One Hundred Years of Struggle: The History of Women and the Vote in Canada

One Hundred Years of Struggle: The History of Women and the Vote in Canada, by Joan Sangster, looks beyond the shiny rhetoric of anniversary celebrations and Heritage Minutes to show that the struggle for women's equality included gains and losses, inclusions and exclusions, depending on a woman’s race, class, and location in the nation. This excerpt from "Chapter 6: Feminist Countercultures," explores the roles of satirical theatre and print media in the Canadian suffrage movement. 

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Torontonians packed the pagoda pavilion at Allen Gardens in February 1896 to witness a major social and intellectual happening: a Woman’s Mock Parliament. Well-heeled attendees had secured tickets ahead of time to hear the latest arguments on this avant-garde issue. After some dignified classical music and an earnest statement of support by the Men’s Enfranchisement Association, the feature attraction unfolded: suffragists’ collectively written, dramatic rendition of a typical day in Ontario’s female-dominated legislature. No less than fifty-two amateur actresses filed onto the stage to portray members of the legislature, though in skirts not suits. 

The play began with the usual parliamentary practice of question period. Why, one legislator demanded, would the government not ban men working as teachers once they married? After agreeing that matrimony should end a man’s teaching career, the MLAs debated political corruption, picking up on recent scandals in the news. “Why were there dead voters on the polling lists?” asked a curious MLA. Then new legislation was tabled, including laws to prevent men from wearing long stockings and knickerbockers while bicycling, and a ten o’clock curfew for men who were on the street unaccompanied by their wives. The pièce de résistance was a debate on suffrage for men, pro and con, with the usual anti-suffrage arguments turned on their heads. Instead of claiming that the Bible asserted male superiority, one legislator argued that, since Eve was created after Adam, woman was “certainly superior to man.” Judging by the audience response and attendance, this sardonic send-up of male-dominated politics was an immense success.

Then new legislation was tabled, including laws to prevent men from wearing long stockings and knickerbockers while bicycling, and a ten o’clock curfew for men who were on the street unaccompanied by their wives.

Satirical theatre was a highly popular and distinctly Canadian form of suffrage spectacle, with at least twelve (probably more) Mock Parliaments (or Women’s Parliaments) performed across the country between 1893 and 1915. These extravaganzas, which attracted large audiences, served as fundraisers and vehicles for educational propaganda, though they were also great entertainment. They varied in form and messaging, but they usually combined irony, parody, and satire, often using role reversal as critique. Women posed as legislators, debating and controlling men’s rights, regulating their dress and social lives, routinely dismissing their pleas for equal rights with disdain.

Mock Parliaments were an integral element of the counterculture that suffragists created to sustain their cause, their spirits, and their resolve. By the early twentieth century, they had constructed an oppositional movement culture around their demands. They penned women’s columns in newspapers, published their own magazines, and wrote and distributed pamphlets. They also transcended these familiar strategies, producing theatre, novels, short stories, poems, film, posters, cartoons, parades, and banners, all of which helped to bolster feminists’ intellectual and emotional resolve. This oppositional ethos elicited a sense of collaborative purpose—a deep and abidingfeelingfor suffrage. Feminists today write about the importance of “affect” for social movements: the way in which organizing spurs both intellectual growth and emotional, even passionate, feelings. The process of organizing, writes Rosemary Hennessy in “Open Secrets,” “instills in peoples a passion for justice and nudges their good sense in new directions. Organizing creates new forms of consciousness that move us beyond our comfort zone to defy our culture’s prescribed categories.” Creating a feeling for justice, for alternative lives, for sisterhood, was no less important for feminists in the past.

Creating a feeling for justice, for alternative lives, for sisterhood, was no less important for feminists in the past.

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Most women learned about feminism through print sources. Socialist and labour newspapers, as we have seen, were important incubators of debate about the vote. International suffrage maga­­­­zines from Europe and the United States circulated among Canadian suffragists, creating political linkages, knowledge, and feelings of cross-border solidarity. Print culture was also critical to the cultivation of a distinctly French women’s movement in Quebec. 

Josephone Dandurand

Nineteenth-century writer Joséphine Dandurand contributed to a lively conversation about women’s role in French Canadian society through her articles for Quebec newspapers, her short stories and plays, and the magazine she founded, Le Coin du Feu (1893–98), the first French Canadian periodical edited by a woman. Dandurand’s elite status—she was the daughter of a premier, the wife of a senator—gave her the time and financial resources to write and the necessary social connections to the publishing world. Despite her place in the ruling class, Dandurand’s cultural work was viewed warily by religious and conservative elites, who fretted about the negative effects on Quebec society of any hint of women’s intellectual independence. 

