A Bat­tle Won, A War Just Be­gun

As we mark the cen­ten­nial of women’s right to vote fed­er­ally, it’s our re­spon­si­bil­ity to dis­cuss the not-so-cel­e­bra­tory truths be­hind that mo­ment in his­tory. ROSE­MARY COUNTER ex­plains that there’s more to the story—and that the fight is far from over

The Walrus - - FRONT PAGE -

It is only hu­man na­ture to tell sto­ries, mythol­o­gize, and cel­e­brate. Here’s a fa­mil­iar tale many of us can re­cite from el­e­men­tary school: As the end of WWI neared, even Prime Min­is­ter Robert Bor­den’s staunch Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment couldn’t deny women’s mas­sive con­tri­bu­tion to the war ef­fort. They had stepped up and into men’s jobs, ex­celling at ev­ery­thing from ma­chin­ery to en­gi­neer­ing to farm­ing, and weren’t about to re­turn to their homes with noth­ing to show for their ef­forts. “Nice women don’t want the vote!” cried de­trac­tors. Yet women like famed vot­ing-rights cru­sader

Nel­lie Mc­clung and her co­horts in the Fa­mous Five suf­frag­ists none­the­less per­sisted, and on May 24, 1918, united in sol­i­dar­ity, they won the right for Cana­dian women to vote in fed­eral elec­tions. The end.

Only not quite. In truth, only some women were en­fran­chised that day.

Be­ing a voter came with stip­u­la­tions— women had to meet ra­cial and prop­erty own­er­ship re­quire­ments—that ex­cluded many. Vot­ing was for “civ­i­lized” peo­ple only, so Chris­tian­ity, na­tion­al­ism, and eu­gen­ics were deeply and un­com­fort­ably en­grained into many suf­frag­ists’ pol­i­tics.

Look closer at the story of women’s vot­ing rights in Canada and no part stands best with­out an as­ter­isk and an ex­pla­na­tion. We mark May 24, 1918, as a mile­stone know­ing that the fight for equal rights be­gan decades ear­lier and still en­dures to­day. Now, 100 years since that achieve­ment, women in Canada are re­flect­ing on what gain­ing the fed­eral right to vote meant to women then and what it means now. As we piece to­gether all the parts of the story, it be­hooves us to ask: When rights were granted only to some, should we re­ally be cel­e­brat­ing at all?

This was the topic at hand when Cana­dian politi­cians and schol­ars met in May at the lo­ca­tion of the for­mer Vic­to­ria Me­mo­rial Mu­seum (now the Cana­dian Mu­seum of Na­ture) in Ot­tawa, where the Act to Con­fer the Elec­toral Fran­chise upon Women was passed, to dis­cuss the sig­nif­i­cance of the 1918 vic­tory. On the panel was

Jane Hil­der­man, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Sa­mara Cen­tre for Democ­racy, a non-par­ti­san think tank. “We have a ten­dency to want to find a date to cel­e­brate, a mo­ment that was the mo­ment,” she says. “But if you take the time to un­pack the en­cy­clo­pe­dia en­try of women’s suf­frage, you re­al­ize there are many, many mo­ments lead­ing up to and far af­ter­wards. It’s hum­bling to re­al­ize how much you don’t know.”

The names of the women ac­tivists, for ex­am­ple, are well worth com­mem­o­rat­ing. The Fa­mous Five, in­clud­ing Mc­clung, are of­ten seen as the face of the Cana­dian women’s rights move­ment (though they didn’t be­come “fa­mous” un­til 1929, when they pe­ti­tioned the Supreme

Court of Canada to in­clude women as “per­sons” un­der the law). But there are count­less women who aren’t as well known. Mary Ann Shadd Cary, for one. She was a teacher born to a free black fam­ily in Delaware who im­mi­grated to Canada in 1851. Just two years later, she be­came Canada’s first fe­male pub­lisher when she founded the anti-slav­ery news­pa­per the Provin­cial Free­man, which dis­cussed women’s rights in tan­dem with abo­li­tion­ism and civil dis­obe­di­ence—six decades be­fore the women’s move­ment as most of us know it.

Then there is Flora Mac­don­ald Deni­son, a Toronto dress­maker turned jour­nal­ist turned one of Canada’s most prom­i­nent suf­frag­ist writ­ers. (“Don’t get a swelled head,” reads just one of an im­pres­sive col­lec­tion of vin­tage hate mail she re­ceived). Deni­son be­came pres­i­dent of the Cana­dian Suf­frage Or­ga­ni­za­tion in 1911. She marched in

Wash­ing­ton in 1913 and at Queen’s

Park for the provin­cial vote in 1916.

