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Remember This, Newmarket: When women fought for the right to vote

In this week's Remember This, History Hound Richard MacLeod —whose grandmother was a suffragette — focuses on the history of the suffrage movement close to home and across Canada

Ontario became the fifth province to grant women the right to vote on April 12, 1917, after more than half a century of activism by the suffrage movement. My grandmother was part of this movement and so I have a particular interest in this part of our history. I fear that most women today do not fully appreciate the efforts and sacrifices made by these historic women. I would like to bring some of the facts to their attention with this series of articles.

Dating back to the early 1870s, Ontario’s suffrage movement would emerge from a vibrant nationwide mobilization of middle-class women who were seeking political representation to facilitate an improvement in women’s rights and to assert their influence in social, economic, and political reform.

The first Ontario suffragists were made up of a group of predominantly white, Anglo-Protestant, educated women led by Dr. Emily Stowe (1831–1903) and later her daughter, Dr. Augusta Stowe-Gullen (1857–1943). Suffrage was also of interest to our Black women abolitionists, supporters of the temperance movement.

Although there was a range of political ideology among the suffragists, the two most dominant views of the time emphasized either women’s equality with men or pointed to women’s maternal nature as full justification for the vote. Ontario’s suffragists largely pursued change by working within the established legal and political system and did not exhibit the militancy found in parts of the American and British movements. That said, my grandma would speak of rallies where stones were thrown at them, or sticks used to break up their marches or meetings locally.

Ontario's suffragists, collaborating with their counterparts in Western Canada, the United States and Britain, were dedicated to raising awareness and support for their cause through the formation of organizations, participation in national and international meetings, petitions and lobbying at the municipal and provincial levels, political theatre and through political writing.

Much of the suffrage activism would occur in urban and rural southern Ontario, with Toronto being the headquarters of the provincial suffrage organizations.

Most Liberal and Conservative politicians attempted to placate suffragists by explaining they were not opposed to women’s suffrage in principle. They did, however, argue that they could not amend the franchise when it appeared to be only of interest to a minority, and thus not representative of most women’s wishes. Those more antagonistic to the movement equated women’s suffrage with the complete upheaval of social and family values or viewed suffrage in opposition to God’s divine plan for men and women.

One would think that the suffragists’ efforts would have been universally supported by our female population, but it was ridiculed by both its male and female opponents who argued that women neither needed, nor wanted the vote.

After the suffrage victories that would occur in Western Canada in 1916, the Ontario legislature would eventually concede to the pressure and would finally vote in favour of women’s suffrage in 1917. However, not all our female residents in Ontario received the provincial franchise in 1917. As with men, voting eligibility was strictly restricted to women over 21 years of age, who were born or naturalized British subjects and who had lived in the country for 12 months. Women originally excluded from the vote were our Indigenous women living on reserves, female prison inmates, and residents of asylums and charitable institutions.

Throughout Ontario history we see numerous examples of equality for the sexes. Many of the traditional Indigenous societies living on or near Lake Ontario had strong matrilineal structures in which women held positions of power. Among the Haudenosaunee, clan mothers, female elders who carried the hereditary rights to represent different nations of the confederacy, were tasked with using their knowledge of the Great Law to responsibly appoint, observe or remove the authority of (male) chiefs and faith keepers. Under centuries of colonization, however, the influence of patriarchal European settlers eroded many of the Indigenous women’s traditional rights.

As I outlined in my earlier articles in this series, the non-Indigenous women residing in what was Upper Canada, including British settlers, White American Loyalists, Freed Blacks and slaves of African origins, generally lived in a highly patriarchal society which offered women limited political rights, legal protection or opportunities for economic independence. Under British common law a married woman had no right to own or sell property or have control over how her own wages were spent. Until the mid - to late -19th century, most women were barred from higher education and professional careers.

