If you’ve been watching the news lately, you may have seen several recent references to the British suffragettes. That’s because last week marked the 100th anniversary of women obtaining the right to vote in Britain. On this side of the pond, there have been some questions raised about why there hasn’t been a similar celebration of the women’s suffrage movement, particularly since some people consider 1918 to be the year when Canadian women received the right to vote. While I can’t speak on behalf of the government, I can tell you that historians have some major reservations when it comes to celebrating the accomplishments of Canadian suffragists. So, in this installment of Inconvenient Pasts, we’re going to take a critical look at the women’s suffrage movement in Canada, discussing what it did and did not accomplished, and whether or not it should be celebrated.
Nice Women Don’t Want Complicated Histories
When most of us thinking about the women’s suffrage movement in Canada, we think about women like Nellie McClung and the other members of the Famous Five. If like me, then you’ve probably seen both McClung and Emily Murphy’s heritage minutes. And they do indeed present a pretty picture. To put it simply: once upon a time, women didn’t have the right to vote in Canada. Then some ladies got together, used their brain power, and showed men the errors of their ways! While I’m being facetious here, but most of us are taught in school that the years between 1916 and 1921 saw a revolution in women’s rights in Canada.
Expert Tip: To clarify, suffrage refers to the right to vote. Women’s suffrage refers specifically to the right of women to vote. The franchise refers to the people who are eligible to vote. Enfranchisement refers to gaining the ability to vote. Fun with words!
The problem with this narrative is that it is precisely that: a narrative. It is a nice, simplified story that ignores the real complexity of the women’s suffrage movement in Canada. While I’m going to break down this narrative in a second, I want to focus for a moment on the issue of representation in history. I’m willing to bet a considerable amount of (imaginary) money that the first thing you thought of when you saw the title of this post was Nellie McClung. And that’s a major problem, for several reasons.
First, there was no monolithic women’s suffrage movement in Canada. Rather, there were associated individuals and organizations that advocated for women’s’ right to vote. These individuals and organizations often had different strategies for accomplishing their goal, and different ideas about which women deserved to have the right to vote (more on this in a sec). Focusing on individuals like McClung obscures this complexity. What’s more a focus on individuals like McClung privileges the experiences of white, middle-class, straight, and able-bodied women in the movement. Which is a misrepresentation of the women’s suffrage movement in Canada. This privileging serves to erase and obscure the experiences of women who did not fit into this mould, most notably Black, Indigenous, and Women of Colour, who often had much more radicalized views. It is not an accident that McClung is much more famous that women like Mary Ann Shadd Cary or E. Pauline Johnson, both of whom advocated for gender and racial equality.
Second, the women’s suffrage movement is not easily contained within temporal limits. While we usually date the movement from the 1880s to the 1920s, this obscures the much longer, and more complicated history of women voting in this place we call Canada. Women could, and did, vote before 1916. Women were recorded casting votes in municipal elections from the 1810s to the 1840s in Lower Canada (Quebec) and Nova Scotia. For instance, roughly 226 women cast their votes in the 1832 Montreal-West by-election, including widow Marguerite Paris. In fact, there were no regulations explicitly banning women from voting until 1834, and women were not completely banned from voting in British North America until 1851. I bring up these examples not to make the point that gender discrimination did not exist in Canada before 1851 (far from it), but rather to illustrate that the history of women’s suffrage in Canada is much longer and much more complicated than most traditional narratives suggest. Though small in number, the experiences of Canadian women who voted in elections in the first half of the nineteenth century are an important part of the story, as is the history of how Canadian women lost the ability to vote.
So What Actually Happened, Then?
What today we would consider the proper women’s suffrage movement in Canada began around the 1876. This was when Dr. Emily Stowe established the first women’s suffrage organization under the guide of the Toronto Women’s Literary Club (renamed in 1883 as the Toronto Women’s Suffrage Association). Other women’s suffrage organizations began popping up all over the country, but the movement was relatively small until social reformers picked up on it as a important tool in their campaign to better society.
The social reform movement, or the moral reform movement as it is also known, was much like the women’s suffrage movement in the sense that the term is used to refer to individuals and organizations dedicated to solving the modern problems of industrialization, urbanization, and the growing number of non-Anglo-American immigrants. For these individuals and organizations, women’s suffrage was a potentially useful tool. These individuals and organizations believed that women were morally superior to men and, as women, they were naturally disposed toward being caregivers. As such, they had an obligation to step out into society to save it from itself. In effect, they were to be “mothers of the nation” (this approach is now referred to as maternal feminism). Today this approach is referred to as maternal feminism, and it was a key component to the women’s suffrage movement in Canada.
