by Irene Craig
Manitoba Pageant, September 1959, Volume 5, Number 1
When the pioneers in petticoats came to grips with the problem of Equal Suffrage they stepped out; they knew what they wanted and they meant business ... they wanted “Votes for Women” and they got it.
On this continent, Lucy Stone was the woman who started it, in the far-away Victorian days. Lucy was a farm girl but Lucy went to college in Massachusetts; she earned money towards her expenses there by doing housework in the Women’s Residence at three cents an hour. Any girl who works for three cents an hour seems entitled to talk about women’s rights. Incidentally, Lucy Stone not only talked out loud herself, she organized the first debating society ever formed among college girls.
Graduating in 1847, she gave her first formal Women’s Rights lecture that same year, well over a hundred years ago. Lucy didn’t storm about and raise general “ned” all over the place. No, she was a very feminine person with great charm; her gentle manners captivated her public, and as she was blessed with a singularly sweet voice, mobs would sometimes listen to Lucy when they howled down every other speaker. Later this active little lady founded the Women’s Journal in Boston, and served as its editor until her death in 1893. Evidently the American Lucy Stone, with her cameo fastened in her snow-white fischu, was a personality to be reckoned with; advocating as she did, that married women continue to use their own names.
All this happened in the U.S.A. but women are the same the world over. Canadian women wanted equal rights too. Yet, it was not until a comparatively few years ago in this Canada of ours, on the afternoon of 20 March 1918 that the “Votes for Women” Bill was finally passed at Ottawa.
Westerners like to think that the West has a way of its own as to initiative, and “those women” who led the “Votes” crusade on the prairie are especially proud of the fact that Manitoba was the pioneer province in the Dominion to recognize equal rights. Of course, for years the women of all the western provinces had wrestled with the measure, but the Manitoba Provincial Legislature, two whole years before the Bill went through the House at Ottawa, extended the franchise to its women on the same terms as to the men. British Columbia soon followed, and in time Alberta and Saskatchewan, but Manitoba is acknowledged to be the pioneer province in the matter of “Votes for Women”.
The spade-work and the patience (and the perseverance) required by those women at the turn of the century to bring about a reform that we now take for granted seems incredible. In fact, today the whole thing appears ridiculous when we picture the accepted social pattern of the daughters and grand-daughters of “those appalling females” as their parents were looked upon at the time.
How footling the old arguments sound as we look back; for instance, one man, Senator David, proposed that unmarried women must be at least thirty years of age before being entitled to vote. He argued that “girls between twenty and thirty are not mature in judgment.” Maybe so.
In the Manitoba fight for equal rights names of many prominent women appear, most of them no longer with us; Mrs. Nellie McClung is one.
It is said that her pen and her gift of oratory were probably the most effective weapons in the Manitoba crusade. Her mother-in-law, Mrs. J. A. McClung of Treherne, was also one of the early workers and had been for twenty-five years. Dr. Cora Hind, for years the well known Agricultural Editor of the Winnipeg Free Press and Dr. Amelia Yeomans, a pioneer Winnipeg doctor, were also outstanding suffragettes. These women along with many others were active in the women’s suffrage movement in Manitoba in the 1890s. Lillian Beynon Thomas became the first President of the Political Equality League which revived the struggle for women’s rights in 1912.
Mrs. Thomas says the suffragettes of other countries (the militant ones) urged the Canadian and American women to resort to the usual spectacular way of getting publicity; but the women of Manitoba thought they knew a better way.
The militant suffragettes in England, called the “Daughters of Revolt”, had stopped at nothing; some felt their tactics harmed the cause. An actual and violent attack upon the Prime Minister incensed public opinion. Everywhere police were kept hard at work protecting open-air meetings from an angry populace ready to tear the Daughters limb from limb. Every unknown woman who appeared in a village, or strolled into a church, was under suspicion. What mischief was she up to?
Every empty house became an anxiety to its owner; unashamed, “them as calls theirselves ladies” were responsible for plain violence and arson; hundreds of houses were wrecked and burnt. To smash, to break, and to burn seemed to the British Women the only course to pursue. No. 10 Downing Street, the residence of the Prime Minister, was a chief objective as to annoyance. Frequently, women chained themselves to public railings and palings and to seats in theatres and auditoriums; surreptitiously they dropped acid in pillar boxes, acid which destroyed the letters and mail in them before it could be detected. Destruction became a menace. A bomb was found in the entrance of one of the tube stations but was fortunately discovered in time.
Then came the First World War and final recognition. In Britain it came through the work accomplished by the women during those trying years. It was acknowledged that if the British women (over 1,000,000 of them) who were doing the men’s work at home were taken out of it, Great Britain’s economy would falter. When a real crisis arose even the most militant had responded wholeheartedly.
Meantime, in Washington, in the United States, President Woodrow Wilson had his troubles too. Banners which could be read a block away, asked “Mr. President: What will you do for Women Suffrage?” Day by day outside the White House gate silent sentinels (twelve at a time) would regularly take their places, each woman wearing a white, purple and yellow sash across her shoulder and there were many of them, as these silent sentinels were relieved every three hours. On one occasion President Wilson was seen to smile imperturbably as he passed through the gate on his way to a golf game. The suffragettes smiled back.
