A time of Pink Tea and radical issues

Myrna Driedger
Myrna Driedger

nellie-mcclungIt was a sea of pink on Oct. 11 at Winnipeg’s historic University  Women’s Club, as women from across Manitoba gathered to celebrate the 100th anniversary of The Political Equality League. This event was hosted by the Nellie McClung Foundation as one of the legacy celebrations for Manitoba women getting the vote in 1916.

Nellie McClung and her peers started the league as a way of advancing the rights of women.  Members included E. Cora Hind, Francis Marion Beynon, and Lillian Beynon Thomas, and of course the most famous member of the Political Equality League was Nellie McClung,

Pink Teas were held by women at the turn of the century when they needed to meet in secret to discuss radical issues such as the vote for women. In the event of a potential confrontation, they were able to swiftly turn their conversations to polite discussions about non-controversial issues such as complimenting one another’s hats, or calmly sipping tea and nibbling on little sandwiches. (The sandwiches we nibbled on in October were actually “pink”.)

The Political Equality League of Manitoba had a brief existence – only four years, 1912-16.  These early feminists believed that if women got the vote it would solve many of society’s ills.  They believed that because of women’s “maternal instinct” and innate “moral” superiority, they could — if they were able to vote — abolish political, economic and social corruption and injustice.  They were concerned about such issues as factory laws and inspection, temperance, civic problems, and immigrant assimilation. Thanks to their work, today we don’t have to have such discussions in secret, a fact for which we can be grateful.

The work of the Political Equality League was serious business. The league worked to improve terrible factory conditions for women, and government took steps to improve conditions., It was the Political Action League which, in 1913, presented a petition bearing the signatures of 20,000 men to the premier of Manitoba in support of women getting the vote. The government agreed to endorse the vote for women.

In 1915, a larger, 40,000-strong petition was presented and the right to vote became legislation.  Manitoba became the first province in Canada to grant women the right to vote.

This Pink Tea was the second held by the foundation in appreciation of loyal supporters — many of whom have volunteered their time and donated to the campaign to create a monument in honour of Nellie McClung.  The idea for the Nellie McClung project began in 2002-03, when I was critic for the status of women and was charged with looking at various women’s issues in the province of Manitoba.  I  identified Nellie McClung as a significant and yet largely unrecognized contributor to the life of women in this province and felt it was time to find some way to honour her contributions.

Many people have contributed to the successful establishment of the monument on the legislative grounds, but the foundation board has said that their work is not finished. The board, consisting of Lila Goodspeed, Doris Mae Oulton, Bette Mueller, Darlene Cole, Kristen Lynch and I, shared plans and activities about the evolving work of the organization in educating the public and students about the Nellie McClung legacy through the www.OurNellie.com  website.  We also shared news about the establishment of a number of bursaries and awards for women in Nellie’s honour.

The goal of the monument project is to acknowledge and raise awareness of the contributions of Nellie McClung and her “famous” friends, who assisted in advancing the cause of women in this province and country, and who created opportunities for women for generations to come.

The foundation was also pleased to have the Pink Tea  coincide with the first International Day of the Girl – a day to promote the equal treatment and opportunities for girls around the world in areas such as law, nutrition, health care, education, training and freedom from violence and abuse.

Myrna Driedger, MLA for Charleswood, is deputy PC leader and finance critic in the Manitoba legislature and chair of  Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians – Canada. Reach her at www.myrnadriedger.com.

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