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Manitoba History: The Political Equality League of Manitoba

by Debbie Hathaway

Manitoba History, Number 3, 1982

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The Political Equality League of Manitoba had a brief existence—a scant four years (from 1912 to early 1916)—but within this time period it managed to set its mark on Manitoba history. The struggle of the P.E.L. against the obdurate Roblin government is one of the most interesting political scenes of our province’s history. The League’s importance in the achievement of female suffrage in Manitoba certainly cannot be underestimated. An appreciation of the Political Equality League’s significance is, however, less than complete without an understanding of the feminist philosophy which motivated its members.

In comparison with the feminism of the 1970s, the P.E.L.’s “maternal feminism” appears conservative and politically naive. These early feminists’ view that the achievement of female suffrage would prove to be a virtual panacea for society’s ills was largely based upon their perception of women. The League argued for extension of the franchise on the grounds that women, because of their maternal “instinct” and innate “moral” superiority, could abolish political, economic and social corruption and injustice through the power of the vote. This view of feminine abilities was most clearly illustrated in the writings and speeches of Nellie McClung. By focussing on the class basis and social context from which the Political Equality League emerged, this paper hopes to suggest why the feminism of the P.E.L. did not achieve a more profound philosophical basis.

A rather noticeable characteristic of the P.E.L. was precisely its class and ethnic basis. The people who were the most active members of the League were chiefly from the middle and lower middle class, and their ethnic back-grounds were largely Anglo-Saxon. This core of active members was largely dominated by journalists—E. Cora Hind, Lillian Beynon Thomas, Alfred Vernon Thomas, and Kenneth Haig of the Manitoba Free Press; Francis Marion Beynon and George F. Chipman of The Grain Growers’ Guide; Mrs. W. C. (Anne Anderson) Perry of the Saturday Post. Nellie McClung was, of course, a successful, popular novelist. Dr. Mary E. Crawford, the perennial president of the P.E.L., was Chief Medical Inspector of Winnipeg schools, [1] while Mrs. A. G. (Jane) Hample was a wealthy widow who dealt extensively in real estate and building operations. [2]

It is noteworthy that the League’s active women were not generally representative of their sex. They were professional women with careers that required both skill and a good education. Moreover, women like Dr. Mary Crawford and Cora Hind were “trail-blazers”, accepted in male-dominated professions at a time when females in these fields of endeavour were still regarded as novelties. As Francis Beynon stated, these members were “refined women, holding good positions, where they are generally respected.” [3]

The lives they led were undoubtedly comfortable. Nellie McClung, for example, enjoyed long summer holidays with her family in their cottage at Lake Winnipeg, and was free to participate in her clubs and organizations, knowing that the “household ran smoothly under the capable guidance of two good Irish girls.” [4]

The League’s active members tended to live in Winnipeg’s West End, a distinctly middle-class and prosperous working-class area during this period. [5] To illustrate the level of prosperity in the West End, the value of houses in this area was judged, in 1909, to range from $3000 to $5000 apiece. By contrast, in the immigrant areas “scores of shacks ... have cost $150 to $200.” Moreover, the areas of Winnipeg in which these members lived were “overwhelmingly inhabited by those of British origin.” In 1916, people of British background accounted for 86.5% of the West and South Ends’ population. [6]

However, can one not argue that these active members were perhaps unrepresentative of the entire P.E.L. membership in class and ethnic background? It is difficult to obtain specific information about the “rank and file” League members, because often one has only a surname with which to work, like “Albert” or “Brown”—such common names that they are impossible to trace. However other, broader indicators may be used.

A perusal of the many members’ names contained in the P.E.L. Minute Book [7] reveals a marked Anglo-Saxon direction in ethnicity among the rank and file. There are no surnames which are immediately identifiable as being of French-Canadian or non-Anglo-Saxon origin, except perhaps those of Danard, Laviery, and Stiener. Only one name is clearly of slavic origin—a certain Mr. Zegliusky (He is mentioned only once in the Minute Book, under the entry for May 5, 1913). All in all, one feels safe in stating that the P.E.L. membership was overwhelmingly of Anglo-Saxon derivation.

But what of the rank and file’s class? This is more difficult to determine. However if one considers that the P.E.L.’s city branches were located in such areas as Elmwood, Fort Rouge, Balmoral, and St. John’s, [8] it seems relatively safe to speculate that the mass of P.E.L. members shared their leader’s middle—or lower middle—class status.

