by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
The politics of suffrage were discussed outside Winnipeg in rural women’s clubs and home economics societies. In Manitoba elections of the era, the rural vote carried substantially more weight than the urban vote (rural seats outnumbered city seats by a nearly three-to-one ratio), so farm wives had an important role to play in bringing their husbands over to the cause of women’s suffrage .
A poll in the December 11, 1912, Grain Growers’ Guide, a supporter of women’s suffrage, found that 741 Manitoba readers favoured extending the franchise to women, as opposed to the 239 who were against (the results were published in the February 12, 1913, issue).
But the ruling Conservatives in Manitoba were still an impediment to women obtaining the vote, with Premier Rodmond Roblin being the primary obstacle barring women from enfranchisement.
In her autobiography, The Stream Runs Fast (1945), Nellie McClung wrote that she once telephoned the premier’s office and was surprised to be granted an interview with Roblin.
“Sir Rodmond,” she told the premier during their face-to-face encounter, “the women of Manitoba are going to get the vote, either by you or someone else, and as you are the present Premier, it can be your proud privilege to have this piece of progressive legislation to your credit.”
Roblin was unconvinced, and told McClung: “What in the world do women want to vote for? Why do women want to mix in the hurly-burly of politics? My mother was the best woman in the world, and she certainly never wanted to vote! I respect women. I honor and reverence women, I lift my hat when I meet a woman.”
McClung wrote that she told the premier gentlemanly conduct was nice to hear about, but it wasn’t enough, as the women of Manitoba were seeking political equality with men.
A delegation that appeared before Roblin in the legislature on January 27, 1914, was organized by Dr. Mary Crawford, the president of the Political Equality League (PEL). They were asking for universal suffrage for women so they were surprised that in his rejection of their request, Roblin hadn’t grasped this message and had instead chosen to exclude at least one group of women as unworthy of any consideration — servant girls.
In fact, a report in the Grain Growers’ Guide, said: “The delegation was probably one of the most cosmopolitan companies that has ever approached a government in the interests of a single reform. It represented many nationalities: Anglo-Saxon, Icelandic, Hebrew, African, Polish, and it is difficult to say how many more. High-browed professors were there shoulder to shoulder with plain working girls, nurses, lawyers, businessmen, journalists, doctors and quiet little housewives whom the census describes as having no occupation. It filled the legislative chamber and overflowed into the gallery and from the ladies' gallery into the press gallery.”
Among those appearing as a delegation would be members of the First Icelandic Women’s Suffrage Association (immigrants from Iceland were among the first to lobby for women’s suffrage under the leadership of such women as Sigfus and Margret Benedictsson), the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the Women's Civic League, the Mother's Association, the Manitoba Grain Growers’ Association and the Trades and Labour Council, who had all joined forces to establish the Political Equality League, the purpose of which was to get the vote for all Manitoba women regardless of class, and was organized by the Winnipeg Women’s Press Club.
The WCTU, besides wanting prohibition, had suffrage as a part of its platform since 1878. McClung, arguably Manitoba’s most famous suffragette, was a member of the WCTU and believed strongly that liquor was the root of a family’s path to poverty and eventual destruction. For many of the women in the PEL, the two issues went hand-in-hand along with reform in the workplace for women. Actually, the PEL was initially organized in response to the plight of female factory workers.
The PEL led Roblin through Winnipeg’s sweatshops in 1912 and, although he emerged nauseated by the conditions he saw, he repeatedly delayed enacting legislation to improve working conditions. It was at this time that the PEL and McClung realized that only when women received the vote would they be able to achieve meaningful reform. Until that day arrived, the PEL felt that they would only receive token attention to the issues important to them.
“We are not here to ask for a reform, or a gift, or just a favour,” McClung said as a speaker for the 1914 delegation that appeared in the Manitoba Legislature, “but for a right — not for mercy, but for justice.”
Dr. Mary Crawford, the chief medical inspector for Winnipeg public schools, told the legislature that the request for the vote was “not a new one, the demand for enfranchisement of women being an evolution of social problems. Women are not less intelligent than the men and are well able to exercise the vote in a wise way. Under the present conditions women are absolutely debarred from any way in the control of affairs. Our unrepresentation robs us of the status of equality with men, which is our due” (Manitoba Free Press, January 28, 1914).
In reply to the delegation, Roblin said he was absolutely opposed to women’s suffrage, adding that a woman’s place was in the home, performing housework and looking after children.
The women seeking the vote had to counter some of the following rather silly arguments put forth by their critics:
• It was not feminine to vote.
• Bad women might vote thus corrupting society.
• Wives might vote against their husbands, resulting in disharmony in the family.
• A woman’s father, brother or husband could vote on her behalf.
• Women have smaller brains than men and so are unqualified to vote.
• Brain work is exhausting for women.
• Women are more excitable than men and the tensions of elections could make them sick and drive them out of their minds.
• Housework would not get done if women voted and took part in politics.
(Next week: part 3)