Women’s Suffrage

Around the world, the women’s suffrage movement came to the fore in the 19th century, as women—especially those in the British Commonwealth—became increasingly politically active.

England – The Head of the Realm

John Stuart Mill, who openly supported women’s suffrage, was elected to British Parliament in 1864. Throughout his campaign, he called for an amendment to the Reform Act to include female suffrage. Although the Reform Act was ultimately defeated by the entirely male conservative government, for the first time it did succeed in raising awareness of the issue of women’s enfranchisement across the commonwealth.

In the latter half of the century, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed from many smaller groups. This larger union was immediately able to bring greater focus on the issue of suffrage, which had long been forced to the political background. The members of the NUWSS were extremely active, writing letters to politicians and publications, and holding town-hall meetings and lectures to encourage public participation.

In 1907, the NUWSS was able to organize a large protest, which became known as the Mud March. Thousands of women took to the streets, braving the cold and mud to march from Hyde Park to Exeter Hall in support of women’s suffrage.

Emmeline Pankhurst (left) and Nellie McClung, June 17, 1916, With permission of the Glenbow Archives

Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst (left) and Nellie McClung, June 17, 1916, With permission of the Glenbow Archives

Emmeline Pankhurst, a highly visible suffragist from the UK, broke away from the NUWSS to create the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Since the movement had lost momentum and support of the press, Pankhurst advocated for more violent forms of protest. This included storming the government while in session, invading private homes, and chaining themselves to public buildings. This led to the arrest and imprisonment of many women, many of whom were treated inhumanely while in jail. While the WSPU’s tactics gained public awareness through shock-value, they also caused the group to lose many supporters of suffrage—men and women alike—who were not in agreement with their methods.

In the early 1900s, the women’s movement joined the war effort, and by the time World War I ended, Parliament had agreed through the 1918 Qualification of Women Act to enfranchise women who were deemed ‘qualified’ to vote. ‘Qualified’ meant they were over 30 years of age, householders, married to a householder, or holders of a university degree. It took until 1928 before women were granted equal voting rights alongside men in England.

Suffrage in Canada

As early as 1884, women were granted limited franchise to vote in Ontario, provided they were widows or unmarried. On the other hand, married women were not only unable to vote, but like their sisters across the rest of Canada, were also unable to own property or hold public office because they were not deemed ‘persons’ under the law.

In the prairies, especially in the grain belt of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the women’s movement was particularly active. While in Saskatchewan the suffrage movement was rural, in Alberta and Manitoba there were strong ties to the temperance movement.

Political Equality League, 1915

The Political Equality League presents a Petition for the enfranchisement of women, December 11, 1915. With permission of the Manitoba Archives.

Nellie McClung was at this time already a well-known advocate and popular speaker on the subject of women’s suffrage. Having relocated with her family to Winnipeg, Nellie joined a group of men and women activists to found the Political Equality League.

At that time in Manitoba, Conservative Premier Roblin strongly opposed giving women the right to vote, and in 1914, Nellie McClung and her fellow reformers wanted to defeat him. They put on a play called “The Women’s Parliament,” a satire that turned the tables and poked fun at the dangers of giving men the right to vote. Nellie McClung’s parody of premier Roblin’s arguments caused uproarious laughter and the play went ‘on tour’ playing to packed houses and enthusiastic audiences. While Roblin was not ultimately defeated for another term, the efforts of Nellie and the Political Equality League helped sway the Liberal Party, who were ultimately elected to power the following term.

In 1915, the Political Equality League presented the new Liberal Government with a formal petition for the enfranchisement of women.

The top page of the petition was worded:

“To the Honourable Members of His Majesty’s Government of the Province of Manitoba and the Members of the Legislative Assembly of Said Province – The Liberal Party – that there are no grounds for debarring women from the right to vote, will enact a measure providing for equal suffrage upon it being established by petition that this is desired by adult women to a number equivalent to 15% of the votes cast at the preceding general election in this Province. Your petitioners are desirous that a measure shall be enacted forthwith extending the franchise to women on equal terms with men.”

Until Manitoba finally succeeded in 1916, legislation to enfranchise women in provincial elections failed to pass in any province. In 1917, The Military Voters Act established that “women who are British subjects and have close relatives in the armed forces can vote on behalf of their male relatives, in federal elections,” according to the Parliament of Canada website.

Early in 1919, the right to vote was extended to all women in Canada through the Act to confer the Electoral Franchise Upon Women. The only exception was Quebec, which did not follow until 1940.

Mrs. Pankhurst and the Manitoba Suffrage Campaign

by Linda McDowell

There were many articles in Canadian newspapers about Mrs. Pankhurst and her colourful “suffragettes” but prairie papers didn’t give as much prominence to their actions as the newspapers in the Maritimes or British Columbia.[1] Prairie suffragists were not impressed by the violence of the Pankhurst suffragettes and were more likely to identify with the peaceful suffrage campaigns of the western states in the United States.

In 1911 Mrs. Pankhurst made a visit to Winnipeg and, apparently, gave some advice to her Canadian sisters. At least one of them was unimpressed.  On April 21,1944, Lillian Beynon Thomas made this comment in a letter to Catherine Cleverdon:

“We resented very keenly the fact that some English women came out and tried to stampede us into taking violent methods. We had not yet used peaceful methods and we refused to do anything violent until we had. We did not need anything like that.”[2]

It would have been fun to be a fly on the wall when the very confident Mrs. Pankhurst met the very direct Mrs. Thomas!

We should also notice that the Manitoba women poked a little fun at Mrs. Pankhurst’s group in the script of the 1914 Women’s Parliament. In the section where Mr. and Mrs. Crowley come to the Parliament to protest against fashions in shirts and neckties they say that they represent the “Society for the Prevention of Ugliness” or SPU, sometimes referred to as SPEW. There are a number of jokes made about their fashion concerns but the biggest joke is not familiar to us now  – but would have been then. Mrs. Pankhurst’s group was known as the Women’s Social and Political Union or SPU.

Today, Mrs. Pankhurst’s group gets a lot of credit in British history books for getting the vote for women, but the group who actually worked with the government in the end was the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Mrs. Pankhurst was not part of this. Some reports say that she didn’t want to work with them and they didn’t want her!

A recent book has put forward an interesting view of the suffragettes. The book is called The Suffragette Bombers: Britain’s Forgotten Terrorists. It’s by Simon Webb and was published by Pen and Sword History in 2014.

[1] Catherine Cleverdon.  The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950, p. 48.

[2] Ibid.