A further argument could be made on the basis of “common sense It does not seem likely that many women or men of the lowest industrial classes—the unskilled labourers who slaved in sweatshops and in manual labour positions —would have had much inclination to participate (with what little leisure time they enjoyed) in an organization like the PE.L. Veronica Strong-Boag makes this suggestion as well, stating that “the franchise [was not] viewed with equal interest [i.e., equal to that of the P.E.L.] by those whose poverty demanded more concrete remedies.” [9]

But again, this is not to deny that the P.E.L. did have a few representatives of the industrial class in their midst. Lynne MacFarlane, in an interview with a surviving League member, learned that

one group of working men’s wives, all from the British Isles, formed their own small group within P.E.L. because of their concern that the League was not asking for enough for women. [10]

The tactics adopted by the P.E.L. reflected its middle-class basis. The League, for example, strictly forbade the use of any violent or unlawful activities. This concern for maintaining the laws and norms of society while at the same time trying to reform that status quo, is typical of “those middle-class progressives who wanted to purify and educate, without altering Manitoba society very fundamentally.” [11]

The P.E.L. edict against the use of violent or unlawful means was stressed from the very beginning of the League’s existence; the 1912 constitution contained a clause providing for the automatic expulsion of any member guilty of this offense. [12] The 1914 constitution was not as explicit on this point, but still, it was made clear that a major goal of the League was to “stimulate public opinion, by all lawful means.” [13]

The P.E.L. chose instead to use satire, suffrage literature, and speeches as its main weapons of attack. The most famous example of the League’s satirical tactics is, of course, the highly successful Mock Parliament which was staged in January, 1914. The League also sponsored teas, public meetings, and public debates. At many of these debates, League members apparently argued the anti-suffrage position themselves, for want of real opponents willing to volunteer. Writing of a public debate held in November, 1913. Francis Beynon stated that it “was much more exciting because the antis were real antis and doing their best to win.” [14]

The P.E.L.’s tactics were geared toward an educational function; the League did not engage in militant confrontation, as did their British counterparts. All the League’s actions were characterized by a firm belief in the power of rational persuasion. This characteristic was especially demonstrated by the speaking tours which the P.E.L. sponsored throughout Manitoba. “In this persistent education of the whole province ... lay the great secret of the success in forming in Manitoba ... a firm, intelligent public opinion favourable to woman suffrage’; wrote a League member. [15]

The non-militancy of the League members served to restrict, in one sense, the profundity of their feminism. Deborah Gorham makes an excellent case for the argument that the militancy of British suffragettes played an important role in destroying the stereotyped conception of Victorian womanhood in that country. [16] Britain’s bitter suffrage fight served to alter both social and psychological attitudes toward women; as British militants came violently face-to-face with entrenched male domination and its resulting injustices, they began to change their own self-perceptions. Their rejection of the social stereotype of Woman as a morally superior being who acted as protectress of hearth and home ultimately led their feminism in a more radical direction.

In contrast, the non-militant Manitoban suffragettes did not, on the whole, experience this psychological liberation from traditional stereotypes. Instead, they accepted

the Victorian cliches without question that maternal feminism was the ultimate justification for equal rights feminism. and that self-sacrifice was central to woman’s role and the key to her psyche. [17]

The political idealism and stereotyped view of women, which are hallmarks of maternal feminism, are thus attributed, by Gorham, solely to the fact that militancy played no role in the Canadian suffrage struggle. However, the root cause of the P.E.L.’s maternal feminism is not to be entirely found in this “militancy vs. non-militancy” argument. One must also consider the social situation in which the P.E.L. and its feminism emerged. Crucial to an understanding is the recognition of the influence of the Social Gospel, which permeated the middle-class reform movement of the prairies during this period of dramatic socio-economic change.

There was a substantial degree of integration between the agitation and goals of the P.E.L. and those of other Manitoban reform groups. The League cooperated extensively with associations such as the W.C.T.U. (Women’s Christian Temperance Union), the Trades and Labor Council, the Grain Growers’ Association, etc. P.E.L. members often spoke at meetings of these other associations, and vice versa. [18] This was a completely logical move on the P.E.L.’s part, since the League members were not concerned solely with suffrage. The wide interests of the League were demonstrated in its concern for such issues as factory laws and inspection, temperance, direct legislation, civic problems, and immigrant assimilation.

In one case, that of the Direct Legislation League, this cooperative integration reached the degree of actual affiliation. In early 1913, the P.E.L. decided to formally join with the D.L.L., sending two delegates to its executive and a further four general delegates. At the P.E.L.’s Annual Meeting of that year, Lillian Beynon Thomas and Mrs. Iveson were chosen to be the delegates to the D.L.L.’s executive. [19]

The close cooperation between the P.E.L. and other reform groups was facilitated by the “sharing” of members. Often, these people belonged to several organizations simultaneously. For example, prominent members of the Direct Legislation League—Fred Dixon, Seymour J. Farmer, Robert Scott, and D. W. Buchanan—were all active in the P.E.L. Nellie McClung, Mrs. E. Kelly. Rev. Daniel S. Hamilton, and many more League members, were active in various temperance groups.

The P.E.L. was not an isolated group, but was entwined with the entire Manitoba reform movement, and shared its Social Gospel roots. The Social Gospel was the leaven of the movement, providing the conceptual basis for all manner of reform ideas.

