Manitoba History: Exhibit Review: Nice Women Don’t Want the Vote, curated by Roland Sawatzky

by Lyle Dick
Parks Canada, Winnipeg

Number 80, Spring 2016

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Nice Women Don’t Want the Vote: Exhibit at the Manitoba Museum, curated by Roland Sawatzky, 5 November 2015 to 10 April 2016.

The year 2016 marks the centennial of women attaining the right to vote in Canada. On January 28, 1916, the Manitoba Legislative Assembly amended the Elections Act to extend the provincial franchise to most, but not all women in the province. In so doing, it became the first province in Canada in which the majority of women achieved formal equality in voting rights. This attainment was not only a momentous chapter in the assertion of democracy in this province, but also a historic milestone and breakthrough for the entire country. The Manitoba victory was quickly followed by the extension of the franchise to women in the other prairie provinces in the same year, and in British Columbia and Ontario in 1917. Women were generally granted the federal franchise in 1918, even while others were simultaneously disfranchised by the Wartime Elections Act of 1917. Eventually a majority of women in the other Canadian provinces obtained the right to vote by 1940, eventually followed by the Northwest Territories in 1951.

How and why Manitoba became the first major Canadian jurisdiction to affirm women’s equality rights is the subject of the exhibit, “Nice Women Don’t Want the Vote,” produced by The Manitoba Museum where it is on display until April 10, 2016. In a paper co-presented with Leah Morton at the Northern Great Plains History Conference last fall, curator Roland Sawatzky outlined his intentions for this exhibit. He opted for an approach developed by the Smithsonian Exhibition in Washington D.C. known as the IPOP typology of visitor interests (Ideas/People/Object/ Physical). Rather than arrange the exhibit chronologically, Sawatzky opted for a thematic approach, reinforced by a timeline included as a chronological reference. The selected themes were The Cause (summarizing the issues that were at stake – temperance, dower and homestead laws, pacifism, health and welfare, and women’s rights); the People (rural Manitoba Euro-Canadian women and men, working women in Winnipeg, the educated class in the city, and the women who were excluded from voting in 1916); the Fight; and the Vote. Including panels and short biographical sketches of several suffragist leaders, Sawatzky made an effort to emphasize the role of the smaller local organizations, the so-called grassroots of the early women’s movement. The exhibit storyline was grounded in a strong research paper authored by Leah Morton on the history of the women’s suffrage in Manitoba.

As momentous as the attainment was, Sawatzky is careful to stress that the continuing exclusions of Aboriginal and some other categories of women indicated that the 1916 attainment was only a start. Women who had originated in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, including ethnic Ukrainians, as well as women who belonged to pacifist sectarian communities during the First World War, saw their voting rights revoked by the Borden government’s Wartime Elections Act of 1917. Most Asian Canadian women and men in British Columbia were excluded from the provincial – and hence, federal – franchise until the late 1940s. First Nations women did not receive the right to vote in federal elections until 1960.

The exhibit occasions new reflections on the political process followed by the Manitoba suffragists and their legacy. We see the familiar faces and biographies of members of the formal leadership of the women’s franchise movement, including its most famous leader, Nellie McClung, and other mainstays of the Manitoba Political Equality League: Lillian Beynon Thomas, Francis Marion Beynon, and Cora Hind. During the First World War, they organized a major lobbying campaign and petition for equal rights, wrote articles, organized rallies, staged a Women’s Parliament, and forged alliances with women’s groups in other provinces and the United States. Along the way, they encountered stubborn resistance from conservatives, most notably Manitoba’s Premier Rodmond Roblin, whose alleged retort in an exchange with Nellie McClung – “Nice women don’t want the vote” – was chosen as the title of the exhibit.