Despite her place in the ruling class, Dandurand’s cultural work was viewed warily by religious and conservative elites, who fretted about the negative effects on Quebec society of any hint of women’s intellectual independence. 

Dandurand did not endorse suffrage, a premature demand in her view, but she nonetheless used Le Coin du Feu to spark a conversation that circled around feminism. The women’s movement, she believed, allowed women to extend their important familial roles to much-needed improvements to Quebec social and cultural life. Women could do philanthropic work, engage with social issues, and develop their own intellects—the latter was crucial for Dandurand, whose chosen charity involved dispensing free books to those who could not afford them. Le Coin du Feu printed other writers’ views of suffrage and discussions of literature, family relations, and social reform, as well as the more traditional topics of childrearing, fashion, health, and cooking. Dandurand’s cultural connections also extended to Europe. Progressive Quebec thinkers were often oriented intellectually toward France, which recognized Dandurand’s efforts to develop French Canadian culture by bestowing the title of “officier d’academie” on her in 1898 … 

Only one English-language woman’s paper was devoted solely to suffrage: The Champion, published by the Victoria Political Equality League (PEL) primarily for the BC women’s movement. Despite its short two-year run (1912–14), The Champion helped to fashion both a public sphere for feminist debate and a space for internal movement dialogue. As an intellectual forum, an organizing tool, and a manifestation of culture, it provided an important venue for feminist expression of all kinds. Its aim was to promote a fair deal for women in employment, education, and the law by fostering a unified coalition of women rather than an organization representing any “one religious creed, Political party, or Social Class.” Although the PEL’s aims were laudably inclusive, its day-to-day activities, encompassing afternoon parlour study groups, mirrored its white, middle-class, and professional membership.

Although it focused especially on British Columbia, The Champion printed international coverage, designed to make Canadian suffragists feel part of a larger, like-minded, and thoroughly righteous global movement. International news provided proof that the female franchise actually worked in practice. It offered hope: the vote had been achieved elsewhere without violence or militancy, and far from destroying the family, it led to progressive reforms to protect it. Reports from New Zealand, where suffrage for white and Indigenous women came in 1893, and Australia, with federal suffrage for white women in 1902, concluded that the “drawbacks were nil, the positive gains unquestionable.” The “moral atmosphere had been purified,” and countless reforms “dear to women’s hearts” had been legislated in Australia, including “Sunday Closing, Age of Consent, Children’s Courts, Prevention of Sweating, Suppression of Indecent Advertising, Hours of Labor for Women and Children, Prohibition of the Opium trade, Gambling and Smoking.” Another Champion column praised California women who used their new voting power to secure a law that punished “lazy fathers” who did not support their dependants: these men were forced to labour on public works and turn their wages over to the family. Suffragists’ enthusiasm for this brand of legal regulation reflected their desire to protect vulnerable women and children but also their tendency to blame poverty and destitution on the moral failures of the working class, rather than their meagre economic prospects.

Although it focused especially on British Columbia, The Champion printed international coverage, designed to make Canadian suffragists feel part of a larger, like-minded, and thoroughly righteous global movement.

The Champion experimented with various means of communication to get its message across: poems, editorials, provincial organizing reports, letters to the editor, and even a mock men’s column. It is not hard to imagine suffragists’ immense pleasure in finally having the discursive upper hand after enduring years of public ridicule in the press. Feminists savoured the opportunity to treat their political debates with respectful gravitas but also to lampoon their opponents, satirize mainstream culture, and create their own identity. The “Men’s Cosy Corner,” for instance, was partly serious, raising questions about men’s role in supporting suffrage, but also satirically tongue-in-cheek. Written by Uncle Pry, it offered advice on “all men’s little personal affairs” as well as hints for their cocktail attire, recipes, manners, and deportment. In more serious pieces, The Champion generated the self-image that suffragists desired: they portrayed themselves as heroic pioneers in the history of the Canadian West, doing equal work with white settler men on the frontier. Together, they could enjoy an auspicious future of building the nation, if that one “stain of inequality,” women’s lack of the vote, were rectified.

Excerpt from One Hundred Years of Struggle, by Joan Sangster. Reprinted with the permission of UBC Press.

March 6, 2018
Books mentioned in this post
One Hundred Years of Struggle

One Hundred Years of Struggle

The History of Women and the Vote in Canada
edition:Hardcover
also available: eBook
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