Interestingly, in the beginning the governance structure of Upper Canada did not explicitly prohibit women from voting; the Constitutional Act of 1791 defined voters as “persons” who owned property of a certain value, with no mention of eligibility by sex. Technically this should have allowed unmarried women and widows with property to vote, yet the absence of women’s voting records in Upper Canada suggests that women with property qualifications were not expected or allowed to claim voting privileges.

Similarly, the Act of Union in 1840 did not include any restrictions of voter eligibility based on sex. Nevertheless, the first piece of evidence we have that propertied woman voted in Upper Canada appears in 1844 when a formal complaint was raised by a defeated candidate stating that seven women had voted for his Tory opponent.

Then when the Reform party came to power in 1849, they would add the first clause in Canada’s electoral laws that specifically excluded women from voting. One exception was made in 1850, to allow women who met property qualifications, be they married or single, to vote for and be elected as school trustees, though few women availed themselves of this opportunity until the 20th century.

Between 1859 and 1873, petitions and letters to editors written by women cited cases of abuse and abandonment of wives as reasons to improve women’s property rights. These campaigns resulted in moderate amendments allowing married women the right to own, but not dispose of, any property inherited before marriage.

In 1867, with Confederation, the British North America Act (now the Constitution Act, 1867) made voter eligibility a provincial matter. Women’s exclusion from voting in municipal, provincial, and federal elections continued in the newly formed province of Ontario until the formation of a women’s suffrage movement in the late 1870s which challenged the status quo.

In a previous article in this series, I outlined the founding of the Toronto Women’s Literary Club (the TWLC) in 1876, essentially dedicated to women’s education.  They were to be the launching pad of the suffrage movement in Canada. Founded by Dr. Emily Stowe, who was the first woman physician to practise medicine in Canada. Dr. Stowe was had been inspired to start the TWLC after attending the American Association for the Advancement of Women, a conference bringing together different women’s study groups., the TWLC provided a weekly meeting space and community for educated women—a radical concept, considering clubs were traditionally the domain of men. TWLC members pursued intellectual growth through the study of literature, science, music, theatrical performance and guest lectures, which often prompted discussions on the status of women, among other social and civic reform issues. In 1881, Canada Citizen, a Toronto weekly paper, showed its support to the club by devoting a column to women’s reform issues written by TWLC member, Sarah Anne Curzon.

Also in 1881, the TWLC sent the first delegation to the provincial legislature asking for women’s suffrage. The club’s efforts resulted in a new law that allowed all women with property qualifications the right to vote on bylaws and minor municipal matters. Inspired by this success at the municipal level, the TWLC disbanded in 1883 and reconstituted as the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association (CWSA) to openly foster its members’ pursuit of women’s suffrage. Unlike the TWLC, the CWSA also included men as members. In 1884 a further amendment granted unmarried women and widows the right to vote in municipal elections.

While the development of the CWSA was a significant landmark in suffrage history, two earlier examples of women’s collective action are equally important: Black women abolitionists and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Both demonstrate early mobilization for social change and electoral reform.

Black women in southwestern Ontario were among the first women activists in Canada to organize and advocate for civil rights. Mary Bibb and Amelia Freeman Shadd organized literary and social clubs for women in Windsor and Chatham in the 1850s, predating the TWLC by two decades. In 1853, prominent abolitionist Mary Ann Shadd was the first female publisher and editor of a North American newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, which reported on Black men’s voting rights and the origins of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.  Although Black women would remain on the periphery of the mainstream suffrage movement in Canada, Shadd would return to the United States, founding the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise Association in 1880.

You will remember from my article on Prohibition in Newmarket and area, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) which grew out of a late 19th century evangelical social reform movement founded in Owen Sound in 1874 by Sunday school teacher Ms. Letitia Youmans.  The WCTU framed temperance as a middle-class women’s issue, arguing that prohibition and personal sobriety would alleviate domestic violence, sex work and poverty, thus improving the standard of living for working class and poor women. Despite common interests, the WCTU was initially reluctant to support suffrage, as they believed that women’s influence was more beneficial at home than at the polling station. Ontario branches of the WCTU broke ranks to become a strong ally of the CWSA in 1891, rationalizing that women voters were critical to getting temperance legislation passed. The Dominion WCTU followed with support of suffrage five years later.

