If anything in Winnipeg is predictable, it is the weather in January. This is as true in 2014 as it was in 1914. A hundred years ago, a blizzard had covered the city's streets in high snow drifts during the last week of January. Nevertheless, the streetcars were running and a large crowd converged on the Walker Theatre on the evening of Jan. 28 to attend a special fundraising event organized by Winnipeg suffragists, the women of the recently formed Political Equality League.
One of the league's founders was the indomitable Nellie McClung, a 40-year old teacher and author, who had devoted herself to fighting the evils of the liquor trade and advocating for women's right to vote.
"Never retract, never explain, never apologize -- get the thing done and let them howl," was her motto and she lived up to those words in every respect. A highlight of the suffragist campaign was the "Mock Parliament" McClung starred in at the Walker that night.
Whereas British suffragettes resorted to violence and hunger strikes in their bitter struggle for the vote, more moderate Canadian suffragists like McClung were committed to the ideals of what has been called "maternal feminism." As wives, sisters and mothers, these mainly middle class White Anglo-Saxon Protestant women desired to maintain their traditional role in the household and cure the world's many ills. The vote, they believed, would give them the required power to reform a society under pressure from industrialization, urbanization, immigration and the abuse of alcohol.
Standing in the women's way was Manitoba Premier Rodmond Roblin, who had been in office for nearly 14 years. Almost 61-years-old, he was a devoted Conservative, a master practitioner of patronage, and vehemently opposed to granting women the vote.
The day before the Walker Theatre performance, McClung led the Equality League members to the Manitoba Legislature where they demanded "justice" for the province's women. Roblin at his pompous best dismissed the women's arguments, suggesting that granting women the vote would lead to the destruction of the family, home and motherhood.
An editorial in the Winnipeg Tribune denounced the premier as a "reactionary" who "thinks it is 'smart' to oppose every progressive measure that is dear to the heart of patriotic and progressive citizens."
McClung got in the last word the next evening at the Walker when she played the premier in the women's "Mock Parliament," in which roles and situations were reversed in a witty satire.
As the Free Press reported, the Assiniboine Quartet opened the show with several catchy suffragette songs and then the curtain rose for How They Won the Vote, a short play originally performed by suffragettes in London, but adapted by the Manitoba women.
In the skit, a group of women, all related to one Horace Cole, a clerk, converts him to a rabid suffragist. For 30 hilarious minutes, his wife, sister and cousin bombarded Horace, such that by the end of the indoctrination he was ready to enlist in the movement.
An intermission followed before the curtain opened again and McClung and her group appeared on stage, which was now designed like a legislative assembly. The concept of the Mock Parliament was brilliant: the women staged a parliamentary debate about men's demands for the franchise and used the male politicians' own words against them.
The female members of the House wore simple black robes that reached their knees. "Remember," McClung said as the show got underway, "life on the stage here is reversed. Women have the vote while men do not."
Petitions were the first order of House business, and one from the society for the prevention of ugliness prayed "that men wearing scarlet neckties, six-inch collars and squeaky shoes be not allowed to enter any public building." Another discussion was about why women leave men. "Because they do not keep the house attractive," was one answer and the crowd roared with laughter.
The highlight came when a delegation of men led by Robert Skinner arrived at the legislature with a petition for male suffrage. Their slogan was: "We have the brains. Why not let us vote?" In the same way that Roblin had addressed the women a day earlier 'Premier' McClung now addressed the men before her in a voice dripping with sarcasm:
"We like delegations," McClung began, "we have seen a great many and we pride ourselves on treating these delegations with the greatest courtesy and candour. We wish to compliment this delegation on their splendid gentlemanly appearance." The audience snickered loudly. "If, without exercising the vote such splendid specimens of manhood can be produced, such a system of affairs should not be interfered with. Any system of civilization that can produce such splendid specimens of manhood as Mr. Skinner is good enough for me, and if it is good enough for me, it is good enough for anybody."
McClung was hardly done, but she had to wait until the applause and laughter subsided before she could continue. She played the crowd like a vaudeville performer. As the debate continued back and forth between the government and the male delegation, McClung added to the utter delight of the audience, "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 and divorce."
The women found an ally in Liberal leader T.C. Norris, who supported women's suffrage and temperance. Yet in the provincial election held on July 10, Roblin and the Conservatives won another majority. It took a scandal over the construction of the legislative buildings to force Roblin and the Tories to resign and for Norris and the Liberals to assume power. Another election in August 1915 gave the Liberals 40 of the 47 seats in the assembly.
Five months later, on Jan. 28, 1916, two years to the day after McClung's triumphant performance at the Walker Theatre, Manitoba woman got the right to vote in provincial elections and to hold public office -- the first women in Canada to be granted this right.
Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.