Academic journal article Manitoba History

"Give Us Our Due!" How Manitoba Women Won the Vote

Academic journal article Manitoba History

"Give Us Our Due!" How Manitoba Women Won the Vote

Article excerpt

Manitoba was the first province in Canada to grant women the right to vote: this year, 1996, marks the eightieth anniversary of this signal advance in the on-going struggle for women's rights. This article tells the story of the achievement, with a particular focus on some of the women who led the suffrage movement in Manitoba. A number of these women play a prominent part as well in the most recent book by Mildred and Harry Gutkin, Profiles in Dissent: The Shaping of Radical Thought in the Canadian West.

Nice Women Don't Want to Vote

On January 27, 1914, a large delegation of both men and women appeared before the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, once again to present the case for granting women the right to vote in provincial elections. Included in the group were representatives of the Political Equality League, the Grain Growers' Association, the Young Women's Christian Association, the Trades and Labor Council, the Icelandic Women's Suffrage Association, the Canadian Women's Press Club, and the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Dr. Mary Crawford, the president of the University Women's Club and of the Political Equality League, introduced the five speakers, two women and three men, and the last to address the law-makers was Mrs. Nellie McClung.

Then rivalling Ralph Connor as Manitoba's most popular writer, Mrs. McClung made her point with sharp lucidity. The delegation had come, she said, not to beg for a favour but to obtain simple justice. "Have we not the brains to think? Hands to work? Hearts to feel? And lives to live?" she demanded. "Do we not bear our part in citizenship? Do we not help build the Empire? Give us our due!"

The Conservative premier, Sir Rodmond Roblin, rejected Mrs. McClung's demand absolutely. "Most women," he told the petitioners, "don't want the vote." In Colorado, he informed them, where women could vote, "they shrank from the polls as from a pestilence." Woman suffrage, he said, "would be a retrograde movement... it will break up the home... it will throw the children into the arms of servant girls." Then he added, gallantly, that there was "nothing wrong with a society that produced such attractive, pure, and noble ladies" as these now before him, but "the mother that is worthy of the name and of the good affection of a good man has a hundredfold more influence in shaping public opinion around her dinner table than she would have in the market place, hurling her eloquent phrases to the multitude."

Roblin's flowery courtesies expressed the received attitude of his time and his social group towards the tender sex, simultaneously idealized and subjugated. He loved his mother, he said, and for her sweet sake he revered all women. "Gentle women," he described the ladies, "queen of the home, set apart by your great function of motherhood.... Women are superior to men, now and always." Nice women did not want to vote, the common argument ran, and since women exercised so important an influence for good, they must be sheltered from the world and its corruption.

Absolutely not, the suffragist movement insisted; women must be given the right to act in that world, to re-make that world for future generations. They were constantly rebuked: was not woman's place in the home with her children? "Yes," retorted Nellie McClung to one opponent, "but it's also in the world those children must enter!" The feminists of the early twentieth century envisioned a world in which the nurturing values of home and fireside would be paramount, putting an end to war and to the exploitation of the weak by the powerful.

About the women confronting him at the legislature, Roblin's perceptions were quite accurate in one respect. These were no proletarian toilers, intruding into the deliberations of their betters. Such presumption, he implied, would be unthinkable: he was afraid, he said, that "my friend Mr. Rigg" -- Richard Rigg, the labour activist -- "might shortly come to us for the extension of the franchise to servant girls, on the plea that servant girls have as good a right to vote as any other class of women. …

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