Canadian women in the first decades of the 20th Century did not have the right to vote. Joining with advocates in the U.K., U.S., and other parts of the world, women argued for their right to have a say in government. These women were referred to as suffragettes.
The Marseillaise of the Women
Philip Green Wright. Circa 1911-1915.
"Mayor Oliver: Wonder who told them we didn't encourage the suffragette movement in Toronto?"
Political cartoons can run a fine line between picturing the news and taking creative liberties. Here a mob of angry suffragettes chase down Toronto Mayor Joseph Oliver. In reality, Canadian suffragettes were known for their almost exclusive use of peaceful tactics to advance their cause.
“Premier Asquith: ‘I'll not come out- I'm going to assert my authority around here’"
Until 1933, the highest legal court in Canada was actually in the United Kingdom. Canadian suffragettes then would also have to work closely with their British counterparts. Unfortunately Prime Minister of the UK Herbert Henry Asquith was staunchly opposed to giving women the right to vote. That may be why he is seen here cowering under the bed.
One of the leading figures in the Canadian suffragette movement was Nellie McClung. McClung, along with the other members of the Famous Five, were successful in arguing for women to be eligible to sit in the Senate. Although today she is recognized for her contribution to women’s rights, at the time she was a controversial figure with her effigy even once being burned.
“James L. Hughes, one of Toronto's leading suffragettes rehearsing for the coming of Mrs. Pankhurst”
Suffragettes across the world used a number of different tactics to gain the attention and support of the public. Many would use peaceful tactics, such as creating campaign posters, giving speeches, and writing letters to politicians. Others felt a more violent approach would get their point across better.
British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst often relied on a more militant strategy, which caused a sensation when she visited Toronto. In this cartoon, suffragette James L. Hughes is dressed up as Pankhurst.
Suffragettes in Canada relied on a number of different tactics to sway the Canadian public to their side. Poems, songs, poster campaigns, and public demonstrations were all used in Canada. Cartoonists took liberties in their portrayal of the movement, especially in more Conservative-leaning newspapers where women’s suffrage was not supported. The different portrayals of suffragettes provides an insight into the minds of those for and against the movement.
“Ballots for Both” Ontario Franchise Campaign Committee. 1913.
Racism and xenophobia were present in the suffragette movement, whose most prominent members were usually white, middle- to upper-class women. In this poster, Ontario suffragettes position their argument as no less valuable than the vote for the “foreign man.”
“Votes for Women” Belle Ewart Ice Company, Toronto. 1913.
Even companies took part in the suffragette movement. Belle Ewart Ice promoted their products to Toronto women, evoking a connection between their product, the home, and voting. Can you think of any companies today that use social movement to promote their products?
“Equal Franchise and Temperance” Isabel R. Erichsen Brown. 1917.
The suffragette movement was also closely tied to other causes of the day. The temperance movement sought to limit or ban alcohol believing it led to immoral and unethical behaviour.
Many suffragettes believed women were morally superior to men, deserving both the right to vote and abstaining from alcohol. Suffragettes in this poster were also pointing out a link between alcohol companies and donations to anti-suffrage organizations.
An Unequal Victory
Did suffragettes represent all women? Leaders of the movement were typically white, upper- to middle-class, and English speaking. What they advocated for were more likely to represent their interests, if not actively exclude and harm racialized and Indigenous women.
“Political cartoon commenting on women’s voting rights in Quebec”
When one country gave women the right to vote, suffragettes used this to spur action in their own countries. As countries like Turkey continued to extend the vote to women throughout the early 20th century, some women in Canada did not have the right to vote due to their race, nationality, and/or provincial location.
Women’s suffrage did not come for all women at the same time. In 1917, the Wartimes Election Act was passed, giving the vote to the wives, mothers, sisters, and widows of men serving overseas.
However, this act also limited the right to vote for anyone considered an “enemy-alien” such as Canadians with German and Eastern European heritage.
“The Canadian Mother” Union Government Policy Bureau. 1917.
Many people feel the suffragettes overwhelmingly contributed positively to Canada. What the cartoons and satire from the time period show is that they were fighting an uphill battle. If people did not outright hate them, they at least found their cause laughable.
The next time an election happens, remember the generations of people who fought and continue to fight for a system that is representative of all Canadians.