Women’s Suffrage

Questions to ask yourself:

What changes in society brought a change in women’s right to vote? Why is voting important to society?

What you will be able to do:

Indicate individuals and groups involved in the First Wave of Feminism.

Indicate the demands of First Wave Feminists.

Indicate the relationship between Feminists and the State.

Explain the consequences of the First Wave of Feminism in Canada and Quebec.

Activate Prior Knowledge and Engage:

View various key images and ask students for their reactions.

Click for sample images.

Consider questions like:

  • What is happening in this image?

  • What is the protest about?

  • When was this image taken?

  • Who is involved? (What groups? Social classes? Genders? Cultures? Etc.)

View also this discussion activity suggestion from https://www.bl.uk/womens-rights/activities/act-lessons-rights. Instead of still images, you could also scan through old films, like this clip from the film about lost films made by women at the time, as well as this one for archival footage of some of the demonstrations! (extract 1 and extract 2). Finally, here are several films together.

Who were the suffragettes?

"In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many women started to campaign for women’s rights. The focus of their attention? The right to vote. This became known as the suffragist movement."

The word suffrage means the actual right to vote, while those known as suffragettes were women actively seeking out that right, and mostly through some form of organized protest. Another term, political franchise, also denotes the right to vote, sometimes known simply as "The Franchise". These terms are used interchangeably.

While the suffragette movements eventually brought full voting rights to women too, we should remember that the right to vote itself has had a long history, for all people, men, women, Indigenous peoples and so forth. After the British took over Canada, various key events brought us closer to "universal suffrage", or the right of all adults to vote. It started with "persons" who owned property in 1791, and for a while this definition even included women.

Sources: Suffragettes: facts for kids and scripts by Matt Russell. See also The Suffragettes: The women who risked all to get the vote and The Women's Suffrage Timeline at canadianencyclopedia.ca

Women's suffragists parade in New York City in 1917, wikimedia.org/ Public domain.

The Temperance Movement was a Key Issue.

"Throughout American [and Canadian!] history women have been involved in social clubs and charities, but the temperance movement not only allowed women to become participants in national politics, they were the driving force on this issue."

One could say that the women's rights movement came out of this movement, which had as its main goal the banning of alcohol. The organizational knowledge and skills gained by these women were then used to try to gain the vote. However, society was profoundly different, and women were met with opposition; they were confronted with what were essentially the sexist notions of the times.

Source: Women’s Rights Advanced During Prohibition and scripts by Matt Russell

Opposition from Men and Women too.

Beliefs as to the roles of women were deeply ingrained. Many people, both men and women, thought that women were simply unable to handle the vote and the process and the responsibilities it entailed. And this belief was maintained even after women had already made other advancements, and had already taken up other roles and occupations previously only held by men. It was this profoundly contradictory inequality that women confronted. And confronted they were:

"Wherever feminism reaps success or threatens the status quo, anti-feminist movements tend to arise. Allied, as they often have been with other defenses of existing privilege, they can be powerful... Suffrage campaigners everywhere faced determined opposition. Its threat always informed their choice of tactics and arguments."

Sources: The Opponents of Woman Suffrage and scripts by Matt Russell

Source: The Women´s Library: Suffrage Collection via File:What a Man may have been, & yet not lose the Vote.jpg under under CC license by/3.0

First wave of Feminists?

"The first feminist groups in Canada were established in the 19th century, at the time of the industrial revolution, in what has become known as the first wave of Western feminism. In Québec, however, the feminist movement didn't truly get started until somewhat later." The earliest Feminists in Canada were generally middle-class women: "Dr. Emily Stowe was vitally interested in all matters relating to women, [and] came before the public as a lecturer upon topics then somewhat new, "Woman's Sphere" and "Women in the Professions."

Sources: Québec feminism | Thematic Tours and Wikipedia and Toronto Women's Literary Club

A gathering of the National Council of Women in Ottawa in 1898. (William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada) via How Canadian women fought for — and finally won — the right to vote.