Not long af­ter, she caught the Span­ish flu, then pneu­mo­nia, and died, nearly im­pov­er­ished and for­got­ten.

On the West Coast, He­lena Gut­teridge was a British work­ing-class im­mi­grant whose fem­i­nism merged suf­frage, so­cial­ism, the labour move­ment, and rights for the un­em­ployed. Be­cause Gut­teridge was a woman, Van­cou­ver’s labour move­ment didn’t par­tic­u­larly want her; nor did the suf­frage move­ment wel­come her, be­cause she was a worker. One hun­dred years later, Gut­teridge was fi­nally hon­oured in March via com­mem­o­ra­tive plaque—for be­ing Van­cou­ver’s first fe­male city coun­cil­lor.

That these great women’s and count­less oth­ers’ tire­less work gets erased by time can be a dis­cour­ag­ing and dis­heart­en­ing thought. Here’s a bet­ter one: “These peo­ple are never re­ally lost—you can re­cover them,” says Joan Sang­ster, au­thor of One Hun­dred Years of Strug­gle. The his­to­rian’s book, re­leased in March 2018, was timed to the cen­ten­nial, but in it she tells a story that goes much fur­ther than one sin­gle mile­stone. “I’m try­ing to show that the strug­gle was ac­tu­ally far longer and more drawn out than we’ve ever imag­ined in the past,” she says. Teach­ers no longer dump the suf­frage move­ment into a few years around WWI, nor do they teach a lin­ear tale championed by an in­ti­mate group of same-think­ing women.

In fact, it’s hard to imag­ine a more in­tel­lec­tu­ally or ide­o­log­i­cally di­verse group. “The move­ment in­cluded so­cial­ists and con­ser­va­tives, an­tial­co­hol tem­per­ate ad­vo­cates and free lovers, im­pe­ri­al­ists and paci­fists,” writes Sanger. They all wanted the vote but for count­less dif­fer­ent rea­sons. “Some wanted to join the rul­ing class, oth­ers to abol­ish it. Some stressed women’s in­nate bi­o­log­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tinc­tive­ness, oth­ers em­pha­sized the hu­man con­nec­tion and com­mon­al­ity be­tween women and men.… Some pro­moted ideas that we now see as a re­pug­nant con­tra­dic­tion to fem­i­nism, oth­ers glimpsed utopian vi­sions of equal­ity that more read­ily suit our views.”

His­tory doesn’t let us se­lec­tively pick and choose our truths, no mat­ter how we try, so when an­niver­saries like this one come along, it’s a time to look closely and crit­i­cally. “This story has an op­por­tu­nity in this mo­ment to be en­riched into a new nar­ra­tive about who did the work, who was left out, why they were left out,” says Hil­der­man. Women ex­cluded from the 1918 act in­cluded Asian and Indige­nous women, who weren’t en­fran­chised un­til 1949 and 1960, re­spec­tively.

“This part is not a great story and Cana­di­ans don’t want to talk about it,” says Me­la­nee Thomas, po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cal­gary. Though it’s com­pletely an­ti­thet­i­cal to cel­e­bra­tion, we need to tell and hear those parts of the story just the same. “A hun­dred years later, we have not moved past ex­plicit race-based pol­i­tics,” says Thomas, cit­ing head­line­dom­i­nat­ing de­bates around top­ics like “old-stock Cana­di­ans” and crit­i­cism of im­mi­gra­tion. “This shows us that this is not a prob­lem of the past.”

This isn’t to say this hun­dred-year an­niver­sary shouldn’t be lauded for the great bar­rier that was re­moved.

Then and now, notes Thomas, “get­ting things done in pol­i­tics is shock­ingly hard work.” Even with all the set­backs and ex­clu­sions of an im­per­fect mo­ment, the ex­ten­sion of rights was a vic­tory that moved all Cana­di­ans in the right di­rec­tion, al­beit slowly.

As we cel­e­brate this an­niver­sary, imag­ine the suf­fragettes look­ing for­ward at us. “Some would ad­mire our progress, cer­tainly. They’d see new leg­is­la­tion and new at­ti­tudes about work,” says Sang­ster. “Oth­ers would see the same is­sues, like vi­o­lence against women and in­come in­equal­ity.” They’d see that though the youth vote has soared in re­cent years, fewer than six in 10 fed­eral vot­ers aged 18 to 24 cast their ballot in 2015. They’d see a record-high num­ber of women sit­ting in Par­lia­ment, but know that num­ber rep­re­sents only a quar­ter of seats in the House. And they’d see that the an­niver­sary’s fall­ing per­fectly atop the #Metoo move­ment is an ironic re­minder that, de­spite more than a cen­tury of hard-won progress by the women that pre­ceded us, our work is nowhere near done.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.