by Bruce Cherney (part 3)
The age-old argument that politics would corrupt women was contemptuously scoffed at by Nellie McClung, one of the most renowned suffragettes at the turn of the 20th century in Canada. She countered the argument with the statement that “there is nothing inherently vicious about politics and the politician who says politics is corrupt is admitting one of two things, that he is party to that corruption or that he is unable to prevent it. In either case ... he is flying the white signal of distress and we are ... anxious to come over and help him” (Manitoba Free Press, January 28, 1914).
Among his claims to the delegates appearing in the Manitoba Legislature on January 27, Premier Rodmond Roblin said that he was merely protecting women from themselves and was worried that the ladies would become incendiaries like their European counterparts, and that giving them the vote would destroy the home.
In England, militant suffragettes sometimes brawled with police, threw rocks at politicians, used arson as a tactic, engaged in hunger strikes when imprisoned (they were force-fed while in jail, which shocked the public), chained themselves to railings to bring attention to their cause, and broke windows at 10 Downing Street, the prime minister ’s residence.
At no time did Manitoba suffragettes employ these tactics, as the use of violence or unlawful acts were forbidden by the Political Equality League (PEL). Any member breaking the clause of the PEL’s constitution that prohibited the use of such tactics was automatically ousted from the league. For the Manitoba suffragettes, the pen was mightier than the sword, and words were more forceful than fists. Their efforts centred on articulating for political reform by using non-violent means, but that fact was never actually acknowledged by Roblin, who erroneously kept bringing up the example of the conflicts overseas in an attempt to discredit their cause.
“If the demand for women suffrage is right,” Roblin told the delegates (Free Press, January 28), “it will eventually triumph. But disappointment at not immediately achieving their object has led those women in England to such a pitch of hysteria that human life is sacrificed and property by the millions destroyed. I say, will you tell me there is no cause for those in authority to use serious deliberation before they hand over the franchise to women.
“The facts are against you,” he added.
“It has been said by your president (Dr. Mary Crawford) today that you want the suffrage because it has been beneficial over the line. But for every marriage in the United States there is a divorce. Will you tell me that is in the interests of society? The divorce rate in the United States is caused by the fact that woman has left that sphere which as a wife and mother she occupied for fifty or a hundred years.”
In a May 2, 1914, Winnipeg Tribune column entitled, Is Sir Rodmond Asleep, Pastor J.L. Gordon of the Central Congregational Church in Winnipeg, wrote that the statements by Roblin tying the divorce rate to women voting in the U.S. was illogical. “Permit me to remark that it would have been as near the truth to affirm that the women’s suffrage movement in the United States was responsible for the Boer War in South Africa,” he wrote. “Chronologically there is no more connection between the agitation for women’s suffrage and the evils of divorce than there is between Christian Science and the recent controversies concerning the discovery of the South Pole.”
Still, Roblin persisted in his belief that giving women the vote in Manitoba threatened the very fabric of society.
An editorial in the February 4, 1914, Grain Growers’ Guide, said the comments attributed to the premier showed him to be behind the times and out of sympathy with the people of the province, who in the majority favoured giving women the vote.
Roblin had no liking for McClung to begin with. In a 1914 interview, after McClung outlined what women wanted and then suggested he call his cabinet together so that she could address them, Roblin’s reply was that McClung was a conceited young woman labouring under the delusion that she had some gift of oratory (The Stream Runs Fast, an autobiography by McClung, 1945).
Facing this severe criticism, McClung said: “But I wish to tell you again, Sir Rodmond, as clearly as I can make it, that we are going to create public sentiment in this province, which will work against you in the next election.”
Taken aback by her threat, Roblin said that his party was firmly entrenched in the legislature and would not grant McClung’s request to speak to the provincial cabinet on the issue of suffrage. The premier said he didn’t want her to be making trouble with “my boys.” He told her to forget about the nonsense of women obtaining the vote.
“You’re a fine, smart young woman, I can see that. And take it from me, nice women don’t want the vote ...
“Now don’t go away mad. You know you amuse me. Come any time, I’ll always be glad to see you.”
McClung didn’t share his amusement, and said: “I won’t be back, but it’s just possible that you will hear from me, not directly; but still you’ll hear; and you may not like what you hear.”
“Is that a threat?” Roblin asked.
“No,” said McClung. “A prophecy!”
Roblin had created a dangerous opponent, despite her gender in a male-dominated society.
The delegation’s meeting with Roblin in the legislature was a set-up, as the women expected the premier to refuse to initiate legislation giving women the vote (McClung). The members of PEL had been planning a mock parliament for the next night in the Walker Theatre and Roblin’s replies provided them with valuable ammunition.
In particular, McClung later wrote, “I observed every gesture, the attitude he struck when he caught his fingers in the arm holes of his coat, twiddling his little fingers and teetering on his heels. That denoted a jocular mood. When he wanted to be coldly reasonable though fair withal, he held his elbows close to his body with the palms of his hands outspread. I tried to absorb every tone of his voice, from the ingratiating friendly voice, calculated to set everyone at their ease, even though they were in the presence of a great man, to the loud masterful commanding voice which brooked no opposition.”
McClung hurried home and began to rehearse what she had painstakingly noted.
Roblin’s rejection of the delegations’ request received widespread media coverage, fueling public anticipation for the mock parliament and ensuring a standing room only crowd filled the Walker Theatre at 50-cents and 25-cents a head.
The mock parliament’s premise (described as the pièce de résistance of the evening’s program, which also included music and skits) was that women had the franchise while men were denied the vote. It was an effective tool for gaining public attention that had been used in other Canadian cities, but this parliament happened to be run by some of Canada’s most capable women, who relished the attention they were receiving and knew how to milk their moment of success for everything it was worth. It would be one of the most talked about public performances for years to come.
“From the standpoint of an entertainment,” reported the Winnipeg Telegram on January 29, 1914, “it was excellent and few burlesques or light comedy productions have ever met with a heartier response than last night’s burlesque on the system of government as it exists today. The performers may have been amateurs, but they were only amateur in name.”
(Next week: part 4)