The Earliest Feminists in Canada also included Black abolitionists

"Early suffragists were typically white, middle-class women, many of whom believed that suffrage would increase the influence of their class and result in a better country. Many of these suffragists were not inclusive, however, and even advocated against non-white women getting the vote. Nonetheless, there were non-white advocates who fought for women’s suffrage such as Black abolitionists like Mary Ann Shadd. Shadd edited the Provincial Freeman and advocated for women’s rights."

Source: Strong-Boag, Veronica. "Women's Suffrage in Canada". The Canadian Encyclopedia, 28 January 2021, Historica Canada.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary and a copy of The Provincial Freeman from the 1850s (Government of Canada) via Portraits of Black Canadians – Episode 11 https://www.rcinet.ca/

Explore :

In different groups, students watch a selected video overview. With a focus on early and “first wave” demands and struggles, ask students to make then share quick notes around the following types of information:

  1. What were women demanding during early struggles? To what were they objecting?

  2. Who was involved? Who were key figures?

  3. What groups banded together to advance their cause? What groups opposed them?


Some quick video suggestions (teacher may want to select certain time frames only):

Suffragettes: 100 years since women won the right to vote - BBC News

Voting Rights in Canada: A Select Timeline

Heritage Minutes: Nellie McClung

Women's Rights Leader Thérèse Casgrain

Longer and more complex! Women's Suffrage: Crash Course US History #31

WW1 ... Real change begins

Was it because of women's contribution to the war effort or their participation in the workforce? Or was it all a political move for Borden to get votes?

During the war periods, women stepped up and worked in jobs previously occupied only by men. For example, they worked in factories, both those that supplied the war effort and in others vacated when soldiers went overseas. One interpretation is that women were eventually granted the right to vote primarily due to this newfound experience.

Another interpretation though was that the vote was first given to those women whose vote would help Robert Bordon get re-elected in 1917 on a proposed plan for conscription, which means the compulsory enlistment or “call up” of citizens for military service. "The Wartime Elections Act gave the vote to the wives, mothers, and sisters of soldiers, the first women permitted to vote in Canadian federal elections. These groups tended to favour conscription because it supported their men in the field." Essentially it was hoped that soldiers would vote, and push their wives to vote, for a government that supported conscription, which would draft and send more soldiers to eventually join them in the fight.

Also amongst the first women to vote were the women who were serving in the war effort themselves, namely those nurses who were an active part of the military. "Before the 1917 federal election, Prime Minister Robert Borden’s government passed the Military Voters Act in a bid for more votes. This temporary war measure extended the right to vote to all Canadians serving overseas, including the nursing sisters." Keep in mind though, that in all cases above we are talking about the vote in federal elections. Provincial election rights for women was another story indeed.

Sources: Conscription divided Canada. It also helped win the First World War and On tour: Their Votes Counted and scripts by Matt Russell

Women munition workers sorting shells during the First World War TUC Collections, London Metropolitan University. via World War I: 1914-1918 | Striking Women (striking-women.org) Credit: TUC Collections, London Metropolitan University

Nursing sisters at a Canadian hospital in France voting in the Canadian federal election via Canadian women in the World Wars - Wikipedia under Public domain and also Nursing Sisters at a Canadian Hospital voting in the Canadian federal election

Investigate:

Use the documents available in our larger collection to research suffragette movements around the world and in Canada and Quebec in general. Mark key events on timelines and maps. Use the images inline to illustrate these events. A mapping tool like LEARN-RECIT Cartograf student mapping site or Google My Maps could be used. An online timeline tool or copy of a Timeline graphic organizer could be used.

Feminists and the Vote in Canada - Who could vote first?

The right to vote in provincial elections was not given to women throughout Canada at the same time. Far from it. In fact, one could say it all started in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, then only later (during the war) were women able to vote in federal elections too.

On January 27, 1914, women and men protested at the Manitoba Legislative Assembly to make the case for women's suffrage. Nellie McClung proclaimed "Have we not the brains to think? Hands to work? Hearts to feel? And lives to live?" She went on, "Do we not bear our part in citizenship? Do we not help build the Empire? Give us our due!" Because of efforts like hers and others, on January 28, 1916, the Bill to Amend the Manitoba Elections Act allowed women in Manitoba to vote – and to put themselves forward as candidates – in provincial elections. Saskatchewan and Alberta followed soon after, with similar acts in that same year.

