Celebrating the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage

January 28th, 2016 by CIVIX

A hundred years ago today, women were officially allowed to vote in a Canadian election. Suffrage (the right to vote) was extended to Manitoba women, allowing them to cast a ballot in their next provincial election. Most other provinces quickly followed suit, and by 1918 women were allowed to vote federally. Now women make up a larger percentage of the Canadian electorate than men!

The path to women’s suffrage was a long and arduous one. Although instances of women voting in Upper and Lower Canada in the early 19th century are documented, they were rare exceptions. Formal complaints were lodged against them and the provinces enacted laws to prohibit women from voting. Canada’s Constitutional Act, 1867 entrenched the right of provincial governments to decide which of their citizens could vote federally and women were effectively excluded.

Beginning in the 1870s, women campaigned for change with petitions, speeches and public protests. The women’s suffrage movement grew and chapters were formed in every province. The only exception was Quebec, whose conservative culture forced women to take up other issues, such as the right to equal education. Without much support from politicians and the general public, women introduced bills in provincial legislatures that would grant them the right to vote. If their bill was defeated, it was reintroduced again and again until it was passed.

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The early 1900s were changing times for Canadian women. The First World War saw them excel at jobs generally reserved for men. Transportation and modes of communication became more accessible and women could gather information, advertise their message and travel to meetings in different cities much more easily. The suffragettes – as these women came to be nicknamed – used creative ways to gain followers and supporters.

For instance, in January 1914, a play sponsored by the Manitoba Political Equality League was performed in which women adopted the roles of legislators who were listening to men demanding the right to vote. Nellie McClung, one of the more famous suffragettes, played the role of the provincial premier and rejected the idea. “Man is made for something higher and better than voting. Men were made to support families. What is a home without a bank account!” she declared. McClung, who was said to have met several times with Manitoba Premier Rodmond Roblin to discuss the women’s vote, imitated him so well that the audience burst into laughter.

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Manitoba became the first province to approve women’s suffrage on January 28, 1916, closely followed by Saskatchewan on March 14 and Alberta on April 19. British Columbia extended women the right to vote on April 5, 1917, and Ontario Suffragettes celebrated their victory one week later on April 12. These important provincial decisions mounted pressure on the federal government to do the same.

On May 24, 1918, women aged 21 and older were granted the right to vote in federal elections, and in July 1919 they were allowed to run for public office. It was not until 1929, with the help of the “Famous Five” – a group including Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise Crummy McKinney and Irene Parlby – that women were declared “persons” in a Supreme Court case, and could be appointed to the Senate.

Suffragettes paved the way for a more inclusive future, but to many women in Canada even the 1929 decision was not cause for celebration. Members of several ethnic and racial minority groups, such as Canadians of Chinese and Japanese origin, were excluded for several decades after women achieved the right to vote. Aboriginal peoples had to wait until 1960 to be able to cast their first ballot. It is important to remember the legacy of the suffragettes on this day, but also to recognize that it took quite a while longer for the title of “persons” to apply equally to all citizens of Canada.

Adelina

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