Women’s Suffrage in Canada

In 1876 British common law did not view women as persons who were entitled to the same rights and privileges as men (The Nellie McClung Foundation 2003).  It is also at this time that women were questioning the quality of their lives and acknowledging the harsh realities of a women’s life in Canada. Drunkenness was an issue at this time and women were finding themselves in a situation where they had children and husbands who drank away much needed finances.  Many were unhappy and had very few rights, so they turned to the church.  The Women’s Christian Temperance Movement was initiated, in Ontario, in hopes of creating prohibition in regards to alcohol (Gray 2011).  The women soon realized that the temperance movement was just a springboard and that what they really needed was a voice and for that voice to be heard.  This could be accomplished by gaining the right to vote and this logic was the start of the women’s movement in Canada (Gray 2011).

The women deployed various methods to rally support and apply pressure to invoke parliament to grant the franchise of women.  Public education was the forum in which the women of Canada contested the nonexistence of their right to franchise.  Petitions, lecture tours, speaking engagements, meetings with politicians, public meeting and events were different approaches that were used to raise awareness of the inequality within the political sphere as well as gain support to assist movement (Elections Canada 2007). The women were determined and creative in their plight.  The persistence of the movement is emphasized when looking at the amount of bills introduced into to parliament.  In Ontario, alone, a bill was introduced every year from 1885 to 1893 and again from the period of 1905 to 1916 (Elections Canada 2007).

The women’s suffrage movement, regardless of how creative and persistent it was, had been met with opposition.  Character assassinations were very influential in suppressing the efforts of the suffrage movement, slurs such as ‘reversing the nature’s law’, ‘unsexed woman’, ‘evil effects on society’, ‘weak and obedient’ and ‘low type of womanhood’ as well as references to biblical roles of women were all very effective and strongly believed (Dryden 1893).  It would be decades of attacks in public forums, including parliament, on the morality and femininity of women before the franchise would be granted (Dryden 1893).  The catalyst for the women’s suffrage movement occurred in WWI and was spurred by the need to ensure the advancement of a particular political agenda.

Election time was fast approaching and with the issue of conscription in the forefront, Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden had the realization that there was a large population of women who had loved ones fighting in the war and were supporters of conscription.  Borden believed, if given the opportunity, these women would vote for the Conservatives who established conscription as opposed to the Liberals who opposed it (Library and Archives Canada 2008).  This realization impacted the manner in which women who wanted to vote were viewed, no longer were they unwomanly demons who wanted to upheave the natural law of life but instead now, were valuable, contributing members who should be able to represent for the men.  This strategic movement by Borden changed how the women fighting for the vote were discussed and thought of in public opinion.  This was largely seen in the vocabulary, tones and viewpoints expressed in the media at the time.

A Bill termed as the Wartime Elections Act (granting women with close relatives in the armed forces to vote on behalf of the men, in federal elections) was passed in September, 1917 and resulted in the majority of women’s votes for the Conservatives who did indeed win the election (Library and Archives Canada 2008).  After this exceptional franchise was extended it was troublesome for Borden to make the argument against of all women voting and in May 1918, the “Act to Confer the Electoral Franchise upon Women” was passed (Parliament of Canada 2007) giving the right to vote to women, excluding indigenous women and women of colour, in Canada.


Dryden, Hon. John.  1893.  Womanhood suffrage:  a speech by John Dryden delivered in the Ontario Legislature, May 10th, 1983.  Toronto:  Minister of Agriculture.   (Also available at http://eco.canadiana.ca/view/oochihm.28262.)

Elections Canada.  2007.  A History of the Vote in Canada.  Canada.  Chief Electoral Office of Canada. (Also available at http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=his&document=chap1&lang=e.)

Gray, Charlotte.  2011.  Nellie McClung.  Toronto.  Penguin Canada.

Library and Archives Canada.  2008.  “Canada and the First World War.”  Retrieved October 25, 2012 (http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/firstworldwar/025005-3300-e.html).

Parliament of Canada.  2007.  “Women’s Right to Vote in Canada.”    Retrieved October 21, 2012 (http://www.parl.gc.ca/Parlinfo/compilations/ProvinceTerritory/ProvincialWomenRightToVote.aspx.)

The Nellie McClung Foundation.  2003.  “History of Women’s Rights.” Retrieved October 25, 2012 (http://www.ournellie.com/womens-suffrage/history-of-womens-rights.)




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