Let them howl.

“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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