Around the world, the women’s suffrage movement advanced in the 19th century as women—especially those in the British Commonwealth—became increasingly politically active.
In England, John Stuart Mill, who openly supported women’s suffrage, was elected to the British Parliament in 1864. Although he called for the inclusion of female suffrage he never succeeded in having his Reform Act amendments passed. But he did succeed in raising awareness of this issue throughout the Commonwealth.
Toward the end of the century there were many small groups working to get the vote for women, but it wasn’t until they formed one large group that they started to have some success. This large group was active writing letters to politicians and publications, and holding meetings and lectures to encourage public participation.
In 1907, the National Union of Women’s Suffragette Societies was able to organize a large protest, which became known as the Mud March. Thousands of women took to the streets, braving the cold and mud to march from Hyde Park to Exeter Hall in support of women’s suffrage.
Emmeline Pankhurst, a highly visible suffragist from the United Kingdom, broke away from the NUWSS to create the Women’s Social and Political Union. Since the movement had lost momentum and support of the press, Pankhurst advocated for more violent forms of protest. This led to the arrest and imprisonment of many women, many of whom were treated inhumanely while in jail. While the WSPU’s tactics gained public awareness through shock value, they also caused the group to lose many supporters of suffrage – men and women alike – who did not agree with their methods.
By the time the First World War ended, Parliament had agreed through the 1918 Qualification of Women Act to enfranchise women who were deemed “qualified” to vote. “Qualified” meant they were over 30 years of age, householders, married to a householder, or holders of a university degree. It was 1928 before women were granted equal voting rights alongside men in England.
In Canada, as early as 1884, women were granted limited franchise to vote in Ontario, provided they were widows or unmarried. However, married women were not only unable to vote, they were not allowed to own property or hold public office because they were not deemed “persons” under the law.
On the Prairies, especially in the grain belt of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the women’s movement was particularly active. Nellie McClung was already a well-known advocate and popular speaker on the subject of women’s suffrage. Having relocated with her family to Winnipeg, Nellie joined a group of men and women activists to found the Political Equality League.
At that time in Manitoba, Premier Rodney Roblin strongly opposed giving women the vote and, in 1914, Nellie McClung and her fellow reformers wanted to defeat him. They put on a play called The Women’s Parliament, a satire that turned the tables and poked fun at the dangers of giving men the right to vote. Nellie McClung’s parody of Premier Roblin’s arguments caused uproarious laughter and the play went on tour, playing to packed houses and enthusiastic audiences.
Until Manitoba finally gave women the vote in 1916, legislation to enfranchise women in provincial elections failed to pass in any province. Once Manitoba gave women the right to vote, other jurisdictions followed suit.
It is because of this momentous event in our history that the Nellie McClung Foundation is putting on a gala on Jan. 28 and celebrating the centennial of Manitoba women getting the right to vote. We are also, along with the Winnipeg Free Press, presenting the “Nellie” Awards. This is a call for Manitobans to nominate women who have followed in Nellie McClung’s footsteps, pursuing social justice, women and human rights.
The nomination period concludes at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 22. There is still time to get your nomination in. The awards will be presented at the gala on Jan. 28. More details on the gala will follow in an upcoming issue.
Myrna Driedger is MLA for Charleswood.