And then there is how women eventually go the vote in Quebec (see below) which took a lot longer. Essentially for several decades women in Quebec could vote federally but were not even able to vote in their own province.

Related to the right to vote was the right to sit in the Senate, something which was not allowed to women for the strangest of reasons: "In 1928, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that women were not 'persons' according to the British North America Act." Believe it or not, this ruling actually had to be contested and then officially reversed, which it eventually was by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 1929, due to pressure from the so-called "Famous Five", a group of five women, led by Emily Murphy, and who each had many years of active work in various campaigns for women’s rights dating back to the 1880s and 1890s.

Sources: 100th Anniversary of Women's Right to Vote in Canada, the Canadian Encyclopedia, and scripts by Matt Russell

Women Get the Vote in Quebec - Consequences and the Key Women in the Fight

The suffrage movement, and feminism in general, became active in Quebec in the early 20th century, linking up with or following parallel courses to the various suffragist movements across Canada. Three women played key roles:

Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie, founded the Fédération nationale Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Apart from advocating for women's right to vote through that organization's magazine La bonne parole, she also fought for improved working conditions for women, as well as for urban reform, for measures to prevent infant mortality, for better health care, for teacher colleges, etc. She made great strides for women, but in her time was not successful in getting the provincial vote for Quebec women. (Sources 1 and 2)

Idola Saint-Jean was another key figure who fought for women's rights through the 1930s. She was especially concerned with women’s civil rights in Québec, and she helped push through reforms that dropped the requirement for the husband’s authorization in cases of separation of movable property, that increased the legal age at which girls could marry from 16 from 14, and that allowed women to serve as witnesses when wills were notarized. She rallied women "through radio broadcasts, recommendations, briefs, letters, lectures and demonstrations. In 1929, she began writing a bilingual column for the Montreal Herald, and in 1933 she founded the magazine La Sphère féminine. She saw feminism as a worldwide movement that no person and no force could halt. In 1935, she sent King George V a petition with 10,000 signatures in support of women’s suffrage." (Source 1)

And then there was Thérèse Casgrain, a fierce advocate for the rights of women. In 1921, she campaigned for women to gain the right to vote in provincial elections. In 1922, she was part of a delegation of women who met Premier Taschereau to claim the right of women to vote. Severely limited in those times by the opposition of the Catholic Church, these early efforts at getting the vote failed. Then finally, in 1940, Québecoise activists and reformers like Casgrain convinced the Liberal Party of Quebec to include women's suffrage as part of their platform, and by 1940, supported by Premier Joseph-Adélard Godbout, Bill 18 was passed: The Act granting to women the right to vote and to be eligible as candidates was given assent". Quebec women could now vote provincially, starting in 1944, and in 1961 Casgrain herself became the "first woman to become a Member of the National Assembly and the first woman to be named a minister." (Source 1 and 2)

Sources: Canadian Encyclopedia and others, Elections Quebec, and scripts by Matt Russell

Investigate, Interpret and Share Idea 1

Based on findings of key events and on readings below related to government involvement and the effects of suffragette movements in Quebec, create a script for a memorial video on the effects of women’s struggles on Quebec society. Time permitting, a video presentation could also be created as a project idea.

Investigate, Interpret and Share Idea 2

Use the documents available in our larger collection to make a common class list of important individuals from this time who made a difference in the movement. Each student or partner group could investigate that person further, to better understand their motives, their perspective, the role they played in the early Feminist and Suffragette movements in Canada, and finally that also considers the results of their efforts, in the short and long term, on Canadian and Quebec societies. Students could compose a letter to an appropriate local mayor, arguing for or against the installation of a statue of this person.

Note that this activity is a variation of an activity from the Women in Canadian History Education Guide on page 7

To view our whole curation of online documents that is now being checked over and constructed click here. (There is also an alternative Google Slide version here.)

LEARN #16 Women's Suffrage - Feminist Demands, The State and Consequences
LIVE - Women's Suffrage Teacher Guide

The above teacher overview and guide can be viewed here.

Note that teachers of Secondary 3 and 4 Quebec can access these and many other large document collections shared via the "Communauté Histoire du Québec et du Canada database" by visiting LEARNquebec.ca/histquecan_resource ➦.