By: Linda Taylor, in the Winnipeg Free Press , Posted: 02/12/2011
In the middle of January, people in southern Sudan stayed in line for as long as three days to vote in their election. Sudanese in Manitoba drove through a snowstorm to Calgary to cast their ballots.
On the last day of the month, a million Egyptians and Tunisians marched in the streets to demand democracy and revolution, resulting in the fall from power of authoritarian leaders in both countries.
Yet, in Manitoba in the last federal and provincial elections, less than 60 per cent of people voted, and in the recent hard-fought civic election only 47 per cent of electors bothered to show up at the polls. Have we lost our passion for democracy? Did we ever have it?
Well, yes. It was 1916 when women won the right to vote in Manitoba. It didn't involve violence and civil disobedience, but victory did not come easily to the thousands of women and men who worked for more than 25 years to win that right. It is a tale of struggle and sacrifice, political intrigue and deception, articulate argument and hilarious theatre.
One of the first and most consistent groups to advocate for women's rights was the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Not quite the polite tea drinkers of modern myth, they were vocal and strong accusers of the "demon rum" which they saw as leading to the abuse and neglect of women and children. They argued that voting rights for women would empower them, increase their financial security and bring about prohibition. They were right on all three counts.
Two physicians, a mother and daughter, played a key role in this early period. Amelia and Lillian Yeoman, both denied entrance to a Canadian medical school because of their gender, graduated in Michigan and set up practice in Winnipeg in the 1880s. A wild town at the time, they administered to the down-and-out women of Winnipeg's core. They attended to women in jails and denounced the appalling conditions they found there and found a receptive audience in the WCTU membership.
They were joined by E. Cora Hind, an agricultural reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press. Hind, who refused the gender-neutral designation E.C. Hind, informed the editors that if they weren't prepared to use E. Cora as her signature she wouldn't be writing for them.
Hind was well-respected and so astute that agricultural investors as far away as Chicago awaited her crop predictions before speculating in the commodities market. Hind saw the dire conditions of farm women and became a strong advocate for greater equality quality for them.
By early in the 19th century, two sisters, Lillian and Francis Beynon, had begun working as reporters. They wrote columns in the Winnipeg Free Press and the Grain Growers Guide that struck a nerve with many rural people. Their articulate description of the horrible circumstances of farm women inspired new supporters to get involved.
Margaret Benedictsson, meanwhile, was also writing, and with her husband owned a printing company in Selkirk. They produced Freyja, meaning "woman" in Icelandic, and spearheaded the significant Icelandic contribution to women's franchise.
The suffrage movement really became energized with the arrival of Nellie McClung to Winnipeg in 1911. Already an established author, she was immediately elected as president of the Women Press Club. She had joined her mother-in-law earlier in the WCTU and was an articulate and knowledgeable spokeswoman on many issues related to women's equality. In 1912, the Political Equality League was developed and pulled together many supportive organizations. This included the YWCA, the Grain Growers Association, the Trades and Labour Council, The Icelandic Suffrage Association, and the late endorsing National Council of Women. By this time, the movement was in full bloom and members were writing, giving lectures, organizing petitions, lobbying government.
Sir Rodmond Roblin, the Conservative premier, was patronizing and arrogant to the women. McClung, however, was a formidable opponent, fierce and indomitable. After one meeting with government and just before the famous Votes for Men play, McClung ended the meeting with the premier with the threat: "We will get you yet.''
The play was held at the Walker Theatre in January 1914, with McClung as Roblin. When men petitioned for the right to vote, McClung, imitating Robin, roared, "nice men don't want the vote... man's place is on the farm."
Although the play was a huge success, the movement active and the population enthusiastic about suffrage, the Tories won re-election in the 1914 election. Within a year, the Tories were forced to resign after being found guilty of corruption in the awarding of contracts for the construction of the new legislature.
The Liberals had given an endorsement to suffrage and it was part of the election debate. Finally, in 1915, the Liberals under T.C. Norris won in a landslide and McClung was there election night along with a victorious Fred Dixon, a labour activist and founding member of the Political Equality League.
It wasn't quite the end. First, Norris demanded more evidence that women would actually vote if provided that right. This forced women to again seek endorsement on petitions, which 45,000 people signed.
The final battle occurred when a friendly MLA leaked the information to women that the law was going to allow women to vote but disallow them from running for election. This immediately activated the movement and the MLAs could do little else but answer phones all day from disgruntled Manitobans. Finally, on Jan 16, 1916, the legislation passed.
Step one for women was accomplished. Women could vote, and they could be elected as members. A lot more followed. Most provinces moved quickly. The federal government finally allowed voting rights and, in 1928, with the Persons case, women gained the right to sit as senators. Quebec finally extended voting rights to women in 1940 but aboriginal women had to wait until 1960. Nowhere in Canada at the provincial or federal level have we even come close to gender equity in elections.
As schoolchildren trek to the Legislative Building grounds to see the statue of Nellie McClung and the Alberta women who won the Persons case, they should know the names of the leaders in the suffrage movement in Manitoba who fought so long and courageously to ensure that women, like men, could vote for their elected representatives.
And they should know that rarely does democracy come easily.
Linda Taylor is a freelance writer and photographic mimic of Nellie McClung.