Political Equality League

Members of the Political Equality League


The Political Equality League 1912-1916

by Linda McDowell

On March 29, 1912 a group of women and men met at 808 Wolseley Avenue, home of Mrs. A. G. (Martha Jane) Hample, Winnipeg’s first businesswoman. Their main objective was to organize and work for woman suffrage but they were also concerned about a number of social and educational issues, including the working conditions in factories.

There is a generalization in many articles about the PEL that this was a middle class group of “wealthy Winnipeg women” only interested in the right to vote. There certainly were women who could afford to spend time campaigning on suffrage and other political and social issues, because they had other women to clean their houses and care for their children, but that certainly did not apply to all members. Membership was open to women and men and there were people from the more affluent areas of Winnipeg working beside journalists, teachers and members of the Women’s Labour League. Mrs. Annie McClung, Miss E. Cora Hind and Dr. Yeomans who had been involved in the earlier suffrage group were still supportive but not as heavily involved this time.

The first slate of Political Equality League officers indicates the people who were particularly active.

Hon. President: Rev. Dr. J. L. Gordon

President:            Mrs. A.V. Thomas (Lillian Beynon)

Vice President:  Dr. Mary Crawford

Corresponding

Secretary:            P.E. Wilson

Recording

Secretary:            W. Gow

Treasurer:           Mrs. A.G. Hample

Publicity:              Mrs. A. V. Thomas

 

The Publicity Committee: Mrs. A.V. Thomas, G. Chipman, Mrs. Perry (Anne Anderson), Miss Kennethe Haig, Miss Mae Clendenan, and Miss Cora Hind. All of them were journalists.

The first big event planned was a public meeting to give information about their organization and about woman suffrage to the public.  Three speakers were suggested for this event and were to be contacted – Rev. Connor, Mrs. Nellie McClung and Mrs. D.E. McEwen, Brandon. Nellie would later become an active member of the League.

Lack of money was a problem at the beginning because the League needed to be able to provide speakers to take their message to the small towns and farms of Manitoba as well as to the Winnipeg audience. Mrs. Hample provided some initial funding. Later they raised money by selling memberships and, when Nellie McClung joined them, she suggested that she could add a lecture on woman suffrage to her already successful public readings of her books. She charged 25 cents a head and was able to pay her own expenses that way. Nellie was extremely popular, with a record 100 readings in Manitoba in 1911 and she could get as many as 3 000 people out in Brandon. The League’s most famous activity, the Women’s Parliament of 1914, provided funding for most of the rest of their campaign.

The Political Equality League speakers often inspired communities such as Carberry or Portage la Prairie (or Moosomin, Saskatchewan) to set up their own  Political Equality Leagues, affiliated with the Winnipeg group.  The Roaring River Suffrage Association had been set up independently by the Twilley sisters and their friends, but they also worked with the Winnipeg League. The Icelandic suffrage groups were not affiliated with the English groups but they kept in touch and usually joined the Political League in petitions and making presentations to the Premier.

The League had a number of good ideas to get citizens involved in their campaign. Their Speakers’ Bureau included PEL members such as Mrs. A. V. Thomas, Miss Francis Beynon, Miss Winona Flett (who married Fred Dixon in 1914), and Mrs. Nellie McClung. The journalist members constantly wrote articles for the newspapers and Francis Marion Beynon wrote about suffrage and women’s rights in her regular “Women’s Page” in The Grain Growers’ Guide. Mrs. Thomas used her newspaper column and the Homemaker’s Clubs she organized across the Prairies to carry the message as well. In 1913 the League ordered one hundred “Votes for Women ” banners which were placed on Winnipeg streetcars. In 1913 they also had a booth at the Winnipeg Stampede and handed out pamphlets. It was a great advantage that the Stampede program included so many women performers – roping and riding champions! The Women’s Parliament of 1914 was the League’s most successful activity. Not only did it make money but woman suffrage suddenly became very respectable and everyone wanted to get involved.

When Premier Norris won the 1915 election he promised to bring legislation for woman suffrage to the Legislative Assembly. However, before he did this, he requested a petition with 17 000 signatures to prove that people really supported the idea of votes for women. The League organized the petition project of 1915 and the final presentation involved sixty people presenting 39 584 signatures from the general group and 4 259 signatures collected by Mrs. Amelia Burritt alone. Mrs. Burritt was a 94 year-old woman living on Sturgeon Creek Road.[i]

The League organizers had intended that their organization would stay active after the vote was won and would train women candidates and generally continue the work of lobbying the government for social change. That did not happen.  Members were tired, the Conscription issue of 1917 and the later Winnipeg Strike of 1919, divided the group, and some of its leaders left Winnipeg.

Notes

[i] Catherine Cleverdon. The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada. Toronto:1950 University of Toronto Press, p. 50he Country Homemakers,” The Grain Growers’ Guide, (November 19, 1913), p. 10.