“January the twenty-seventh, nineteen hundred and sixteen, will stand out for all time in the political history of the Province of Manitoba,” announced a Manitoba Free Press editorial, “and of the Dominion of Canada. On that day, the Legislature of Manitoba extended the parliamentary franchise to women upon the same terms as men. To all who have worked, and are working, for the triumph of democratic principles; to all who believe in the inherent goodness and sweetness of human nature, it is a day of rejoicing and of exceeding gladness.”
A January 28, 1916, Free Press front page article reported that the amendment to the Elections Act was passed, “Amid a scene of unparalleled enthusiasm.” Cheers arose from the floor and the gallery. Women attending the momentous event, broke out into
O Canada. “No previous scene in the history of the house presents a parallel to that of yesterday,” declared the newspaper.
For the first time in the history of the Manitoba Legislature, women were invited to the floor of the chamber during a regular sitting. The women were members of the Political Equity League that had fought long and hard to obtain the vote.
Acting-Premier T.H. Johnson delivered a speech on the “stupendous importance” of Manitoba being the first province in Canada “to enfranchise women,” predicting that other provinces and the federal government would follow Manitoba’s lead. “The minister (of public roads) declared that Jan. 27, 1916, would remain a milestone in the life of the province,” reported the Free Press.
To obtain the vote, Manitoba women had to fight the entrenched male view that the their place was in the home. Earlier on, women found that humour was their strongest weapon for embarrassing male legislators to change their opinion on universal suffrage.
On January 28, 1914, a satirical song was sung with lyrics cleverly changed from a London setting to Winnipeg. How They Won the Vote involved converting Horace Cole from being an anti-feminist to a “rabid” supporter of the suffragette cause.
In the song, the conversion of the fictional character occurred after the women staged a strike, leaving their employment to live with their nearest male relatives “until such time as the state should recognize” their “rights.”
When Horace arrived home, he found the maid had left and his wife was wrestling unsuccessfully with a steak meant for supper. “The worst was yet to come, however. Before he was able to appreciate the force of the first blow, his sister-in-law turned up, and announced her intention of staying.” His niece followed suit as did a first cousin of the same sex, an aunt, and finally a very distant relative of the female persuasion.
“All were firm in the intention of staying until man foreswore that pious fraud about woman’s place in the world. Under the circumstances, it was not surprising to find Horace ready to enlist among the ‘Votes for Women.’”
On January 28, 1914, women held the impressive drama and debate, which included the above-mentioned song and a mock parliament, at the Walker Theatre. Acting as the Manitoba premier at the mock parliament, Nellie McClung received a male delegation demanding the right to vote. “We wish to compliment this delegation on their splendid gentlemanly appearance,” McClung told the men. “If, without exercising the vote, such splendid specimens of manhood can be produced, such a system of affairs should not be interfered with ... Another trouble is that if men start to vote they will vote too much. Politics unsettles men, and unsettled men mean unsettled bills — broken furniture, broken vows, divorce.”
It was a dig at then Premier Rodmond Roblin, who had said, “... nice women don’t want the vote.” Refusing women the vote was a position he steadfastly held onto since first becoming premier 14 years earlier.
“I believe, we’ll beat you yet, Sir Rodmond,” McClung told the Conservative premier when appearing in 1914 with a delegation of women asking that they be allowed to vote in provincial elections.
For more than 20 years. reform groups in the province had been demanding that women be given the vote. Among the more vocal early proponents were the Icelandic-Canadian women of Manitoba, which was acknowledged in a January 28, 1916, Free Press editorial. They sustained the suffrage cause in its early days when there was little widespread organization and little support among women, a fact of this province’s history which has been overshadowed by the later roles played by McClung, E. Cora Hind, Lillian Thomas, Frances Benyon and Kennethe Haig, along with the Political Equity League.
In 1890 at Argyle, three speakers argued for the extension of the franchise to women, which was a natural cause for them, as women already had the right to vote in their homeland of Iceland. An Icelandic suffrage group, called Sigurvon, or “Hope for Victory,” was also formed in Argyle in 1908. Sigfus and Margret Benedictson published the Icelandic- language monthly Freyja, meaning “woman,” between 1898 and 1910, using it to promote the suffrage movement.
It took a change of government, following the fall from grace of the scandal-plagued Roblin administration, for women to finally get a powerful champions of their cause — the Liberals under Premier T.C. Norris.
Women had their first opportunity to contest legislature seats in the provincial election of June 29, 1920. The Conservative-friendly Telegram alarmed the male population by proclaiming, “Women May Contest Every Seat in City.” As it turned out, only a couple of women ran and only one was elected in 1920. That year, Edith Rogers, a Liberal candidate in Winnipeg, became the first female MLA, serving until 1932.
When questioned, Rogers said the role of women in government was more than just to espouse causes such as health, education and child welfare. “Of course, women can bring to the work of law-making, as their special share, their experience and knowledge of domestic and social questions. But do not understand me as saying, or for one moment suggesting, that women legislators should confine themselves to doing only social work. Not at all. They must take their part in every phase of legislative work. And it is real work — much of it is drudgery.”
As had been the theme of the old melody sung in 1914, thanks to the “milestone” that occurred on January 27, 1916, Manitoba women are no longer compelled to go on strike and live with their nearest male relatives “until such time as the state should recognize” their “rights.”