by Bruce Cherney (part 5 of 5)
Manitoba women’s hopes of getting the franchise were rekindled when the Liberal Party association endorsed it as official party policy at its March 1914 convention. The only stipulation was that once the party was in power, a petition containing at least 15 per cent of the prospective eligible women voters in the province had to be submitted to the legislature.
As a result of the Liberals’ endorsement of women’s suffrage, during the July 10, 1914, provincial election campaign, Political Equality League (PEL) members “worked with a will for the Liberal party,” reported the July 22, 1914, Grain Growers’ Guide.
In the 1914 election, leading suffragettes, including Nellie McClung, E. Cora Hind, Lillian Thomas, Frances Beynon and Kennethe Haig, travelled the province in support of the Liberals.
“Canvassers went about the city, literature was distributed and speakers were sent out, the most distinguished of whom was Mrs. Nellie McClung ... So earnest and effective was the work done by the women that the Conservative party began to repent (when it was too late) of having antagonized them, and on the eve of the election they veered around from absolutely refusing to consider woman suffrage to the non-commital statement, ‘Women suffrage in time? Yes.’”
In her book, Nellie McClung: Extraordinary Canadians (2008), Charlotte Gray wrote that “in an age when political oratory was one of the few forms of entertainment available, Nellie McClung outshone everyone else. Manitoba voters (in 1914) not only flocked to Nellie’s political rallies: they even paid an entrance fee.”
Despite the intervention in the campaign by gifted orators such as McClung, the women’s suffrage cause suffered a temporary setback when the Premier Rodmond Roblin government was returned with a slim majority. But the Liberals were gaining momentum. The Conservatives took 28 seats to the Liberal’s 20, while Frederick “Fred” J. Dixon was elected as the sole independent.
On February 18 and 19, 1915, a convention on women’s suffrage was held at the Industrial Bureau in Winnipeg. It was the first convention of its type in Manitoba with a goal of establishing a province- wide organization to promote the vote for women and was sponsored by the PEL. Until the convention, the PEL had been confined to Winnipeg.
On the second morning of the convention, a delegation of about 150 women crowded into Roblin’s office at the legislature.
“For the third time,” reported the Guide on February 24, “the premier refused to grant the franchise to women, but his refusal was couched in much more courteous and gentle language, and he admitted that after the women had struggled for it for an indefinite number of years longer they might have it granted to them.”
Whenever told of a country where women could vote, Roblin was dismissive.
“Surely,” said the premier, “you will not go to a little country like Iceland to draw (an) example for so great an empire as ours,” that is, the British Empire, which Roblin evoked as his example for not granting the vote to women (Winnipeg Tribune, February 19, 1915).
But “little” Iceland was an example to women in Manitoba, as thousands had immigrated to the province from the island nation, and brought their views on a woman’s place in society, which included a long history of fighting for a woman’s right to vote. In Manitoba, immigrants from Iceland formed the Icelandic Women’s Suffrage Association in the 1890s.
When further reminded that New Zealand and Australia, like Canada nations in the British Empire, had long before given women the right to vote and hold political office, Roblin replied that “he was not looking to these countries, but to Westminster” (British Parliament).
Roblin said the example he followed was provided by British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, who was also adamantly opposed to women’s enfranchisement.
Two suffrage resolutions did come up in the Manitoba Legislature, but even when the Conservative MLA for Virden, Harvey Smith, proposed the first resolution, the Conservative majority voted against it. When another suffrage resolution came before the legislature “a few weeks later, Sir Rodmond informed his followers that he would regard it as a vote of want of confidence in him if any of them supported the resolution.” Smith abstained from voting, “and other Conservative members voted as they were instructed” (Guide, July 22, 1914).
A vocal MLA (then referred to as a Member of the Provincial Parliament, or MPP) favouring the vote for women was Fred Dixon, who was elected as an independent in Winnipeg Centre, although he was closely associated with the labour movement in the city. He initially had the support of the Manitoba Liberal Party during his election bids in 1914 and 1915. He was also on the executive of the PEL, one of the few males serving in the league.
“‘Votes for Women’ is now a familiar slogan,” wrote Dixon in a May 26, 1915, column for the Guide entitled, Let the Women Vote. “It is a new utterance of the voice of freedom; it is an audible manifestation of the inward and spiritual growth of democracy.”
The women’s cause was on the upswing when the Conservative’s reign in Manitoba ended. Premier Roblin and his government, after 15 years of being in power, were forced to resign in the wake of a kick-back scandal involving the construction of the new Manitoba Legislative Building. James Albert Manning Aikins replaced Roblin as the new leader of the Conservatives on July 15, 1915.
The Liberals under Tobias Crawford “T.C.” Norris, although holding a minority of seats in the legislature, formed the new government and called a provincial election for August 6, 1915. The Liberals won in a rout, taking 40 seats, with the Conservatives claiming just five seats in the legislature. Independent candidate Dixon also won a seat, while Richard Rigg, a Social Democrat, secured a seat in Winnipeg North.
And having made women’s suffrage a part of their election platform, the government soon after its election completed the amendment to the Manitoba Election Act needed to give women the vote.
But there was one problem — the amendment did not give women full equity with men, as it failed to include the right for women to run for political office. Francis Marion Beynon, a columnist for the Guide, confronted Premier Norris and through her efforts and pressure from other PEL members, the necessary clause was included in the amendment.
The legislature unanimously passed the amendment giving women the vote and the right to run for office, which was signed by the Manitoba lieutenant-governor on January 28, 1916, making it the law of the province.
“This is a great step forward in the march of civilization,” reported the February 2, 1916, Guide, “and Manitoba is to be congratulated as being the first province in Canada to recognize the rights of women to have a voice in making the laws which govern them.”
An editorial in the January 28, 1916, Free Press, praised those who successfully fought for the vote for women, and outlined that there was still much to be done to spread the franchise across Canada.
“What women’s enfranchisement will mean in Manitoba or elsewhere is a simple and primary thing. It will effectively register the special and peculiar attitude,” the editorial continued, “view point, temperament — call it what you will — of women. It is a means of ensuring definitely that women’s mentality shall modify, moderate, temper, supplement and complement that of man.
“The belief that this will make for progress is the belief in democracy.”
McClung — who was not without her faults, as she was a strong supporter of eugenics (forced sterilization of the so-called feeble-minded and mentally ill) — would not be on hand for this momentous occasion, as she and her family had moved to Alberta in the fall of 1914, where she would help women in that province get the vote.
In 1920, Edith Rogers, a Liberal, became the first woman to be elected to a provincial legislature in Canada, serving as a Member of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly (MLA) for
Winnipeg until 1932.