A Brief Account of How We Got from There to Here, and of Those Who Had to Wait. (Seven minute read)
This year, 2020, marks the centennial of the passing of the 19th amendment to the American Constitution that gave women the right to vote. It was the culmination of a seventy-some year-long battle. For seventy-some years, women had marched, petitioned, demonstrated, conducted sit-ins and hunger-strikes, lobbied and, ultimately, were arrested and jailed. They were beaten, spat upon, and called all sorts of nasty and derogatory names. They remained steadfast and continued to fight, in spite of all the odds and resistance, for what they saw as their right.
On August 18, 1920, the American Senate, by the narrowest of margins, passed the 19th Amendment that acknowledged women’s right to vote in federal elections.
If you were white, that is.
Black suffragists had found themselves excluded from the general suffrage movement because the latter did not want women’s suffrage to become entangled with race. That did not stop Black suffragists from continuing to fight for women’s suffrage. In theory only did the 19th Amendment accord voting rights to Black and well as white women.
But being able to vote was another matter. Because voting registration regulations are set by the individual states and not the federal government, states could determine who was and was not permitted to vote. They exercised that licence to create discriminatory rules that made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Black persons – male and female – to register to vote, instituting literacy and property standards that few could satisfy. It was decades before African-American women could exercise the same right that white women had enjoyed all those years.
Alas, in the U.S., universal suffrage seems to be under attack. Even now, some states are enacting restrictive and discriminatory registration rules that seemed designed to prevent African-Americans, or perhaps anyone of colour, from voting.
It seems universal suffrage is still a goal to be attained.
Two years previously, in 1918, Canadian women won the right to vote in federal elections. It, too, was a hard-won battle following 40 years of struggle, beginning with acquiring the right to vote in municipal elections. By the 1890s, women’s organizations across the country began agitating for expanded voting rights.
Women’s federal suffrage was granted in 1918 due in part to considerable support in the population and in part to Prime Minister Borden’s anxious need for his Unionist government to be returned to power. He had already granted limited voting rights to women whose husbands/sons/brothers were fighting overseas and those who were nurses or otherwise working for the war effort. When Borden’s government was returned to power, he fulfilled his promise. Women gained the right to vote in federal elections.
But only if you were white.
Indigenous people were considered to be wards of the state, similar to minors, and therefore were not eligible to vote. However, if an Indigenous person relinquished his/her Indian status and met certain property conditions, then he/she could vote. Few wanted to relinquish their status, fewer still met the property requirements. Even those who served in the First and Second World Wars, many with distinction, were not given voting rights. Finally, in 1960, after the Canadian Bill of Rights was adopted, the Canada Elections Act was amended to extend to Indigenous people the right to vote in federal elections.
Indigenous people weren’t the only ones barred from voting. The War Time Elections Act of 1917 disenfranchised thousands of immigrants from enemy countries as well as conscientious objectors. The Dominion Elections Act of 1920 – the act that gave white women the vote – continued to bar anyone who was not of European descent. People of Asian ancestry were denied the vote until after World War II.
Who could vote in provincial elections was determined by each province. In 1916, women in Saskatchewan won the right to vote. Unlike many women’s suffrage movements elsewhere, there was little formal opposition although there were nay-sayers.
The main protagonist was Violet Clara McNaughton, the first President of the Women Grain Growers in Saskatchewan. Beginning in 1913, the Women Grain Growers formed an alliance with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and other womens’ groups. Their first petitions were not considered, so in 1915, they established the Provincial Equal Franchise Board and requested rural and urban organizations to submit petitions. The Premier of the day, Mr. Scott, acknowledged there was little opposition to women’s suffrage but stated he had no electoral mandate to proceed with new legislation. Instead, he asked for more petitions. On Valentine’s Day, 1916, a delegation of women presented petitions totaling more than 10,000 names to the Legislature. The bill granting women the right to vote in provincial elections was given royal assent on March 14, 1916.
I never heard anything about the discussions that may or may not have happened in my home village of Meyronne during the suffrage movement. However, given what I remember about the temperament of the men and women of my grandmother’s generation, I am sure there were many heated exchanges. I imagined some of those “frank and open discussions” (to use a politician’s phrase) in “Our Bull’s Loose In Town!” Tales from the Homestead. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 15, “The Great Debate.” (Note: My grandmother, Addie Hanna, is narrating the tale.)
“We argued about it at home, too. Every now and then, Abe would make some remark that we women should mind our own business and let the men get on with running the country. “Government is about managing the economy and making life and death decisions about international relations,” he’d say. “Women are emotional creatures. Women don’t think out matters coolly and calmly, and you need to think that way to make wise decisions.”
“You think this war is a wise decision?” I would retort. “You men have been running the world forever and all you give us is one war after the other with all our young lads getting killed. And for what, so that you can get us into yet another pickle?” Then I’d remind him that women were fighting the war too. Maybe not in the trenches, but many were nurses overseas and others were working in factories doing men’s work, so why shouldn’t we have the vote, too?
“The man is the head of the household,” Abe would say.
“Getting the vote has nothing to do with who’s head of the house,” I would reply. “And furthermore, if women could vote, perhaps we’d get prohibition in sooner. You men don’t seem to be getting anywhere with it.”
That’s when he would suddenly remember something important needed doing in the stable or some machinery needed fixing, and off he would go.
It was in early January of ‘16 that I read in the Meyronne Independent that Regina was finally going to give women the vote so long as they were British subjects. The report said that it had been flooded with one petition after another, one even had over 10,000 signatures. March of that year, we got the vote and only a month later I was pleased as punch to be able to vote in the referendum on prohibition. The results were overwhelmingly in favour of prohibition and I am sure that it was only because we women were finally able to vote.
I was in for a surprise come the federal election of ‘17. I thought since I could vote in provincial elections that I could vote in the federal election. October, I think it was, when Mr. Scott came around to enumerate us. I took a break from frying up potatoes for supper to pour coffee for both him and Abe.
“Sorry, Mrs. Hanna, I can’t add your name to the voters’ list,” he said.
“Why ever not? I thought women could vote,” I said, putting the coffee pot back on the stove.
“The only women who can vote are nurses overseas or those who have a relative serving in the armed forces,” Abe said.
“Now, let me get this straight. I’m intelligent enough to vote in provincial elections, but not in federal elections?” I turned back to the stove, gave the potatoes a good stir and then banged the spoon against the frying pan.
“The election is about the conscription issue, not about women getting the vote,” Abe said.
Mr. Scott cleared his throat. “Mr. Borden has promised that if his Unionist government is returned to power, he will extend the vote to all women.”
I wagged the spoon at both him and Abe. “In that case, you men had better make sure that Mr. Borden is returned to Ottawa.”
“Yes, ma’am, Mrs. Hanna,” he said, saluting. He got up from the table. “I’d best be getting on my way, Abe. I’ve still a few farms north of here to visit. Thanks for the coffee, Mrs. Hanna.”
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