January 28, 2016 marked a significant milestone in the history of this province.
Many of us with roots in Prairie settlement have our own family stories to tell. In my own case, it was learning through distant relatives recently that my great-grandmother, Mrs. W.H. Guest (Elizabeth) was one of the signatories to a petition to government in 1894.
Simply signing on to such a thing in those times was an act of courage. Historical accounts suggest this could well have been the first petition of many that would follow in a crusade that would be fought for more than two decades before achieving success.
The wording of the federal Election Act of the time offers a telling glimpse into the social mores of the time: “no woman, idiot, lunatic, or criminal shall vote,” the act stated, according to a Manitoba Historical Society essay written by Harry and Mildred Gutkin in 1996.
The campaign for suffrage had many tentacles in the social justice movements that grew out of wild western outposts such as Winnipeg in the 1800s. It is widely believed to have emerged from the temperance movement, as it shared many of the same leaders. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) first began campaigning for women’s suffrage in the 1880s.
But it was also part and parcel of the agrarian movement. Many of the same farm organizations that were winning concessions from government on grain-handling and transportation issues also supported suffrage.
The Gutkin essay observes that the pioneer West gave rise to an assertive breed of women who “worked side by side with their men in the back-breaking task of establishing a homestead.” Their pivotal role in building the wheat-based economy prepared them to challenge the patriarchal norms.
“The urban centres tended to attract some strong-willed young women, already declaring their independence from their families, and as determined as their brothers to improve their own prospects.”
Much has been written about the satirical 1914 mock parliament staged by Nellie McClung and friends to protest Manitoba Premier Sir Rodmond Roblin’s dismissive treatment of their cause. The publicity around that event no doubt paved the way for the T.C. Norris government to push the agenda forward in the 1916 legislative changes.
However, Gutkin points out that suffrage leaders had “earnestly” staged a similar event 23 years earlier at the Bijou Theatre in Winnipeg. The 1893 event featured the young stenographer E. Cora Hind, who would later become a prominent agricultural journalist, and about 20 other women from the temperance league playing the different government members.
“Amelia Yeomans, in the role of the provincial premier, argued earnestly that women were the protectors of society’s moral values, that if they were able to vote, respect for them would increase, their influence would be enhanced, and the Empire itself would benefit. A woman’s responsibilities were those of a mature adult, she protested, yet her social and political powers were those of a child.”
Within days of the ensuing publicity, a suffrage petition circulated by the WCTU had collected 5,000 signatures. It resulted in an attempt to introduce a suffrage bill in the legislature, which was defeated.
The petition was presented to Manitoba legislature again in February 1894. By then, it contained another 2,000 names — including my great-grandmother’s.
That petition resulted in the first women’s suffrage bill, introduced by MLA Robert Ironside, presented to politicians. However, after receiving first reading, it quietly — and suddenly — disappeared.
It would be another 22 years before society was ready to change. The campaign required dogged persistence from women leaders of the time, women who distinguished themselves as “suffragists” — a more refined and diplomatic crusader than the radical “suffragettes” fighting the same cause in Britain.
It also took support from men in positions of power who saw the logic of their efforts — and a whole lot of ordinary citizens who added their voices to the cause.
It’s worth remembering that organizing events, going to meetings and circulating petitions in those days was done without the ease or speed of today. There was no Internet, few telephones and attending a meeting first involved hitching up a horse and buggy or taking a long walk.
These individuals fought for this basic right for most of their adult lives. Each time the door was slammed in their faces, they knocked again — until it opened.
I never knew my great-grandmother. I do know she left a lasting legacy. On election day last fall, one of her granddaughters, Muriel, was 92, in palliative care and the time before her passage could be counted in days. She voted.