Where the exhibit breaks new ground is its treatment of the many other female franchise advocates in numerous localities across the province whose names are not known to history. In the years leading up to the 1916 attainment, women across the province took the initiative within their local communities, both rural and urban, to promote the female franchise. They struggled even within their own families to advance awareness of the importance of women’s political rights and the integral role of the franchise in achieving them. At the same time, the Manitoba suffragists were not radicals in the manner of the suffragettes in Britain in the same era. Deliberately pursuing a strategy of working within the existing framework of established political institutions, they made common cause and developed connections and networks with leaders and the rank and file of the social reform movement of the day. Their hard work positioned them to press prominent male political allies to support their right to vote following the 1915 defeat of the Conservative government that had long resisted their appeals to equality. In so doing, they achieved success long before their counterparts in Britain finally won the vote in 1928.

Still, the exhibit storyline and images reinforce the notion that meaningful political change often does not come about easily, but rather through struggle, dedication, and persistence – in this case by well-known suffragist leaders along with many more historically obscure actors. The Manitoba Political Equality League pursued a strategy of mainstream politics: working within the parliamentary system, preparing petitions, and lobbying political leaders. It was also a grassroots movement, dependent on the energy and commitment of many women, who found strength through the support and comradeship of other women and men. As the exhibit also shows, there were divisions within the suffrage movement in relation to class, race, and ethnicity, reflected in the diverging outcomes for different categories of women. The attainment of the franchise was a significant leap forward in political equality, but women still confronted major inequalities that were only partly mitigated by the passage of the Dower Act in 1918. Systemic barriers to economic equality of women persisted long afterwards. And even today, a hundred years later, there is still much more work to be done.

A challenge for this exhibit was finding original artifacts and documents that could help carry the story while provoking visitors to reflect on their meaning and significance. Prior to developing this exhibit The Manitoba Museum, like many other historical museums across the country, had very few artifacts devoted to women’s political history. That obliged the Museum to reach out to the public to seek its assistance in identifying and sharing objects of potential value to this story. Sawatzky appeared on radio and television programs, wrote articles and notices for newspapers and the Museum’s blog, and delivered public lectures to raise awareness of the anniversary and to enlist the public’s assistance in donating or loaning relevant artifacts.

Among the outstanding assembled artifacts is a remarkable section of weathered clapboard siding that formerly belonged to an exterior wall of a farmhouse north of Portage la Prairie. Painted in white capital letters on the clapboard, ca. 1915, are the words: “VOTE FOR WOMEN.” This piece of wall formerly faced a country road fronting the property, so the creator of the sign intended it for public display. Jarringly, painted by a different hand in front of this phrase is the supplementary word, “NO.” According to a neighbour, the female spouse in this couple painted the three-word exhortation but when her male spouse returned from work later that day, he painted the one word negation. While we know little about this couple, their relationship, or the consequences for both partners of painting their respective signs, this intriguing artifact will provoke visitors to contemplate the implications of social and political change at the level of interpersonal and family interactions. It reminds us of the courage that was often required in everyday life by ordinary people to make political change a reality. A further illustration of the resistance by many men in the province is a porcelain match holder depicting three geese with open beaks and bearing the caption “We Want our Votes!”—carrying the unsubtle and chauvinistic implication that suffragists were silly geese.

Against these sobering remnants of male dominance in some households, another exhibit artifact tells an opposite story. It is a men’s gold watch fob on which the words “Votes for Women” are inscribed, suggesting that its probable middle-class owner was not timid about displaying support for the women’s franchise, an indication that by the era of the First World War many men in the province were not negatively disposed towards political equality. In countless households across the province, men were partnered with women who carried out most or all the domestic work, raised their children, and organized and managed their households. Increasingly after 1900, many women also entered the waged workforce, albeit often confined by imposed gendered strictures to a limited number of vocations open to them in that era. While patriarchal structures were still widespread a century ago, many men could no longer overlook the contributions of women to their own families and the larger community, especially in the context of the critical role played by women in the First World War.

An intricately beaded buckskin jacket once worn by journalist and women’s advocate, Cora Hind.

