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100th Anniversary of Canadian Women’s Right to the Federal Vote

May 22, 2018

Rebecca Pascoe

On May 24th, 1918, the federal government of Canada issued the edict that: “Women who are British subjects, 21 years of age, and otherwise meet the qualifications entitling a man to vote, are entitled to vote in a Dominion election.” This long awaited and long fought for proclamation had been in the works for years—decades, even. Since 1791 when the Constitutional Act established essential rules and regulations for governance in Upper and Lower Canada the basic act of women voting and participating in various levels of government had been in contention.

The entire issue of Canadian women’s federal suffrage and right to vote was a long-evolving and contentious one, lasting throughout the entirety of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Like other similarly controversial topics that came before and after (such as the abolition of slavery in the North American colonies and across the British Commonwealth, allowing persons from differing cultural and ethnic backgrounds the right to vote, etc.) the overall topic of universal federal suffrage was largely seen by many as an inevitability. However, that did not mean that it was easily won, or that it came without a fight, or, moreover, that it came about swiftly, nipping easily and eagerly on the heels of the industrial revolution as the suffragette movement gained momentum from the 1870s onward in other Westernized areas like Great Britain and the United States.

When he was once heckled regarding why women were still being denied the right to vote at the federal level in the rapidly changing era of the turn of the century, Prime Minister John. A. MacDonald could only answer with this pithy response: “Madame, I cannot conceive.” Unfortunately, this progressive attitude was not held by all. Others who did not possess such enlightened beliefs felt that giving women the vote would ultimately have no purpose, as they would mostly likely simply vote in the same vein as their male relatives, or—worse!—that participating in the ‘vulgarities’ of politics in the public sphere would cause women to lose one of their most essential and natural traits: the gentle, maternal qualities which kept all of mankind in check. For whatever would the world do without the gentle ‘angel of the hearth’ waiting back at home to quell the after-effects of the rambunctious (and sometimes even violent) atmosphere and activities which often dominated political rallies and polling evenings at the turn of the century. This seems a surprising fact to those of us who enjoy the civilized experience of queuing up at the local school gymnasium and voting in private behind individual scrims, but over one hundred years ago in Canada voting was often a more casual (and rowdy!) system whereby people would simply shout out their chosen vote in a room full of fellow citizens. And many people felt that that type of environment was no place for a ‘lady.’

Which brings us full circle to a conundrum that we all continue to face today: what IS, indeed, a ‘lady,’ and what is expected of her in public and in private? In the latter nineteenth century many within the Western suffragette movement were able to gain a foothold in popular opinion because they tied notions of pre-existing stereotypes of idealized female behaviour to a government’s duty to give women the right to vote. By doing so, women would then be able to exert their calming, maternal influence on the politics of the nation. Canadian women could, in essence, then become not only the idealized mothers of their own children but in a larger sense also the mothers of the entire nation, helping their fellow male citizens to see who were the “right” candidates over who were the “wrong.”

Beginning in 1916 and continuing throughout the period surrounding World War One most provinces granted women the provincial vote. Then in 1917 the Wartime Elections Act granted the federal vote to “Female relatives of any person in the military who was serving or served with Canada or Great Britain during the First World War. Also women serving in the military.” During such traumatic, turbulent times one might easily understand why the tide of popular opinion began to change. If women were evolving beyond being solely seen as ‘angels of the hearth’ within the private sphere of home, rearing children and keeping house, and were now helping to fill military roles both on the homefront and in the regular forces themselves, then surely they should finally be given the right to vote and have the absolute, full federal franchise. If they could help to fill the gaps left by men who went to war by working in munitions factories or military support positions, then many people thought that women could finally be trusted with the vote. This newfound support was also helped along by the belief that women might help vote in favour of politicians who would send more military support to their husbands, fathers, and sons abroad on the frontlines, or that women could help vote in favour of politicians who could hopefully also help to bring about peace efforts.

Ultimately, during the tumultuous turn of the century suffragette movement many factors came to play in helping Canadian women gain the federal vote. And perhaps Agnes MacPhail, Canada’s first female Member of Parliament, said it best when she noted that: “I do not want to be the angel of any home. I want for myself what I want for other women, absolute equality. After that is secured then men and women can take turns at being angels.” So let’s all take a page from this trailblazing role model and exercise our right to the franchise whenever we can.

Rebecca Pascoe

Rebecca Pascoe

Rebecca has been studying the exciting, ever evolving field of history for over 20 years and has worked at a variety of historic sites with Niagara Parks, Parks Canada, and the City of Niagara Falls. She holds a BA in history from the University of Guelph and her Master's in history from the University of Waterloo. If you can't find her at McFarland House you may likely run into her while she is out on one of her jaunts to antique shops far and wide, eager to find new treasures and share their stories with our visitors.