Women’s Suffrage Movement in Canada
Women’s suffrage movement in Canada refers to the decades-long fight and push by women to have women granted the right to vote. It occurred differently across Canada in terms of time, jurisdiction, and demographics of women. The movement began in the 1870s when campaigns were held across Canada for women right to vote on equal terms as men, starting with local government. However, the campaigns were met with significant opposition particularly from groups that believed that women were inferior. To spread the ideology of women’s suffrage, suffragists were involved in establishing networks not only across Canada but also internationally. With the networks in place, there was a diversification of interests and causes around women’s suffrage. Some of the suffragists pushed for homestead rights for women and others who were part of the temperance movement made attempts to ban the sale of alcohol. The campaigns involved several characters and organizations with varied beliefs although most were either socialists or liberals. The first Canadian province that granted women the right to vote was Manitoba in 1916. It was followed by Saskatchewan and Alberta in the same year. In 1917, two other provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, granted women the right to vote. Yukon gave women the vote in 1919, Atlantic Canada between 1918 and 1925, Québec in 1940, and the Northwest Territories in 1951. The women’s suffrage movement in Canada’s primary purpose was to redefine gender roles. Being an outcome of the new thinking, the women’s suffrage opened many doors for Canadian women and had several other impacts on the greater Canadian society.
Involvement of Women in Politics
One of the impacts of the women’s suffrage movement in Canada was the involvement of women in Canadian politics. At the onset, once women were granted the right to vote, they faced significant resistance as far as entering politics was concerned. However, women were gradually accepted in the Canadian political arena thanks to the campaigns by the women’s suffrage movement (Strong-Boag, 2016). In 1921, one of the first women to venture into Canadian politics, Agnes Macphail, won a seat in the House of Commons as a representative of the United Farmers of Ontario. In 1935, another woman, Martha Black, was accepted into Canadian politics coming as a replacement for her ailing husband who was Conservative MP for Yukon. In 1940, Dorise Nielsen arrived in Ottawa as a representative for Saskatchewan although she received little support (Strong-Boag, 2016). In 1988, Ethel Blondin Andrews became the first female Indigenous female following her election as Member of Parliament for Western Artic, Northwest Territories.
In addition to the election of women to Canadian Parliament, women were also elected into political positions at provincial level. One of these was Alberta’s Louise McKinsey of the Nonpartisan League was elected as the first woman to a provincial legislature in both Canada and the British Empire. There was a gradual growth in the number of women in elective positions in the years that followed (Strong-Boag, 2016). In 1941, there were five female MLAs in British Columbia, with these being seen as the largest number of female MLAS in any legislature across Canada until the 1970s. The first appointment of a woman to a federal cabinet came in 1957 following the appointment of Conservative MP Ellen Fairclough (Strong-Boag, 2016). The first Chinese women, Liberal Ida Chong and NDPer Jenny Kwan, were elected by British Columbia in 1996.
In the 20th century, real advances in the numbers of women in the political arena were witnessed thanks to the women’s suffrage movement. In 1993, Canada had a female prime minister, feminist Kim Campbell, whose tenure was short-lived. However, since 2015, Canada has had the greatest number of women elected to the House of Commons with the figure standing at 88 accounting for 26 percent of MPs elected (Strong-Boag, 2016). Canada’s Liberal government’s decision to appoint 50 percent female ministers also highlights the influence of the women’s suffrage movement on the involvement of Canadian women in politics.
Change in Focus on Economic Issues
When it started in the 1870s, the women’s suffrage movement in Canada made early attempts on economic issues that focused more on the right of women to make choices. Women’s focus was not on fighting the system in place but how they were treated within the system. The primary objective of suffragists at the beginning was to influence power while simultaneously claiming significant support for women’s position from the suffrage movement (Cohen, 1992). The movement gradually impacted how stakeholders including the government focused on and addressed economic issues. By the 1980s, the Canadian government focused on economic growth and saw women as integral to the achievement of the objective following the campaigns and push by the women’s suffrage movement (Cohen, 1992). The Canadian government and employers thus accepted women’s intervention on economic issues such as equal pay, movement of women out of traditional occupations, and maternity leave. The government and employers also began to accept women’s right to talk regarding matters such as reproductive choice, day care, pornography, and other issues related to women that had an impact on economic growth.
The women’s suffrage movement motivated women and more came to realize that the fundamental issue was the extent to which women could have a role in economic decision-making. Women gradually shifted from pushing for opportunities for choice to making the connection that all the issues they were fighting for were related to how society was constructed. Women began to realize that having a voice in government’s decision-making and business impacted how successful they were in almost every area of their lives (Cohen, 1992). As they fought for years and years for legislations such as equal pay for work of equal value, Canadian women also ensured that government economic policies in place supported the employment of several people. They believed that making gains in the economic area would be impossible is a government economic policy meant the employment of fewer people.
At the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement, women’s efforts to discuss broad economic policy issues were overlooked by government and society at large. It was believed that that women and matters of economics could not go hand in hand. At the onset, women’s demands were not seen as contributions but as “take-aways.” Years later, thanks to the women’s suffrage movement, women were included in discussions on broad economic policy issues (Cohen, 1992). Women gave their contributions on matters such as full and equal employment, economic security, equality in decision-making, and better socioeconomic services.
