A greater sisterhood: the Women’s Rights struggle in Canada

“Women are going to form a chain, a greater sisterhood than the world has ever known.” Nellie McClung, 1916

The year 2016 marks an important commemorative milestone for women’s rights: the 100th Anniversary of Women first obtaining the right to vote in Canada. To highlight this egalitarian achievement and many other barriers overcome by Canadian women over the past century, Library and Archives Canada (LAC), working in partnership with Canadian Heritage, will launch an outdoor exhibition titled A Greater Sisterhood: The Women’s Rights Struggle in Canada.

Following on from LAC‘s Let Them Howl: 100 Years of Women’s Suffragea display of portraits  this past winter on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa and at Fort Gibraltar in Winnipeg—this new exhibition features reproductions of portraits and documentary photographs of significant and influential persons and groups of women. The women featured in this exhibit broke through barriers to achieve full participation in the economic, political, and social life of Canada, helping to make it a more inclusive and democratic country.

A black-and-white photograph showing a group of nursing sisters waiting in line to cast their votes at an outdoor polling station. Four male officers oversee the proceedings while one sister casts her vote behind a screen. In the background are encampment tents.

Canada’s Nursing Sisters at a Canadian hospital casting their votes in the Canadian federal election, December 1917 (MIKAN 3194224)

During the First World War, more than 2,000 nurses, supervised by matron-in-chief Margaret Macdonald, served overseas as members of the Canadian Army. The Military Voters Act, 1917, gave all military personnel, including nurses, the right to vote in federal elections, paving the way to the expansion of women’s voting rights in 1918.

Madeleine Parent, a Quebec labour union activist and a founding member of the Confederation of Canadian Unions, led efforts to achieve better working conditions for women in the textile industry. As a co-founder of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, Parent also supported Aboriginal women’s rights.

A black-and-white photograph showing a woman walking down a street; behind, there is a man with a sign that says “L’union fait la force” [Unity makes strength]

Madeleine Parent walking in the May Day Parade in Valleyfield, Quebec, ca. 1949 (MIKAN 3257043)

Throughout her fifty-year career as a singer-songwriter, Buffy Sainte-Marie has focused on issues facing Indigenous peoples. She has won recognition and countless awards for her music and her work as an activist and educator. In 1997, she founded the Cradleboard Teaching Project, which helps create core teaching curricula based on Indigenous perspectives.

A black-and-white photo portrait of a woman with long dark hair looking directly at the photographer.

Buffy Sainte-Marie. Photograph taken by Robert Taillefer, 1975 ©Robert Taillefer (MIKAN 4167090)

Be sure to visit the outdoor exhibition, A Greater Sisterhood: The Women’s Rights Struggle in Canada, on display on Plaza Bridge, directly opposite the Hotel Château Laurier on Rideau Street in Ottawa, which runs until Thanksgiving weekend.

Learn more about Women First Obtaining the Right to Vote in Canada or read about our other blog articles on the topic.

Do I have the right to vote? Letters from women to the Canadian government, 1918-1919

Canadian women received the federal right to vote in three waves of legislation. It began with Prime Minister Robert Borden initiating the Military Voters Act of 1917, which enabled Canadian women on active service to vote. Borden also implemented the Wartime Elections Act that same year, which extended the vote to Canadian women who were related to men in the military forces. Lastly, on May 24, 1918, royal assent was given to a bill extending the vote to Canadian women who met the same qualifications as voting men. These quick and successive formative events caused confusion for the public.

The collection of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds various letters written by Canadian women that demonstrate the impact of the vote and include questions about their own personal eligibility to cast a ballot. Seeking information directly from the source, women wrote to Prime Minister Robert Borden and other government officials.

In a letter dated December 1919, Mrs. King of Colonsay, Saskatchewan inquired if she was eligible to vote as a Canadian citizen married to an American citizen. Her inquiry was forwarded to the Department of Justice, which replied that she should be eligible to vote based on her information and enclosed a copy of the Act. They also noted that her inquiry was not typically an affair for the Department.

The confusion between the Dominion Elections Act and the temporary wartime voting measures is evident in a letter dated February 17, 1919 from Mrs. Lillian Dill of Oshawa, Ontario. Mrs. Dill requested a copy of the Act in order to understand its impact and her eligibility to vote. Continue reading

Let Them Howl: 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage—An exhibition in Ottawa and Winnipeg

The year 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of women first winning the right to vote in Canada. On January 28—the date that Manitoba became the first province to pass women’s voting rights into law—Library and Archives Canada (LAC), in partnership with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, will officially launch an outdoor exhibition titled Let Them Howl: 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage.

The exhibition will feature reproduction portraits of some of the women who fought for equality and the vote. Be sure to check out the exhibitions January 28 to February 15, 2016 on the Rideau Canal Skateway in Ottawa (presented in partnership with Winterlude) and February 12–21, 2016 at the Festival du Voyageur in Winnipeg.

The exhibition features reproduction portraits from LAC’s collection of historic figures like Nellie McClung and Agnes Mcphail to modern women who have broken gender barriers, such as Adrienne Clarkson and Beverley McLachlin.

A black-and-white photograph of Agnes Macphail in profile, reading the paper.

Agnes Macphail by Yousuf Karsh, 1934 (MIKAN 3256551)

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Images for Women’s Suffrage Now on Flickr

Women won the vote in small incremental steps, with the western provinces leading the way. However, it was not until the 1960s that the majority of women in Canada gained the right to vote. Women’s suffrage was a powerful and early expression of women’s rights in Canada.

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)

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