According to the precepts of the Social Gospel, the duty of religion (and therefore, of religious people) was to foster social action in order to ameliorate socio-economic inequality. The kingdom of God was realizable on earth through the reforming actions of Christian men and women. But, no matter how radical the reform stance taken by the Social Gospel, there was a conservatism inherent in its very nature; this was because Social Gospellers

believed that in the family as they knew it. and in the political democracy of their time, two essential elements of the society toward which Jesus pointed men were already in existence or virtually so. Such a reduction was necessary to apply a pan-historical and transcendent concept to immediate needs. And without such reduction the reform movement would have enjoyed considerably less power. [20]

By categorizing bourgeois democratic forms and the bourgeois form of the family into ontological “givens” not to be questioned, the Social Gospel was ultimately affirming the status quo which it sought to reform. Social Gospellers could not break free from the conceptual limitations which their uncritical acceptance of these two foundations of the status quo necessarily placed upon them.

The Social Gospel belief in “the political democracy of their time” explains why reform groups concentrated on issues such as suffrage and direct legislation. All that was really needed to cure the system of its ills, they believed, was a bit of “tinkering” with the existing political apparatus (in this case, extending the vote to women and political control to the people). Once these political reforms were instituted, corruption and injustice could be simply legislated out of existence. In this simplistic view of how fundamental social change could be achieved, Social Gospellers effectively ignored the underlying social and economic sources of injustice which, of course, lived on in spite of their reforms of the political structure.

The significance given to the bourgeois family in Social Gospel thought is especially relevant to the P.E.L.’s penchant for maternal feminism. If one truly adhered to the philosophy of the Social Gospel, as the Manitoban feminists/reformers did, then it became virtually impossible for these women to see beyond the stereotyped, socially-accepted conception of family and femininity. The form of the family and the role of women in it, as well as the nature of femininity, were never and could never be questioned because these were accepted as being perfectly “natural” or, in other words, as God had meant them to be. It was only with women’s political role that maternal feminism could find fault.

Thus, if the feminism and political assumptions of the P.E.L. were naive and simplistic, it was largely because the Social Gospel philosophy, which underpinned the entire middle-class reform movement of this period, promoted an attitude toward social reality which was conducive to such naiveté. The Political Equality League and its maternal feminism must be viewed within the social context in which they arose. But a critical analysis of maternal feminism serves neither to condemn nor to depreciate the P.E.L.’s ultimate contribution to the advancement of women in Manitoba. The P.E.L. and similar suffrage organizations laid the necessary foundation for the continuing feminist movement in Canada.


1. Walter McRaye (ed.), Pioneers and Prominent People of Manitoba (Winnipeg. Canadian Publicity co. 1925), p 151.

2. E. H. Schofield, The Story of Manitoba Vol. II (Winnipeg: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co.,1913). p. 264.

3. Francis Beynon, “The Country Homemakers.” The Grain Growers’ Guide, (August 27, 1913), p. 9.

4. Nellie McClung. The Stream Runs Fast: My Own Story (Toronto Thomas Allen and Son Limited, 1965), pp. 136, 126.

5. Alan Artibise, Winnipeg: A Social History of Urban Growth 1874-1914 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1975), p. 173. The addresses of these members were found in the P.E.L. Minute Book and in reference texts such as C. W. Parker (ed.), Who’s Who and Why Vol. 3 (Vancouver: International Press, 1913).

6. Ibid., pp. 168-169.

7. See Tables A and B.

8. Manitoba Free Press. Vol. 41. No. 198 (February 20. 1915). p. 17.

9. Veronica Strong-Boag. “Introduction” in Nellie McClung. In Times Like These (Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1972) p. xv.

10. Lynne MacFarlane, “The Struggle for Women’s Suffrage in Manitoba. Twenty-five Years of Controversy” (unpublished term paper, University of Manitoba, February, 1972), p. 19. This interview was conducted with Mrs. Gloria Queen-Hughes in January, 1972.

11. Ramsay Cook, “Francis Marion Beynon and the Crisis of Christian Reformism” in Carl Berger and Ramsay Cook (eds.). The West and the Nation (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1976), p. 191.

12. Farmers Advocate and Home Journal, (April 24, 1912). p. 616.

13. Political Equality League, Constitution (Winnipeg. 1914) p.3.

14. Francis Beynon, “The Country Homemakers,” The Grain Growers’ Guide, (November 19, 1913), p. 10.

15. Anne Anderson Perry, “Winning the Franchise.” The Grain Growers’ Guide, (July 7, 1920), p. 25.

16. Deborah Gorham. “The Canadian Suffragists” in Gwen Matheson (ed.), Women in the Canadian Mosaic (Toronto: Peter Martin Associates Limited, 1976), p. 43.

17. Ibid., p. 44.

18. P.E.L. Minute Book, June 27, 1912.

19. Ibid., January 7, 1913; March 31, 1913. The Direct Legislation League believed that society could be reformed by giving true political power back to the people. This would be achieved by the use of the initiative, the referendum, and the recall. See: Lionel Orlikow, “The Reform Movement in Manitoba 1910-1915” in Donald Swainson (ed.), Historical Essays on the Prairie Provinces (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited. 1970y p. 220.

20. Richard Allen, “The Social Gospel and the Reform Tradition in Canada, 1890-1928,” The Canadian Historical Review Vol. XLIX, (1968), p. 382.

Page revised: 23 April 2010

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