Temperance, social reform and the quest for women’s suffrage

At the beginning of the 19th century, many people considered that industrialization and urbanization were the source of society’s ills. This sparked the temperance movement, which advocated moderation or abstinence from alcohol because of its perceived detrimental influence on society.

Temperance societies, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), campaigned against alcoholism to protect the home and strengthen family life. In addition to temperance, they endorsed many social reforms including community welfare, education and women’s suffrage to combat inequities like poverty and child labour. WCTUs realized that in order to prompt social change women needed to be able to influence government policies, which meant gaining the right to vote.

The temperance movement got more women interested in participating in public life and actively engaging in political and social reform. Nellie McClung, who was instrumental in winning women the right to vote in Manitoba in 1916, began to get involved in politics with the WCTU.

A black-and-white photograph of a seated woman, right hand propping up her head, right elbow on a table, a book in her left hand. She is looking directly at the camera.

Nellie McLung by Jessop Cyril (MIKAN 3622978)

Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) collection holds items attesting to the continued efforts of WCTUs to achieve social improvements. A 1908 letter from the Quebec Provincial WCTU to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, Sir Allen Bristol Aylesworth, for example, requests that the Dominion Government of Canada amend the Criminal Code to introduce more “adequate punishment” for assault against women and children. The Manitoba WCTU similarly sent a letter along with a petition to Aylesworth asking that the Criminal Code be amended, with the age of consent being changed from fourteen to eighteen years old.

In 1894, the Senate received a petition requesting women’s enfranchisement from the Dominion WCTU (DWCTU) signed by the organization’s President, Ella F. M. Williams, and other DWCTUmembers. The petition was signed by the directors of the DWCTU on behalf of its 500,000 members – women aged 21 and older – exemplifying the uniting power of the WCTU.

A typed letter outlining the reasons why women should get the right to vote and signed by the entire executive committee of the DWCTU.

A petition signed by the governing body of the Dominion Women’s Christian Temperance Union – Mrs. Ella F.W. Williams calling for women’s suffrage, 1894 (MIKAN 1600659)

The timeline of events leading to women’s suffrage in Canada is long. Manitoba was the first province to enfranchise women in 1916. The federal government granted women the right to vote two years later. However, many women continued to be denied this right until the 1960s. Suffrage was not the end of the struggle for gender equality, but rather an early and significant part of the continued effort for equality in Canada.

To celebrate a century of women’s suffrage, LAC in partnership with the Canadian Museum of Human Rights will present an exhibition of reproduction portraits titled Let Them Howl: 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage, featuring some of the women who fought for equality and the vote. Be sure to check out the exhibitions at the Festival du voyageur in Winnipeg from February 12 to 21, 2016 and on the Rideau Canal Skateway in Ottawa from January 28 to February 15, 2016.

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