An intricately beaded buckskin jacket once worn by journalist and women’s advocate, Cora Hind.
Source: Lyle Dick

Another interesting artifact is the moose-hide jacket formerly worn by E. Cora Hind, the suffragist who went on to a successful career as a journalist and respected commentator on prairie agriculture. Made by a Cree woman from the Norway House Cree Nation, the jacket was included to remind viewers of the fact that initially the franchise was won for only some women, essentially the European-Canadian women who had taken a role in the movement, while Aboriginal women were excluded from voting until First Nations people were finally granted the vote in 1960. The jacket is a reminder of the unfinished business represented by the 1916 reform and the continuing struggle for political rights that persisted long afterwards and in important ways continues today.

The exhibit also makes good use of copies of original and reproduced textual documents connected to the suffrage story. These items include a remarkable replica of an early petition organized by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union for equal votes for women that the sponsors presented to the Manitoba government in 1894. The petition, rolled on a single scroll measuring 28 metres in length, enlisted 5,000 signatures. It is a striking reminder that struggle of Manitoba women for the franchise was a movement that developed over an extended period and began at least a generation before their suffragists’ eventual success during the First World War. The final stage of the story is illustrated by photographs from the Manitoba Archives of the December 1915 petition presented to the legislature weeks before the women’s franchise legislation was passed and enacted in January 1916. Among the rare original documents exhibited is a 1913 meeting announcement of the Rolling River Women’s Suffrage Association; the original text of a suffrage-oriented speech delivered by Agnes Hadden in Yorkton, Saskatchewan; and a debate speech found in a book authored by and formerly owned by Nellie McClung.

The storyline reveals that not all suffragists were AngloCanadian women and draws attention to the advocacy of the Icelandic-Manitoban feminist Margret Benedictsson. She founded an Icelandic-Canadian women’s suffrage association and edited the pro-suffrage magazine Freyja as early as 1898, albeit largely ignored by the Anglo-Canadian groups. Also examined is the role of working class women, in particular Helen Armstrong and Winona Margaret Flett Dixon, both labour leaders who were also connected to the Political Equality League.

The exhibit and commemoration of 1916 is a timely reminder that important events have happened in this relatively small province and that ordinary people have done extraordinary things to advance their democratic rights and freedoms. “Nice Women Don’t Want the Vote” acknowledges that much more progress is needed to secure the full equality of women and other historically disadvantaged people, and it implies that the exhibit’s visitors should not be complacent. It reinforces this message by providing comment cards encouraging visitors to write down their thoughts on such questions as: “What is the one issue facing Canadian women that has yet to be resolved?”; “I want to vote because…”; and “If you could say one thing to a suffragist from 100 years ago, what would it be?”

Other current issues of concern are referenced in an excellent Teacher’s Guide, which encourages teachers to use the exhibit artifacts to communicate important messages to their students about human rights and democracy. These include, for example, the use of colour in a displayed gold and black women’s suffrage pennant, prompting an invitation to students to consider the symbolic use of colour in recent social and human rights movements, such as the rainbow flag embraced by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people, and campaigns for women’s health employing the use of pink ribbons to support research for breast cancer. Hopefully many Manitobans, especially young people, will have the opportunity to see this exhibit and be inspired to reflect upon and continue to struggle for broadly-based political equality and social justice.

A porcelain match holder depicting three geese with open beaks and bearing the caption “We Want our Votes!,” next to the petition for women’s suffrage, carried the unsubtle and chauvinistic implication that suffragists were silly geese.

A porcelain match holder depicting three geese with open beaks and bearing the caption “We Want our Votes!,” next to the petition for women’s suffrage, carried the unsubtle and chauvinistic implication that suffragists were silly geese.
Source: Lyle Dick

Roland Sawatzky and The Manitoba Museum should be congratulated for their decision to stage this timely exhibit, the thought and skill with which it has been planned and assembled, and the important messages it conveys. Students of history with an interest in the history of women and the history of human rights will find it of particular interest but it should appeal to a wide crosssection of Manitobans. Although it is scheduled to remain at The Manitoba Museum only until April 10, 2016, “Nice Women Don’t Want the Vote” is scheduled to appear as a travelling exhibit in other Manitoba venues this spring and summer (Gimli, Wawanesa, and Steinbach). For the complete schedule, see The Manitoba Museum website.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 12 November 2020