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a woman’s place

In Nothing Less!, the writing life by ami

Anti-suffrage post card circa 1918.

We’re about to start week three of rehearsals for “Nothing Less!” so I thought I’d share another behind-the-scenes post about the history that has informed and inspired the play. This time, I’m tackling the anti-suffrage movement and how it found its way into homes across Canada, the US and the UK.

The Suffragette Tango. (Also the name of a song in the show!)

Postcards were extremely popular in the early 1900’s. People were keen to send, collect, and display them in their homes. Political cartoons were also wildly popular and often found their way from the newspapers in which they were printed, into the scrapbooks of middle-class families. Illustrations depicting anti-suffrage sentiments appeared in both formats and were  distributed widely in North America and the UK.

“The Suffragette Meeting.”

The “arguments” presented via these illustrations ranged from, “a woman’s place is in the home,” to “only monstrous-looking old-maids want the vote.” Many showed men as the victims of women’s suffrage; left home to deal with crying babies, dirty dishes and mounds of laundry while the women were off engaging in the sphere of politics.

“The Suffragette Madonna”

Still others portrayed suffragists as women-turned-monster, as if the mere act of wanting the vote had de-feminized them and made them more harpy than human. In some cases, the images even went so far as to suggest violence against women as a “cure” for the “woman question.”

“What I Would Do With the Suffragists.”

If the idea of women voting was reprehensible to the anti’s, the thought of women playing a role in government was akin to blasphemy. Anti-suffragists predicted chaos and collapse if the unthinkable were ever to take place.

suffragettes storming parliament.

“the House that Man Built”

Needless to say, the anti-suffrage movement used the notion of “ideal womanhood” to its advantage, labelling any woman who dared call herself a suffragist as un-ladylike, unpatriotic and unacceptable. For women living in small towns and rural communities, speaking out often meant all eyes were on them. Many women met in secret, deciding it was the only safe way for them to participate.

Ultimately, the suffrage movement fought back with art of their own, putting forth their position with grace and sass. (Not unlike the sea of posters carried at women’s marches around the world this past January.)

A woman’s place…


suffragette side-eye.

While it would be easy to dismiss the anti-suffrage illustrations as “of their time,” they feel painfully timely, both in the current Trumpian political climate, and in the way women around the world are still struggling for voice, respect and equality.

“Nothing Less!” may be set in 1918, but the fight goes on.

People, places and things in this post: 

For more historic images, check out this Smithsonian Magazine article.

The ties between the suffrage movement and Wonder Woman’s costume.

“Nothing Less!” opens July 8. For tickets, visit The Ross Creek Centre for the Arts.





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Let them howl.

In Nothing Less! by ami

“History as its eyes on you…”

99 years ago today… 

On May 24, 1918, female Canadian citizens (not included under racial or Indigenous exclusions) aged 21 and over were awarded the right to vote in Federal elections. 

A hard-won victory, yes, but there was still much work to be done. 

We often abbreviate history into a series of sound bites, tantalizing lists, and anniversary dates. We see them flit through our social media feeds on a daily basis. We assign them appropriate emoticons, and move on.

I couldn’t let this date go by without writing a few words that I hope will illuminate the history of women’s suffrage in Canada in my own small way. You see, the cause wasn’t tied up with a pretty bow on a single day. May 24, 1918 was one date on the continuum of a decades long struggle.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that struggle as I’ve been immersed in the research and writing of “Nothing Less!”, a new play I’ve co-created with Ken Schwartz, artistic director of Two Planks and a Passion Theatre Company. The play takes place in rural Nova Scotia in the spring of 1918, just before most women in this province were awarded the provincial vote. (The bill awarding most women the federal vote would come a month later.) The women in the play are united in their cause, but at odds as to how best to see things through. Some are passionate and impulsive, others are pragmatic and a bit world-weary. (Anyone who has ever been part of grass-roots activism knows the drill.) Above all else, they and their male allies are determined to make a difference. Great changes were happening in the world, (WWI was still raging overseas) and the future of this young country felt unsure, yet full of possibility.

1907 issue of Freyja, a suffragist monthly magazine published by/for the Icelandic immigrant population in Manitoba.

