Men and women in galleries mark the occasion by singing ‘O Canada.’”
“Cheers on the floor of the house…”
So declared the headlines of the January 28, 1916 Manitoba Free Press.
Jan. 28 marks exactly 100 years since the Manitoba’s legislative assembly gave unanimous approval to the bill that made Manitoba first in Canada to grant women the provincial vote.
It was a long time coming. By 1916, Conservative Premier Sir Rodmond Roblin, with whom prominent suffragist Nellie McClung had verbally tussled, was gone from office over a scandal related to construction of the legislature building. Liberal Premier Tobias Norris, was newly elected on an ambitious platform promising reforms including a ban on alcohol and compulsory education.
The women’s vote was a watershed moment for a province, where a burgeoning social movement had taken root.
This was the early era of the agrarian movement, and formation of numerous voluntary associations for women such the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Ladies Aid Societies and the Women’s Institute (WI). One of the causes WI would take up shortly after organizing in Manitoba in 1910 was to establish public “rest rooms,” which were meeting places for rural women.
WI members, who cannot find written records linking their organization directly to the suffrage movement, feel confident in asserting their rest rooms played an important role, providing a place for women to talk and raise women’s issues, says Donna Young, present-day serving president of the WI in Manitoba.
Women were talking about the state of public education in those days too.
Manitoba has declared 2016 the Year of the School Trustee to honour contributions made by women as school trustees and their service in those roles. Women were permitted to serve as trustees in 1890 in Manitoba.
Linda McDowell, a historian and researcher who asked for help from Manitoba Co-operator readers’ to gather stories about early female trustees, is glad to see these gains by Manitoba women being celebrated this year.
“The story of these women’s lives and accomplishments provides insight into the special place held by Manitoba as the epicentre of women’s suffrage in Canada,” she said.
Historian Harry Gurkin says the root of Manitoba’s more progressive attitudes towards women is tied to its rural culture in the early 19th century. In Give Us Our Due — How Manitoba Women Won The Vote, he writes about influential women such as agricultural journalist Cora Hind, Nellie McClung and other prominent suffragists, and of the formation of Political Equality League, which was backed by other burgeoning organizations — including The Grain Growers Association.
“… the farm groups could generally be relied on to throw their support behind the suffrage movement…,” he wrote.
“Across the fertile farmlands west of Winnipeg, in a scattering of small towns, the homesteaders of the area maintained a vigorous community life.”
“Government-funded adult education programs brought farm people together, the men to study such topics as crop management and marketing, the women to learn the latest techniques of sanitation, child care, nursing, and food preservation. Rural life demanded a degree of co-operation among neighbours; the Grain Growers’ Association made an early appearance, and with the encouragement of the men, the women’s auxilliary developed a lively identity of its own…”
“Politics held as much fascination for rural people as for city dwellers, and current issues such as temperance and woman suffrage were hotly debated.”
But it was also a long process. Manitoba’s suffrage movement, in an era when roads were scarcely more than trails and phones non-existant, wasn’t characterized by militancy and protests.
It took shape from lectures in town halls, opinion formed reading circulated postcards, debate at dinner tables and conversations in WI’s rest rooms. It ultimately led to circulating and signing petitions. The final petitions were presented by members of the Political Equality League to government on December 23, 1915.
On them were names signed, not days, weeks, or months, but years earlier.