The women’s suffrage movement in Canada also had an impact on moral regulation. According to Thieme (2007), the term “moral” is more concerned with how women reformers thought of their own influence on others. Debates about women’s role in influencing others changed significantly after the women’s suffrage movement. In post-suffrage era, there were few debates concerned with ethical and moral self-regulation because the ability of women to govern others was no longer under question. Certain norms of conduct were put in place upon which women enjoyed the authority to pronounce the problems of government. Women, particularly writers, stood their ground and proved their capacity for moral self-formation because of their ability to instruct others regarding moral behavior.
The moral mandate of women became more predominant after the women’s suffrage movement. Despite having a variety of Christian churches, the state had difficulty in making decisions from a moral perspective. Women, following their empowerment by the campaigns that accompanied the suffrage movement, became more vocal in matters to do with morals (Thieme, 2007). Women went as far as chastising the government for not exercising enough power as far as moral regulation was concerned. Non-state social initiatives such as women’s campaign for good morals in society were motivated by the desire to make citizens internalize values instead of enforcing rules about behavior. According to Thieme (2007), between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, non-state actors such as the women suffrage movement and other voluntary organizations were more concerned with moral regulation, nation-building, and making the state better than the state itself. Women conceived the criminal, fallen, and destitute as people in need of therapeutic and reformatory strategies rather than punitive measures to make them morally upright and acceptable in society (Thieme, 2007). For the non-criminal citizens, particularly youths, women believed that they required a process of character building that would contribute towards achieving moral objectives and nation-building.
Division Along Ethnic and Racial Lines
In the aftermath of the women’s suffrage movement, there was division among people, particularly women, along ethnic and racial lines. A group that was subjected to racial discrimination was indigenous Canadian women since they were largely invisible during the suffrage campaigns. A big percentage of women who took part in the suffrage movement campaigns was of European origin (Domareki, 2018). There were no campaigns to have the First Nations or Inuit in various legislations leading to the widespread assumption that the First Nations were a dying race. In as much as suffragists of European origin pressured government to grant women certain rights, Indigenous women worked locally with their focus on improving conditions for their communities (Strong-Boag, 2016). Several years after the women’s suffrage movement started, there was the enactment of the 1934 Dominion Franchise Act that denied Status Indians the right to vote whereas other women especially those of European origin were allowed to vote and hold office. It was not until 1951 that the Inuit women were granted the right to vote even though their names were rarely added to the official lists of persons allowed to vote. Besides, it was not until 1962 that ballot boxes were brought to Inuit communities in the Arctic (Strong-Boag, 2016). However, in 1960, the Canadian government granted the right to vote to all indigenous people both men and women. The discrimination of Indigenous people when it came to being granted the right to vote resulted in division along ethnic and racial lines in Canada in the subsequent years.
Improvement in Education, Healthcare, and Social Services
Another significant impact of the women’s suffrage movement in Canada was the improvement witnessed in sectors such as education, social services, and healthcare that made better lives for both women and children. These improvements were inspired by the protests staged by suffragists against discrimination in education, social services and healthcare. Suffragists insisted on the need for justice and equality for everyone in accessing education, social services, and healthcare (MacDonald, 2017). The pressure mounted by the women’s suffrage movement on the government also paved the way for the introduction of provincial mother’s allowances or pensions starting in the First World War. Moreover, the Canadian government shifted focus to addressing issues of equity and justice for which the suffrage movement had campaigned.
In sum, I believe that the women’s suffrage movement is important as it gives insight into the journey of Canadian women to obtaining the voting right they enjoy today. The suffrage movement encountered resistance and opposition but later managed to achieve its primary objective. Several gains have been made as far as women’s rights are concerned today. Other than the gains in terms of women’s rights, the suffrage movement has impacted Canadian society as a whole. Some of the impacts of the movement include increased women involvement in politics, a change in focus when it comes to economic issues in Canada with women becoming more involved in economic decision-making, a change in moral regulation in Canada, an unfortunate division along ethnic and racial lines that is still witnessed today, as well as improvement in education, health care and social services.
Cohen, M. G. (1992). 17 The Canadian Women’s Movement and Its Efforts to Influence the Canadian Economy. Retrieved from http://www.sfu.ca/~mcohen/publications/women/Canadian%20women.pdf
Domareki, S. (2018). Canadian Identity, Women’s Suffrage, and the Rights of Women: A Comparative Analysis of the Stories and Activism of Nellie McClung and Thérèse Casgrain. American Review of Canadian Studies, 48(2), 221-243. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02722011.2018.1485210
MacDonald, H. (2017). Women’s Suffrage and Confederation. Acadiensis, 46(1), 163-176. Retrieved from https://opus.uleth.ca/bitstream/handle/10133/5128/MacDonald%20women%27s%20suffrage%20and%20Confederation.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Strong-Boag, V. (2016, June 21). Women’s Suffrage in Canada. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/suffrage.
Thieme, K. (2007). Language and social change: the Canadian movement for women’s suffrage, 1880-1918 (Doctoral dissertation, University of British Columbia). Retrieved from https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/ubctheses/831/items/1.0100685