A long time in the making… 

The history of women’s suffrage in Canada is, in a word, complex. The movement as a whole was something of a hybrid of the efforts that were happening at the same time in the UK and the US. While the militant efforts of Emmeline Pankhurst’s suffragettes may have been impressive, and the crowded marches in New York and Washington appealing, such grand actions weren’t necessarily feasible within Canada’s vast geographic terrain. Canadian women had to come up with tactics of their own.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary, the first black woman publisher in North America, used the “Provincial Freeman” (published in Ontario form 1853-1857) as a platform for abolition, women’s rights and suffrage.

Never retract.

Canadian women saw suffrage as a way to effect change. Women at the forefront of education and healthcare reform eagerly embraced the cause. Women’s rights and social reform advocates who were striving to end poverty and violence against women and children also saw the benefit of women getting the vote. A patchwork of women’s organizations, (large and small) endorsing women’s suffrage quickly grew across the country in the late 19th century: the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the National Council of Women, the Canadian Women’s Press Club (to which Nellie McClung belonged), the Women Grain Growers Association, the Toronto Women’s Literary Club, the Local Council of Women of Halifax, just to name a few.

The National Council of Women at Rideau Hall, 1898.

Get the thing done…

Their tactics were as diverse as the landscapes in which they lived.  They filed hundreds of petitions and lobbied for legislation. They held bake sales and published “suffrage cookbooks.” They gave lectures in parlours and on legislature steps. They wrote letters to the editor and published papers and tracts of their own. They wrote and performed “mock parliaments” and other forms of political theatre. Victories came in fits and starts, first by gaining the right to vote and hold seats on school boards and municipal councils, then by winning the provincial vote one province at a time. Manitoba (1916), Saskatchewan (1916), Alberta (1916), British Columbia (19 17), Ontario (1917), and Nova Scotia (1918) all awarded most women the vote ahead of the Federal mandate.

Canadian nurses (or “bluebirds”) voting during WWI.

Politics as usual? 

In 1917, Sir Robert Borden, Prime Minister of Canada, pushed both the Military Voters Act and the Wartime Elections Act through Parliament largely in an effort to gain support for conscription. The new laws gave military nurses and close female relatives of military men the right to vote. At the same time, these measures also disenfranchised immigrants from enemy countries who had become citizens after 1902, as well as conscientious objectors. Borden had promised leaders in the suffrage movement that giving women the franchise was a priority for his party, but many women saw these acts as mere political posturing, and remained skeptical that universal suffrage would come to pass any time soon.



All those opposed…

Opposition remained fierce in communities across Canada as well as within Parliament itself. When the 1918 federal bill was brought to the floor for debate, MP Jean-Joseph Denis argued: “I say that the Holy Scripture, theology, ancient philosophy, Christian philosophy, history, anatomy, physiology, political economy, and feminine psychology, all seem to indicate that the place of women in this world is not amid the strife of the political arena, but in her home.” 

(We pause now to let the expletives fly…#$%*&* *&&^%!!!)

Suffragists in Newfoundland, who gained provincial suffrage in 1925.

She persisted.

The 1918 bill was a victory, but it was far from perfect. It awarded women the Federal vote, but only so far as the property restrictions of each province allowed it. In Nova Scotia, that meant that if a man or woman didn’t own $150 worth of land (or personal property that counted as such, like fishing gear etc.) then you were out of luck. (This would change after 1920.) The 1918 Federal law also excluded Asian women and men, (until after WWII) and Indigenous women and men (until 1960.) These discriminatory exclusions are part of our history too, and should not be forgotten.

A Canadian contingent gathered in 1913 to join their US sisters in the ‘Women’s March on Washington” to coincide with Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.

“Women are going to form a chain, a greater sisterhood than the world has ever known.” – Nellie McClung

As I mark this day, I think of the rights our dear sisters of the past fought to win, and of the work that still needs to be done. I think of stories forgotten and those yet to be written. As Nellie would say:

Never retract, never explain, never apologize – get the thing done and let them howl!

People, places and things mentioned in this post:

Nothing Less! premieres this summer at The Ross Creek Centre for the Arts. Reserve your tickets today! 

More on the 1913 Women’s March on Washington via the fabulous Canadian organization, Women’s Suffrage and Beyond. 

For a more detailed overview of women’s suffrage in Canada visit the Canadian Encyclopedia.

Coming soon: more behind-the-scenes posts about Nothing Less! (The Nova Scotia suffrage movement, protest music past and present, rural suffragettes, and more.) 

