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Manitoba women win right to vote, 1870-1916
In North America and Western Europe in the later half of the 19th century, women began to campaign in earnest for the right to vote. At this time women were second-class citizens. The 1870s were the start of the movement in Canada, but there were few Canadians that supported the women’s right to vote. Two of the groups that lead the way in Manitoba were the Icelandic feminists and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The Icelandic women had settled near Gimli. These women established the first suffragette associations.
The Western provinces were a much different place for women than Ontario. The East had a more settled economy with a conservative structure and patriarchal views. The west had more of a focus in the agricultural sector where men and women worked side by side. The western cities tended to attract the stronger, independent women who by moving to the city had declared financial and emotional independence from their families. Women were represented in the different farm groups and organizations but the rural communities did rally support for the suffragette movement due to their focus on land laws. These factors allowed Western Canada to be the first place to see this movement develop strength.
As early as 1883 Amelia Yeoman, a leader in WCTU, started to hold mock parliament sessions in Winnipeg. These mock parliament sessions reversed the gender roles with the women holding the right to vote and the men seeking that right. In 1893 the Manitoba WCTU hosted a mock parliament and also sent a petition to the legislature. The petition demanded that, “The right to citizenship is not denied on account of sex.”
The year 1887 marked the first time women were able to vote in municipal elections and in 1890 women were allowed to vote in school elections and serve as the school trustee. Although this was a small win their ongoing focus was for all women to be able to vote in the provincial government elections.
A group of about fifteen women and some liberal minded men created Political Equality Leagues that expressed the goals of suffragettes in Manitoba. The campaign as a whole was built on hard work and creating support through strategic alliances. Nellie Mclung was great at creating alliances with groups that were not obvious. These groups included immigrant women, farmers, and working class male factory workers and their wives. Campaigners circulated petitions and printed banners, with many of the banners adorning the sides of Winnipeg’s Street Cars. Nellie McClung went on a book tour, while Perlie Waston gave speeches and insisted on adding the “Vote for Women” message in her talks.
Nellie McClung was also effective in getting people's attention and using humor to get her point across. Although there were many women behind the campaign, McClung is probably the most famous. Cora Hind and Francis Beyanan promoted the message in their Free Press Columns. Pamphlets were produced and inside there were updates on the legal status of women in Manitoba.
On January 27, 1914, McClung and a delegation met with the Premier Sir Rodmand Roblin who refused to give in to their demands. Roblin said that the vote would break up families and leave children to be raised by the servants. Furthermore, Roblin believed that women symbolized what was good and if they were given the vote, this would make women corrupt and tarnish female goodness. At this meeting McClung memorized what the Premier was saying and practiced his non-verbal actions. The next evening the League booked a theater where they had another mock Parliament. McClung played the role of the premier and her imitation of Roblin and her use of humor delighted the crowd. The theater session was so successful that the women repeated the show for a few days and then toured to Brandon and performed it again. At this point because of McClung's mock sessions, the League became fashionable and more money flowed into their bank account.
In the 1915 elections Roblin was finally defeated due to the scandals stemming from construction of a government building. The winning premier was Norris and his Liberal party. The Liberals had promised to grant women the right to vote and were one of their allies. However, Norris became hesitant to give women the vote and said that they had to prove that the majority of females really wanted to be able to vote.
The women went back to work. They began canvassing with petitions. They held church meetings and even collected signatures at the grain grower’s picnic. In December Lillian Thomas and a delegation of sixty people went to present the Premier all their hard work. The women's delegation presented one petition with 39,584 signatures and a second one with 4,250. The second petition was done single-handed by one woman, Mrs. Amelia Burritt.
The bill was then prepared and was ready present to the legislators; however, the bill only gave women the right to vote but not the ability to sit in the parliament. Lillian Thomas who worked as a news reporter found out this change. She informed the league and the women continued their campaign by calling up their representatives and asking them if women were going to be able to sit in the legislature. None of the members of parliament could get work done since the phones would not stop ringing, making this tactic extremely effective.
On January 28, 1916, Manitoba passed a law and they became the first province to allow for women to vote and to be elected to the parliament.
The success provided a base for women to slowly get more rights in Manitoba, as well as the right to vote in other provinces. These women continued to fight and were leaders in other campaigns fighting for women's equality.