August 22, 2017

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An army of women changed history

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/1/2016 (586 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was definitely not a one-woman show. Although Nellie McClung was important, the women's suffrage movement was a battle waged over 30 years involving hundreds, perhaps thousands of Manitobans, mostly women.

It began with the Women's Christian Temperance Union, which believed alcohol was destroying families and leaving women and children abused and penniless.

In the early 1880s, a mother-and-daughter team of physicians, the Yeomans, arrived in Winnipeg. As a result of their work in the core area, they brought to the attention of the temperance union the horrible plight of poor women, and those in jail, to whom they administered medical care. They were joined by E. Cora Hind, a Manitoba Free Press agricultural reporter so revered for her crop predictions commodity brokers throughout the world awaited her reports before making investments. They believed if women could vote, they would bring about Prohibition and, thereby, a better world.

By the beginning of the 20th century, more and more women were joining the struggle, and organizational support was being mobilized. The Icelandic community was energized by Margaret Benedictsson who published the newspaper Freyja, meaning "woman" in Icelandic. The Icelanders became one the strongest organized groups supporting enfranchisement of women.

Petitioning had begun and debates, speeches and letter-writing were taking place. By 1910, the movement was in high gear. The YWCA, the Grain Growers' Association, the Trades and Labour Council, the Press Club, rural women's organizations and the National Council of Women were endorsing suffrage and activating their members.

The leadership in Manitoba was drawn primarily from professional and middle-class women with the time and energy to devote to the cause, and the Political Equality League was developed to take the lead. It was articulate and forceful. Support was broadly based, both economically and geographically across the province.

It was between 1911 and 1914, when McClung lived in Winnipeg, that she made her greatest contribution to suffrage. Already a successful author, she was a courageous and formidable orator: humorous, quotable and straightforward. She never backed down from a fight.

The two Beynon sisters, Lillian and Francis, may have been the most important individuals in the struggle. Lillian wrote for the Free Press Weekly and Francis was the women's editor of the Grain Growers' Guide. Through their popular articles and an advice column, they exposed the terrible conditions of many women and put the case for enfranchisement to the public. Readers hung on every word.

In 1914, socialist and labour-backed MLA Fred Dixon and his wife, activist Winona Flett, were demanding change. The "should men vote?" mock parliament was performed to thunderous applause. In 1915, Dr. Mary Crawford, president of both the University Women's Club and the Political Equality League, presented a petition of 39,584 names to Conservative premier Rodmond Roblin. This was bolstered by 4,250 names collected by 94-year-old Sturgeon Creek resident Amelia Burritt. By then, McClung had moved to Alberta.

The victory came Jan. 28, 1916, and in an unusual move, several of the women were invited to sit in the body of the legislative assembly, including Crawford, Flett and the Beynon sisters.

Francis Beynon's importance was amply demonstrated when she exposed the statement of the Saskatchewan premier that women in his province didn't really want to vote. The response was so immediate and adamant he had to back down, and Saskatchewan became the second province to enact women's suffrage.

We have taken to celebrating the Persons Case, but that was a small victory compared to suffrage. That case was intended to force the federal government to appoint a woman to the Senate. It was accomplished by five Alberta women, three of whom were elected MLAs, signing a letter requesting a review of the law, with very little involvement of others and at basically no financial cost.

In contrast, gaining the vote in Manitoba had many far-reaching consequences.

The Conservative government was defeated; corruption was exposed; Prohibition was brought in; and the beginnings of the social safety net were put in place. Women had learned that in working together they could accomplish fundamental and historic changes. Women had begun to understand their own power.

Manitoba was the first to extend voting rights to women, but others followed in quick succession, including the federal government. Millions of women were affected by voting rights and the ability to choose who would represent them in provincial and federal governments. The fight for equality was not over, but it had certainly begun.

So during this month of celebrations we should remember Nellie McClung. But let's also honour the many unsung heroes -- and our grandmothers and great-grandmothers -- who played their part in bringing the vote to women so modern generations could have opportunities previous generations of women were denied.

 

Linda Taylor is a Winnipeg writer with an interest in the history of Manitoba women.

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