You will not tell me politics are too corrupt for women. Men tell us too, with a fine of chivalry, that women should not be given the vote because women don’t want it, the inference being that women get nothing unless they want it. Women get a lot of things they don’t want, the war, the liquor traffic, the lower pay for equal work.”
In British Columbia, the suffragist campaign was not led by rural groups but by urban ones. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union again proved to be influential, helping to lead the charge in the province. In 1912, the British Columbia Federation of Labour endorsed suffrage. On March 19, 1913, the Vancouver Sun printed a special women’s edition of its newspaper that sold out immediately. With petitions, and growing support, British Columbia decided to put the decision of suffrage in the hands of the voters, who were all men. The province was the only one in Canada to go this route. In the 1916 provincial election, male voters overwhelmingly voted in favour of giving women the right to vote, 48,619 to 18,604. The government then approved women’s suffrage on April 5, 1917.
With all four Western provinces now granting women the right to vote, Ontario quickly followed suit on April 12, 1917. Unlike in the west where the governments were Liberal, Ontario’s government was Conservative.
With over half of Canadian women now having the vote, the pressure was on for the federal government to grant the right to them for federal elections.
With the First World War raging, and casualties mounting, the government of Sir Robert Borden wanted to enact conscription, which was popular in English Canada but highly unpopular in French Canada. Forming a Union Government that merged the Conservatives with some conscription supporting Liberals, he readied himself for the 1917 election, the most divisive election in Canadian history.
I covered this election on From John to Justin and you can listen to it in the link in my transcript on my website: (https://canadaehx.com/2021/08/25/the-elections-1917/)
In order to ensure his government was elected, Borden implemented some new laws that were a bit shady.
The first law was the Military Voters Act, which gave the vote to women who were in active military service such as nursing sisters. These women were the first Canadian women to vote in federal elections.
The most relevant law for this episode was the Wartime Elections Act. This Act would remove the vote from anyone, including those who had lived in Canada for a decade, who were deemed to be enemy aliens. Anyone who had arrived in Canada after 1902 lost the vote if they came from a country like Germany or Austria. This group of people typically voted Liberal, and it would result in a huge loss of votes for Liberals, especially in the Prairie Provinces. The Act also gave the vote to female relatives of soldiers overseas, who were more likely to vote for the Conservatives and conscription. The vote was given to any wife, widow, mother, sister or daughter of any person, male or female, living or dead, who was serving or had served in the military forces.
The German Atrocities pamphlet published by the Union Government Publicity Bureau would state about why women should vote for the government, quote:
“Why should the women of Canada vote for the Union Government? Because they are vitally interested in seeing that the war against Germany and all Germany represents is carried on to the bitter end. Germany’s attitude to women is that of the uncivilized savage. Germans are brutal, fiendish, inhuman. In Belgium, lustful and cruel, they violated women and girls, murdered their husbands, tortured and mutilated children and murdered babies.”
Margaret Gordon, president of the Canadian National Suffrage Association, said it would have been just as honest to make it illegal not to vote Conservative.
Shady or not, this would give at least some women the right to vote, even though it took the vote from many other Canadians.
After conscription had been enacted, the government would then extend the right to vote to all women.
On May 24, 1918, all female citizens except Indigenous and Asian women, who were over the age of 21 were given the right to vote. Even if the province the women lived in did not have the vote, the women in that province could still vote in federal elections. Despite this being a momentous day, it passed without out much news with the vote just being part of many other votes, including for the implementation of Daylight Saving Time.
The 1921 federal election would be the first election in which nearly all Canadian women could vote.
The Conservatives did not waste an opportunity to remind women voters that it was their party that gave women the vote. The Liberals countered that they would have done the same if they were in power at the time, adding that several Liberal provincial governments gave women the vote.
Conservative literature touted that it was a woman’s role to keep the traditional society together. The literature stated quote:
The Liberals would also court the female vote, and in its pamphlet Women and Politics, it stated quote:
“Every woman will, on that day, determine by her vote what Party or set of men will administer the government of Canada for the next five years. Women are more concerned with the home life of the nation than any other interest. The real question therefore for them are, how can a political party affect the home, the cost of living?”
The Dominion Elections Act would be passed in 1920 would allow women to run for Parliament, but Indigenous or Asian women were denied this right. The Act also created the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer, and Oliver Biggar, a former army colonel, was chosen as the first person to occupy this position. Biggar would have a massive job ahead of him. He would have 75,000 brand new election officials who supervised the process, which now included women who could now vote, doubling the number of eligible voters in the country.
After the federal government gave women the right to vote, the Atlantic provinces would slowly follow suit.
Nova Scotia would grant the vote to women on April 26, 1918, followed by New Brunswick on April 17, 1919. Prince Edward Island would be the next province when it gave the vote to women on May 3, 1919.
Newfoundland, not a part of Canada at the time, would give women the vote on March 9, 1934.
This left only Quebec as the outlier for the vote for women. Suffrage supporters from the province came from both French and English-speaking residents, but the power of the Catholic Church in the province would handicap any attempt to get women the right to vote. The Local Council of Women out of Montreal was a major campaigner for women’s suffrage in the province and included Carrie Derick and Octavia Grace Ritchie England, both from McGill University, as its members. Idola Saint-Jean, another McGill professor, led the French-speaking suffragists, while Therese Casgrain led the League for Women’s Rights.
On Feb. 9, 1922, 500 Quebec Suffragists confronted Premier Louis-Alexandre Taschereau about giving women the vote. He responded by stating that as long as he was in office, women would never have the right to vote.
The Vancouver Daily World would report quote:
“Although Premier Taschereau admitted that the government was divided on the issue, the general impression here is that women suffrage in the province is one of the reforms of the future, but it will not come in the near future.”
That prediction would be extremely accurate.
The same year that the delegation met the premier, the first bill to give women the vote was submitted. It was met with near unanimous opposition and derision from members of the Legislature. Over the next 18 years, the Quebec Legislature would reject proposals for giving women the vote 15 times, but as time went on, the opposition to the idea became less and less.
Premier Godbout would state quote:
“Circumstances and world events have changed my views on the question.”
It would take years to break down the Catholic opposition to women receiving the right to vote but through the support of federal Liberal politicians, progressive provincial politicians, as well as the new federal party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, women were finally able to vote in provincial elections in Quebec on April 25, 1940.
In 1951, the Northwest Territories would give women the right to vote.
With that, women across the country had the vote. Well, almost all women.
Black women were not restricted in the vote in any official capacity, and could effectively vote as soon as white women could. The same could not be said for Asian women. The 1920 Dominion Elections Act prevented Chinese, Japanese and South Asian men and women from being able to vote in federal elections, as well as provincial elections in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. It was not until 1948 that Asian men and women could vote in federal elections.
For Indigenous women, the wait was even longer. The 1934 Dominion Franchise Act denied the right to Status Indigenous and Inuit and until 1951 women could not even vote or hold office in their own bands under the Indian Act. It was not until 1960 that all Indigenous men and women gained the right to vote and even with that, it was not until 1969 that all provinces gave Indigenous the right to vote.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Wikipedia, Library and Archives Canada, Diefenbaker Canada Centre, Montreal Gazette, Vancouver Province, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Vancouver Daily World, Winnipeg Tribune, Women’s Suffrage In Canada,