The women’s suffrage movement in Ontario was critical to the raising of awareness and legislative changes that would eventually improve women’s political, legal and economic rights.  

Furthermore, suffrage activism resulted in a more comprehensive vision of democracy in Ontario. After achieving the vote, Ontario women continued to be active in political causes, exercising their right to vote, standing for office and forming organizations dedicated to social change and equality.

I a future article(s) I will look at all those women who were instrumental in the advancement of women’s rights in more detail as it is incumbent on all of us to know their individual stories and to appreciate the vital part they played in the evolution of thought and practise in this province and within our area at large.

Here is the timeline of women obtaining the vote:
    •    1916: Manitoba passes an act to amend The Manitoba Election Act, Statutes of Manitoba 1916 giving full voting equality.
    •    1916: Saskatchewan passes an act to amend the Statute Law, Statutes of Saskatchewan 1916 giving full voting equality
    •    1916: Alberta passes Equal Suffrage Statutory Law Amendment Act, Statutes of Alberta 1916 giving full voting equality
    •    1917: British Columbia passes the Provincial Elections Act Amendment Act, 1917, Statutes of British Columbia 1917 giving full voting equality
    •    1917: Ontario passes the Election Law Amendment Act, 1917, Statutes of Ontario 1917 giving full voting equality
    •    1917:  Federal passes the War-time Elections Act, Statutes of Canada 1917 giving the vote to women who were the wives, widows, mothers, sisters or daughters of men who were serving with the Canadian or British military, until the men were demobilized
    •    1917:  Federal passes the Military Voters Act, Statutes of Canada 1917 giving the vote  to women who were on active service for Canada or Britain, until demobilized
    •    1918:  Nova Scotia passes the Nova Scotia Franchise Act, Statutes of Nova Scotia 1918, giving full voting equality with men, only property owners could vote
    •    1918:  Federal passes An Act to confer the Electoral Franchise upon Women, Statutes of Canada 1918, giving full voting equality for men and women, in effect January 1, 1919
    •    1919:  New Brunswick passes An Act to extend the electoral franchise to women, and to amend the New Brunswick Electors Act, Statutes of New Brunswick 1919, giving full voting equality, but women not eligible for election to the Legislative Assembly
    •    1919:  Yukon passes An Ordinance respecting Elections, Ordinances of the Yukon Territory 1919 granting full voting equality
    •    1922:  Prince Edward Island passes the Election Act, 1922, Statutes of Prince Edward Island 1922 giving full voting equality
    •    1925:  Newfoundland and Labrador pass the House of Assembly Amendment Act, Statutes of Newfoundland 1925, giving Women aged 25 and over given right to vote; men age 21 and over had right to vote - Newfoundland was a dominion and crown colony separate from Canada until 1949
    •    1940:  Quebec pass An Act granting to women the right to vote and to be eligible as candidates, Statutes of Quebec 1940, granting full voting equality
    •    1951:  Northwest Territories    pass Elections Ordinance, Ordinances of the Northwest Territories 1951, giving equality of voting status since Council members were first elected in 1951
    •    1999:  Nunavut passes the Nunavut Elections Act, Statutes of Nunavut 2002, which repealed and replaced the Elections Act, Revised Statutes of Northwest Territories (Nu) 1988 which was temporarily in force in Nunavut granting equality of voting status since creation of Nunavut. Prior to the creation of Nunavut, women held full voting rights in the Northwest Territories since Council members were first elected in 1951.

The Library of Parliament Info: Women's Right to Vote in Canada
Women's Suffrage in Ontario by Tarah Brookfield September 19, 2019
"Women's Suffrage in Canada from The Canadian Encyclopedia"
Library of Parliament Info: Women's Right to Vote in Canada
"Canadian Black Political Timeline". Operation Black Vote Canada
Right to Vote in Canada from The Canadian Encyclopedia

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.