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Manitoba History: Book Review: Joan Sangster, One Hundred Years of Struggle: The History of Women and the Vote in Canada

by Dianne Dodd
Parks Canada, Ottawa

Number 88, Winter 2018

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Joan Sangster, One Hundred Years of Struggle: The History of Women and the Vote in Canada. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press 2018, 328 pages. ISBN 978-0-7748-3533-6, $27.95 (hard cover)

One Hundred Years of Struggle: The History of Women and the Vote in Canada provides a much-needed comprehensive history of the struggle for female suffrage in Canada, putting it into a wider chronological and political context than most treatments, typically bound by the dates of the actual campaign, circa 1880s to 1940. That campaign, led by middle class Euro-Canadian women and motivated by maternal and equal rights feminism, has been popularized through figures such as Nellie McClung and Winnipeg’s version of the Mock Parliament. This book goes a long way toward telling the rest of the story, and will thus make a valuable teaching aid in the history of Canadian women, which often uses the suffrage battle as an introduction to the field. Under one cover, One Hundred Years brings together aspects of the story that have hitherto been scattered throughout the historiography and reflects the growing maturity of the field of women’s/gender history.

The book explores the intersections between suffrage and gender, but also of class, race, colonialism, and ethnicity. For example, the link between suffrage and property ownership is explored, as well as the surprisingly wide range of suffrage supporters of varying political stripes: men as well as women, conservative as well as radical. They include a conservative prime minister, socialists, labour and pacifist leaders like Flora MacDonald Denison, Helena Gutteridge, and Francis Beynon Thomas. The book demonstrates that suffrage was not only backed as a basic right, but also a means to other, often quite divergent, ends.

Sangster argues convincingly that the chronology of the suffrage story has been condensed into too short a period, one that encompasses only the active campaign, thus limiting its significance. She begins her examination with New France, where widows and single women who owned property exercised their right to political representation. Rosalie Papineau, for example, voted in 1809. She voted for her son, Louis-Joseph Papineau, who thanked her by later supporting legislation that took away her right to do so. Louis-Joseph told himself he was protecting his mother from the raucous crowds that characterized polling stations at the time. Despite his efforts to protect the patriarchal order, neither he nor his compatriots were able to extinguish all feminine political ambitions. Demonstrating the importance of property and social standing in the political arena, his mother and other women of her class continued to exercise informal political influence through access to their menfolk. Indeed, property continued to be a defining element in political rights, even in an increasingly democratic state. While it is ironic that conservative prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, introduced one of the earliest bills on suffrage, he offered this right only to widows and ‘spinsters’ who owned property, in an effort to protect the distinction, important to him, between propertied and non-propertied persons. There were other early suffrage advocates, most of quite different political persuasion. For example, African-Canadian newspaper editor and teacher Mary Ann Shadd included suffrage in her broader campaign for ethnic equality. A free Black, born in the United States into an abolitionist and Quaker family, she came to Upper Canada in 1851. There she founded a newspaper called The Provincial Freeman, through which she promoted education for Blacks, as well as equality for women, in which suffrage played a part.

Most explorations of the suffrage campaign end in 1940, when Quebec women won the right to vote. But it doesn’t end there. In a chapter that updates the history of suffrage, Sangster explores the movement in relation to colonialism and the non-white voters who came late to the party. Even after 1940s, and certainly after 1918, significant ethnic groups were still denied the right to vote. After the Second World War, using the new language of human rights, Japanese Canadians, for example, mounted an effective protest, leading to their eventual winning of voting rights as Canadian citizens. Sangster also recounts the contentious and complicated story of Indigenous voting rights, which were not granted until 1960. For Indigenous women, enfranchisement had a negative association with the Department of Indian Affairs, who had a long history of using enfranchisement as an instrument of assimilation (one of many). For much of the 20th century, voting was less about gaining the right to vote in Canadian elections, and more about losing treaty rights and ‘Indian’ status; that is, Indigenous cultural identity.

For others, suffrage was part of campaign for the rights of workers—whether propertied or not, male or female—to have a voice in political decision-making. Socialist Mary Cotton Wisdom and labour suffragette Helena Gutteridge saw suffrage as a tool in achieving equality and representation of workers, as well as women. Both encountered hostility from within as well as outside of their own political circles. Liberal feminists feared, for example, that Gutteridge would tarnish their respectability, and resented having to hold meetings in the evenings so that women working in shops or factories could attend. At the same time, her labour union colleagues resisted the notion that female workers were workers who needed to be represented in the labour movement. They, like many anti-suffragists, thought of women primarily as wives and mothers.

No study of any political campaign is complete without an examination of the forces in opposition to it, and Sangster’s chapter on ‘anti-suffragists’ is a welcome addition. Male anti-suffragists in English Canada such as Stephen Leacock and Goldwyn Smith shared (in common with Quebec leaders Henri Bourrassa and Monsignor Louis-Adolphe Paquet) a fear of disrupting the patriarchal family by allowing women a role outside of it. Sangster makes a cursory attempt to include female anti-suffragists, but her exclusive focus on Clementina Fessenden, a conservative imperialist and founder of the Imperial Order Daughters of Empire (IODE), adds little to the discussion. Fessenden, founder of Empire Day, serves as more of a caricature than a representative example of feminine anti-suffragist thought. Still, this glimpse into the views of anti-suffragists demonstrates that, for them as well as for suffragists, suffrage was a powerful symbol. It meant more than women voting at election time. It represented mothers and wives stepping outside of the home, with all its attendant social disruptions. And, for suffragists, it symbolized equality and women making productive contributions in Canadian society.

Sangster’s chapter on the liberal feminist movement also puts the suffrage movement into a wider context, adding figures that are sometimes forgotten, such as Icelandic suffragist Marguerite Benedictsson, who brought suffrage ideals from her native Iceland and whose campaign pre-dates that of the Nellie McClung group, too often identified exclusively with Manitoba granting women the vote in 1916 (the first province to do so in Canada). A fascinating chapter on “Feminist Countercultures” puts old staples of the campaign trail, like the famous Mock Parliament (now immortalized in a ‘Heritage Minute’) into cultural context. Indeed, there were many mock parliaments, not just the one at Walker Theatre in Winnipeg. Such popular entertainments swayed public opinion by disarming their opponents through the use of debate, a popular mode of discourse of the period, and blending in gentle ridicule and humour.

Sangster also looks at the highly divisive nature of the issue of war and peace within the suffrage and women’s movements. Before the First World War, many feminists professed pacifism, often based on a maternalist belief that mothers were inherently more protective of human life than men, although some had more political objections. However, many abandoned their pacifism in face of total war, with its unrelenting propaganda, and its persistent calls for personal involvement. In some cases, their war support was strategic, a deliberate to use loyalty as a bargaining chip when pressing governments to grant political enfranchisement. Those who remained true to pacifist principles, such as Frances Beynon Thomas, were relatively few, and they did so at great cost.

All in all, One Hundred Years is a readable and enlightening text on the suffrage movement that brings together a number of strands of research, producing a history of this important movement that encompasses the wide political, cultural, and chronological context that it deserves.

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: 25 April 2021

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