The classic example of this was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and its endorsement of women’s suffrage in Canada. The WCTU and its members believed that everything that was wrong with society could be blamed on alcohol consumption: domestic abuse, unemployment, prostitution, bad hair days, and so on (ok, maybe not that last one). Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, they petitioned governments at all levels to enact legislation. These campaigns were largely failures, due to the unpopularity of the movement among male politicians. So, in 1888, the WCTU officially endorsed women’s suffrage as the only way in which to enact their reforms.
But it is important to be clear here that this decision was not really due to a belief in the inherent right of women to vote. Instead, it was a means to an end. And that end was not just about alcohol, but about white supremacy. While in theory well-intentioned, organizations like the WCTU were far from benevolent. Rather, their explicit objective was to preserve the power of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and middle-class individuals through the regulation and control of the poor, working-class, and immigrant peoples. For the WCTU and other organizations, white women, as both literal and figurative mothers, had a particular duty to current and future generations. And they were not the only ones who used women’s suffrage for their own agenda.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the women’s suffrage movement was in full force. While gains were made at the municipal and provincial levels, the movement ground to a halt with the beginning of World War One. Winning the war at any cost was foremost in the minds of most Canadians. At least until 1917, that is, when Prime Minister Robert Borden was seeking re-election. When the war had begun, he has promised not to enact conscription. But losses at the front meant that he had to break this promise. Which presented a problem for his re-election campaign. The solution? Change the voting laws in his favour.
In September, the House of Commons passed the 1917 Wartime Elections Act, under the leadership of Robert Borden. The new rules specified that “enemy aliens” (Canadian immigrants who had been born in an “enemy” country after March 1902) and conscientious objectors, in other words, those most opposed to conscription, were barred from voting unless they had a son, grandson, or brother serving as a soldier. And further, the mothers, wives, widows, or brother of soldiers (or those allegedly more likely to support conscription) were granted the right to vote, unless they were otherwise excluded (I’ll come back to this shortly).
It’s unclear whether or not the Wartime Elections Act made any difference in terms of Borden’s campaign, but he was re-elected. But it did lead to the 1918 Act to Confer the Electoral Franchise Upon Women, which permitted women to vote so long as they met the same eligibility criteria of men. So problem solved, right? Except, not really.
Winners and Losers
When we consider the subject of women’s suffrage in Canada, it is important to understand who did and didn’t gain the right to vote. First of all, in depending on the province, prior to 1920, in order to vote at the provincial or federal level, individuals needed to meet specific property qualifications. Meaning, they had to own a certain value of land. This effectively meant that voting was inaccessible for a majority of the population, since property in this time period was very expensive. This restriction was removed with the passage of the Dominions Elections Act of 1920.
However, this new piece of legislation specified that individuals who were excluded at the provincial level on the basis of race would also be barred from voting in federal elections while they resided in that location. So if you happened to live in British Columbia, and were of Chinese, Japanese, or South Asian descent, you were not permitted to vote. It wouldn’t be until 1947 that British Columbians of Chinese or South Asian descent were able to vote in Canadian elections. British Columbians of Japanese descent didn’t receive that right until 1949.
There were additional restrictions in place for First Nations and Inuit peoples (the Métis have never had any restrictions played on their right to vote). Since Confederation, Canadian laws have prevented First Nations people from voting so long as they were considered “status Indians” under the Indian Act. However, if a First Nations Person obtained a university degree, they lost this status and became enfranchised (First Nations woman married who married a non-First Nations man also lost their status, as did all of the descendants). This effectively severed their ties with their families and communities, since they lost the right to live on reserve and to be legally recognized as First Nations. Compulsory enfranchisement was therefore a mechanism used by the Canadian government to forcibly assimilate and eliminate First Nations peoples. Status Indians would not gain the right to vote in federal elections until 1960.
The Inuit, who were not included in the Indian Act, were barred from voting with the passage of the 1934 Dominion Franchise Act. The Inuit did not regain the right to vote in federal elections until 1950, without any qualifications. However, even though they were eligible to vote as of 1950, most Inuit were unable to vote until the 1962 election, since beforehand they were rarely added to voting lists and ballot boxes were not provided to all Inuit communities.
And these are just of the restrictions put in place. There is also the matter of accessibility, since individuals with disabilities were often unable to vote due to physical barriers. So were individuals who were away from home for whatever reason (medical care, for example). Various measures were introduced over time to help correct these problems, including polling stations in hospitals or military postal ballot, and concluded with the legal requirement to facilitate equal access at polling stations, passed in 1992
So when did women get the vote? Your guess is as good as mine.
Women’s Suffrage and the Eugenics Movement
There is one final point to consider with respect to the women’s suffrage movement, and that is its association with the eugenics movement. As I mentioned earlier, white supremacy was an essential component of the social reform movement. Consequently, many women’s suffragists were supporters of eugenics, or the view that only certain individuals would be permitted to have children. Eugenics arose out of Social Darwinism and the theory that “like begets like.” In other words, in order to have a superior society, only superior individuals should have children. Eugenicists promoted a number of measures to ensure this, most notably the sterilization of those deemed “unfit to breed.” Characteristics that could earn a person this distinction included: Catholicism, a non-Anglo-Saxon background, having a mental or physical disability, or even demonstrating an interest in sex.