Women’s March on Washington – Halifax 2017




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Ravens and riddles

In The Witches of New York, Uncategorized, Witchy Wednesday by ami

Odin’s Cove #25 from the amazing photographer Beth Moon.

I love ravens. A “conspiracy” of them dwells in the woods behind my house. When I stand on the balcony outside my writing studio in the loft of our barn, my “perch” puts me nearly eye to eye with them. I talk to them daily and delight in any squawk, chortle, tuck or caw the give in reply. They may not always respond, but they’re always watching.

It was inevitable that one of these intelligent, beautiful creatures would come to inhabit the pages of one of my novels. Enter, Perdu, the magical raven who lives with The Witches of New York. For fear of spoiling his part in the story, I won’t say much more about him here, but rather show you some of the things that inspired his character.

Grip the raven and Barnaby Rudge

Charles Dickens was also fascinated by ravens. During his writing career he had not one, not two, but three ravens in succession he called “Grip.” Grip the First apparently had quite a large vocabulary and was the inspiration for the raven of the same name that appeared in Dickens’ novel, Barnaby Rudge. A letter to his friend George Cattermole in 1841 speaks to this: “my notion is to have (Barnaby) always in company with a pet raven, who is immeasurably more knowing than himself. To this end I have been studying my bird, and I think I could make a very queer character of him.” 

Grip the Second was dear to Dickens, but less so to his children. His daughter Mamie wrote that the bird was “mischievous and impudent.” Grip the Third was known to have regular stand offs with the family dog, a large mastiff who would back down and surrender its food to the bird.

It is the general belief of literary scholars that “Grip the Raven” from Barnaby Rudge in turn inspired Edgar Allan Poe to pen his famous poem, The Raven. Poe had reviewed a few of Dickens’ novels, including Barnaby Rudge and wrote that he found Grip to be “intensely amusing.”

A stuffed and mounted specimen of Dickens’ first beloved Grip (it once hung over the author’s desk) made its way to the U.S. sometime after 1870 and now resides in the Free Library in Philadelphia.

Grip the raven now resides in Philadelphia.

As for Perdu from The Witches of New York, he too has become a mythical figure that dwells in the imagination of more than one artist. The talented painter Holly Carr is a dear friend who is just as obsessed as I am with ravens. During the years that I was researching and writing Witches, she put together a show that featured several paintings with ravens. Her vivid, fantastical work captured my heart and I wound up keeping a small painting of one of her ravens on my desk as I wrote.

Perdu with a blue marble in his beak.

After the ARCs of the Canadian edition were finished, I gave Holly one as a gift. Because of our shared adoration for ravens and all things witchy, I couldn’t wait for her to “meet” Perdu. A few months later, just after Witches was released, she contributed several pieces to a new show at the Harvest Gallery in Wolfville, NS, called “WhichCraft.” Every piece featured ravens and magical items and one of them (my personal favourite) was simply titled: Perdu.

Perdu, by Holly Carr.

In addition to observing the real-life ravens that live behind my house, I watched online footage of trained ravens and read many accounts of human interaction with corvids. There’s loads of wonderful stuff out there concerning research with these amazing birds, but one of my favourite videos is this one. (I imagine Poe would’ve liked it too.)

Another online sensation I fell in love with while writing Witches was Merlina, one of ravens that lives at the Tower of London. Beautiful, bright and cheeky, it’s hard to take your eyes off her. I freely admit that my descriptions of Perdu and his mannerisms are largely modelled after her. She and the rest of the Tower’s resident ravens are looked after by Yeoman Warder, Chris Skaife, the Ravenmaster, and I’m happy to say you can follow him, Merlina and the rest of the ravens via social media.

Merlina on Facebook, via the Ravenmaster, Chris Skaife.

But…Who is Perdu? 

If you’ve already read The Witches of New York you may have gotten to the end of the book and asked the above question. Again, I don’t want to give any spoilers. What I will say is this: the answer can be found in the pages of the book.

109-112 to be exact. (Or wherever the fairytale “The Princess Who Wished to Be a Witch” falls in your edition of the novel.)

Ravens, people, places and things mentioned in this post:

Beth Moon Photography

More on Charles Dickens and Grip

Holly Carr, artist

The Ravenmaster on facebook

The Ravenmaster on Twitter