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Opinion

Early history of women's suffrage

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/1/2016 (1533 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When we think of the women whose efforts led Manitoba to become the first province to grant women the right to vote on equal terms with men, Nellie McClung, the province's best-known suffragist, is top of mind for many.

And while it's true the best-selling novelist and orator played a leading role in Manitoba's suffrage battle -- particularly during the four years she lived in Winnipeg -- the backstory on women's suffrage quest, begun 20 years before Jan. 28, 1916, included a handful of other notably brave and outspoken women.

Credit for much of the suffrage victory rightly belongs with Icelandic women who came as immigrants to live along the west side of Lake Winnipeg in the 1870s. Icelandic women, known for their independent minds, petitioned the Manitoba legislature for the right to vote in 1893. In fact, acting premier Thomas Herman Johnson oversaw the passage of the legislation for women's suffrage in honour of his mother's early work as a suffragist in the Icelandic community.

Icelandic-Canadian Margret Benedictsson was one of those early suffragists and published one of the first newspapers in Canada dedicated to women's rights. Freyja (a word that means a Norse goddess of love, fertility and battle) appeared from 1898 to 1910, and it championed improvements in the legal and social conditions of women. Boldly, Benedictsson also supported divorce reform and advocated for state-sponsored welfare. In 1908, she founded the Icelandic Equal Suffrage Club, spoke widely on women's rights and operated a printing company with her husband, Sigfus, whom she later divorced.

Pioneering Winnipeg physician Amelia Yeomans was among the first female doctors in Canada and another outspoken advocate for women's rights. Yeomans practiced medicine in Winnipeg's core area starting in 1883, alongside her physician daughter, Lillian Yeomans -- dedicating their careers to bettering the health of immigrants, the poor and other marginalized people.

Amelia Yeomans started the Manitoba Equal Franchise Association in 1894 and served as president of the Manitoba Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1896 and 1897, where E. Cora Hind also volunteered. Hind, by that time, was beginning to establish a successful career in agricultural reporting. Her first report of a farmers' convention was published in the Manitoba Free Press in 1893, and in 1901, she became a permanent staff member. The popular WCTU drove the suffrage movement during this time, and after Hind's address to the Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council in 1898, that organization also added women's suffrage to its agenda.

Winnipeg was, at the time, a city of 42,000, and overcrowding, inadequate housing and disease were common. Amelia Yeomans advocated for non-English-speaking immigrants and even lectured on stopping the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. She also campaigned to improve jail conditions for women, where some of her red-light district clients often landed. She persuaded Hind to write about the filthy jails, which housed men and women together.

"The cells are totally devoid of light or ventilation, except such as may be had through the doors... No sleeping accommodation is provided, and no bedding is allowed, except that blankets are sometimes given to the women... The wards are infested with vermin, drugs, lice, and cockroaches," Hind wrote.

Hind worked for the Free Press at the time the Canadian Women's Press Club was formed to advance women's status in journalism. More generally, its members advocated for women's equality, including suffrage in newspapers throughout Canada.

Other radical prairie journalists included sisters Francis Beynon and Lillian Beynon Thomas. A former organizer of the rural-based Women's Institutes, Beynon Thomas wrote about abandoned wives and destitute farm widows who lacked the right to an automatic share in family property.

Francis Beynon came to journalism a little later, after working as a copywriter for the T. Eaton Company. She gained a reputation as a women's reformer while working as the women's page editor at the Grain Growers' Guide and was an ardent pacifist.

At the close of one century and the start of the next, women reformers banded together to build public support for their cause. In 1912, Thomas and McClung formed the Political Equality League with a group of 13 others to lobby for suffrage and other women's causes. Thomas, a playwright, was its first president. Interestingly, the Council of Women, though established in Winnipeg at the time, did not advocate for women's suffrage.

The Political Equality League carried on, and on the day Manitoba's suffrage bill was finally to be introduced, there was a last-minute intervention to ensure the bill also contained the right of women to stand for public office.

The rest, as they say, is history.

 

Penni Mitchell is the editor of Herizons magazine and the author of a book about the history of women's rights in Canada, About Canada: Women's Rights.

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