Many of this country’s most prominent women’s suffragists were enthusiastic supporters of eugenics. This includes all five of the Famous Five. For example, Emily Murphy wrote an entire book on why the Chinese were a “degenerate race” (The Black Candle) and argued that “insane people are not entitled to progeny.” Nellie McClung actively promoted the use of sterilization for “young simple-minded girls.” Both women were instrumental in the passage of the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act in 1928.
Passed in 1928, and in effect until 1972, this piece of legislation established a special board of individuals who had the power to authorize the sterilization of individuals without their consent. Out of the 4800 cases they reviewed, the board passed 4725 applications, and 2822 individuals were sterilized. One of them was for Leilani Muir. At the age of fourteen, Muir was sterilized without her consent or knowledge, on the grounds of her Polish and Irish backgrounds, an interest in men, and an alleged low IQ score. She only learned of this ten years later, when she tried to have a child. The main reason why historians are now aware of the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act was because Muir sued the Alberta government and, in 1995, won her case.
Expert Tip: BC had similar legislation from 1933 to 1979, establishing a board that was permitted to sterilize individuals in government-run institutions without their consent or knowledge. However, little is known about the victims, since the records were entirely destroyed. Further, while the laws officially ended in Alberta in 1972 and in BC in 1979, there is evidence to suggest that the practice continued for at least 15 years, and there are still regular accounts by Indigenous women of being forcibly sterilized.
As you can probably guess by now, the history of women’s suffrage in Canada is very complicated. What’s more, it raises a number of uncomfortable questions. Can we separate the history of women’s suffrage from the social reform and eugenics movements? How did first-wave feminists in Canada contribute to the settler colonial project and white supremacy in Canada? Is it fair to judge these women more harshly because we consider them feminists? What do we do when our heroes don’t live up to our expectations? How do we recognize/honour their accomplishments while keeping the complicating factors in mind? And, perhaps most importantly, who do we include under the category of “women” when deciding when women received the right to vote in Canada?
There aren’t any easy answers here. But maybe that’s the point. History isn’t supposed to be simple — its supposed to be messy, complicated, and uncomfortable. And I’m ok with that.
- Bettina Bradbury, “Women at the Hustings: Gender, Citizenship, and the Montreal By-Elections of 1832,” in Rethinking Canada: The Promise of Women’s History, sixth edition, eds. Mona Gleason, Tamara Myers, Adele Perry (Don Mlls, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2011), 117-134.
- Tarah Brookfield, “Divided by the Ballot Box: The Montreal Council of Women and the 1917 Elections,” Canadian Historical Review 89, no. 4 (December 2008): 473-501.
- Janice Fiamengo, “Rediscovering Our Foremothers Again: The Racial Ideas of Canada’s Early Feminists, 1885-1945,” Essays on Canadian Writing 75 (Winter 2002): 85-117.
- Nancy Forestell and Maureen Moynagh, “Mrs. Canada Goes Global: Canadian First Wave Feminism Revisited,” Atlantis 30, no. 1 (2005): 7-20.
- Nancy Forestell and Maureen Moynagh, eds. Documenting First Wave Feminisms, Vol. 2: Canada—National and Transnational Contexts. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013).
- Patricia Grimshaw. “Reading the Silences: Suffrage Activists and Race in Nineteenth-Century Settler Societies.” In Women’s Rights and Human Rights: International Historical Perspectives, eds. Patricia Grimshaw, Katie Holmes, and Marilyn Lake, (London: Palgrave, 2001), 31-48.
- Joan Sangster, One Hundred Years of Struggle: The History of Women and the Vote in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2018). Forthcoming.
- Mariana Valverde, The Age of Light, Soap, and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885-1925 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1991)
- Mariana Valverde, “‘When the Mother of the Race is Free’: Race, Reproduction, and Sexuality in First-Wave Feminism,” in Gender Conflicts: New Essays in Women’s History. ed. Franca Iacovetta and Mariana Valverde, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 3-26.
 Mariana Valverde, “‘When the Mother of the Race is Free’: Race, Reproduction, and Sexuality in First-Wave Feminism,” in Gender Conflicts: New Essays in Women’s History. ed. Franca Iacovetta and Mariana Valverde, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 3-26.
 While First Nations individuals who served in the military did gain the right to vote, they lost this right if they chose to live on-reserve.
I hope you enjoyed this week’s blog post! Apparently I am in myth busting mode lately… Anyways, if you did enjoy it, please consider sharing it on the social media platform of your choice! And don’t forget to check back on Sunday for a brand new Canadian history roundup. See you then!