Still, undoubtedly, all during the hard-fought battle in Canada, the women in Manitoba did not hold with the militant methods practised by certain groups elsewhere. They admitted that naturally a thunder shower with its heavy artillery and brilliant flashes, with perhaps the added strength of a mighty wind, stirs up attention; nevertheless, they reasoned, a steady downpour for forty days and nights also claims recognition providing it’s steady! And from what the records tell us the deluge directed by the Manitoba women was definitely steady; and then some!
There was never a let-up! At every gathering, large or small, or any public meeting in Manitoba, there they were, the smiling suffragettes! ... a “Votes for Women” badge hitched over their bosoms, and in their arms the never-ending sheaf of printed dodgers which they generously distributed. Mrs. Thomas says they never missed a Fall Fair, and many a printed dodger which she had placed in the eager hand of a passer-by, was hurled back in her face, or stamped under foot as the indignant recipient vibrated with rage at “those women!”
Continuing the assault the Women’s Press Club had a bright idea. They wrote a play, A Mock Parliament ... with the whole Legislature Assembly portrayed in it. All the parts were played by the Women’s Press Club in person. Mrs. Nellie McClung, portraying Premier R. P. Roblin, had the audience “rolling in the aisles” when the Press Club members passed all the laws on the Statute Book (with gestures), the way they considered the men did it. The people loved it, packing the Walker Theatre to overflowing two nights in succession. Fifty cents a seat, they paid too; and the audience certainly got their money’s worth. Talk about publicity!
Then there was the little matter of a half-promise by the Opposition Liberal Party in the Legislature that if these crazy women produced a petition signed by 40,000 people of Manitoba asking for this Equal Suffrage, it would be considered when the Liberals came to office. They were pretty secure in their minds about it, it seems. There just couldn’t be 40,000 crazy people! Not 40,000! But there were; and as to getting signers, the rural people excelled themselves. Women all over the province resolutely rolled in the names, just like that! One lady, aged ninety-three, Mrs. Amelia Burritt, got four thousand names, all on her own.
In 1915 Premier R. P. Roblin and his Conservative Government went down to defeat. At last the Suffragettes hoped to come into their own but to their amazement they found that though the Liberals under Premier T. C. Norris were willing to accept the policy of “Votes for Women” this did not necessarily mean that women could run for, or hold office. Women must still be kept in their place. However, this attitude on the part of the party now in power soon proved disastrous.
The Conservative party under the leadership of Mr. R. P. Roblin out of the way, doggedly those women renewed their efforts for equal rights. Before long Premier Norris and his Liberal cohorts found that they too had the familiar problem on their doorstep. There was that little matter of women not being given the right to sit in Parliament. The day the Legislature opened their strategy flared into an overwhelming telephone campaign, the Political Equality League excelling itself as it compelled these exasperating gentlemen to spend those precious few hours before the House opened, simply answering telephone enquiries, questions arising out of hundreds of polite calls regarding their considered opinion about giving women the right to sit in Parliament. It was all so matey.
It was, indeed, a long struggle on the part of the women yet they were not alone; many men favoured the cause. Twenty-five years earlier, the Hon. Joseph Martin, from Knox Church pulpit in Winnipeg, had pleaded for the women. Mr. Nicholas Flood Davin, the man who established the Regina Leader newspaper, first brought up the subject in 1895 ... “but it required years of education, long after the colourful personality had passed away before the right of Canadian women to have the vote was established.”
Finally, in Manitoba the deed was done. The newspapers reported “a long and just agitation has borne fruit.” Certainly on that eventful day excitement ran high. The local Legislature was packed with visitors. When the final passage of the Bill took place, cheer followed cheer! Hundreds of women, led by Miss Mabel Prestwich, burst into “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.” The men, cogitating on how mixed these blessings might prove to be, presently warmed to the safer theme that followed, joining in the singing of “O Canada.” Formalities over, joyfully the women whooped it up with “For They are Jolly Good Fellows.” Gallantly springing to their feet, the Members lustily sang it back to the ladies.
Less than a week later the women gave a party, a great big one five hundred people. In magnificent fashion the Political Equality League spread itself, as the women affably entertained the Manitoba Legislature and their friends. At the party everybody seemed happy about the whole thing, all but Mr. Joseph Hamelin, the “one lone opposer” who stuck to his guns. In responding to the toast “To the Opposition” he forecast grave dangers. He remained convinced that “pitfalls and snares beset the Legislative way from now on; besides, who will mind the baby if women attend meetings.” Yes, Mr. Hamelin was decidedly upset. The other men present said it spelled “the dawn of a new era in the public life of the Province” ... a safe enough statement, after all.
The Manitoba Suffragettes? They smiled ... broadly, for in January 1916, Manitoba women had become “persons”.
Yet, what has their victory meant to most of us? Regrettably, today, how few of us bother to vote. Not meaning to betray our long-skirted sisters we simply have not realized how it all came about, this matter of “Votes for Women.”
Page revised: 19 December 2015Back to top of page