A century ago Sask. women got the vote. Well, some of them.
THE EQUITY REPORT by Gregory Beatty
Talk about perfect timing! With Saskatchewan set to go to the polls on April 4, the province is poised to commemorate a major democratic milestone — the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote in provincial elections on March 12, 1916.
To Saskatchewan’s credit, it was only the second province to grant suffrage after Manitoba, which passed its bill on Jan. 28, 1916 [see timeline]. But in three Sask. elections before 1916 — in 1905, when Saskatchewan entered Confederation, 1908 and 1912 — women weren’t allowed to vote.
Fourth time’s the charm?
Suffrage was a big step forward for women, so the anniversary is worth celebrating. But it comes with a caveat, says University of Regina assistant history professor Donica Belisle.
“Suffrage is really complicated to talk about,” says Belisle. “A lot of people want to celebrate. It was like, okay, we’re going to give white women the vote. But we’re going to keep racial minorities out of the franchise.”
Banned From The Ballot
In 1909, says Belisle, Saskatchewan passed a law expressly forbidding Chinese men from voting. From the building of the CPR in the 1880s on, Chinese people had a visible presence in the province as small business owners and labourers. But they weren’t allowed to vote until 1948.
Who else got screwed? To no one’s surprise, I’m sure, indigenous people were also constrained from voting.
“If you wanted to keep your status under the Indian Act you couldn’t vote,” says Belisle. “As soon as you did, you’d lose your status and would have to leave your reserve.”
The policy was part of the plan to assimilate aboriginals, Belisle says.
“The government would only give indigenous people the right to vote if they agreed to assimilate,” says Belisle. “So there was a pretty racialized view of what constituted a citizen and who could be trusted to make decisions in the province.”
Suffrage in Saskatchewan was largely advanced by middle-class women of British ancestry who used letter campaigns and petition drives to pressure Premier Walter Scott’s Liberal government to grant them the vote. In doing so, they drew support from several other social movements that were prominent at the time.
One was the nascent farmers’ cooperative movement.
“From what I understand, the main reason the farmers’ movement supported suffrage was to increase the farm vote in the legislature,” says Belisle. “At the time, there was a real divide between the rural and urban sectors, and farmers thought if their wives could vote they would have greater clout.”
The temperance movement also gave the cause traction.
“Some people called it the social gospel movement,” says Belisle. “Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian congregations really promoted the idea of women being more moral than men and having a lot of clout to clean up politics.”
Previous arguments against suffrage had focused on women being too frail and delicate to engage in the rough and tumble of politics. The virtuous crusader was no less a female stereotype, but it did prove politically beneficial, says Belisle.
“When those causes became more important than equal rights, that’s when male supporters began to say, ‘You know, these women aren’t too bad. They’re not threatening the moral order at all. They’re going to come in and clean up politics and achieve some of the religious reforms we’ve wanted to achieve for some time.’”
Belisle says scholars are divided on whether suffragettes used their presumed virtue as a tactic to win support for their cause.
“Some say it was a rhetorical strategy to adopt what was called maternal feminism to get their voices heard. But others say, ‘No, it was really like that. They were very religious and committed to righteous causes.’”
For King And Country
Christianity and temperance were two righteous causes. World War One was a third.
Unlike the Second World War, says Belisle, the women’s movement wasn’t focused on the workplace but on volunteer organizations, like the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire.
“They were very active in Regina and Saskatoon, and did a lot of fundraising so they really got their voices out there [to support] the war effort,” says Belisle.
“It was the same with the YWCA and local Councils of Women [in Regina, Saskatoon and other centres],” Belisle says. They were all affluent white women who did a lot of fundraising. If they saw a young man who wasn’t on active duty, they would go up to him with a white chicken feather [to brand him a coward].
“It’s very hard to separate the feminist movement of the time from crusaders who promoted empire, nationalism and moral purity,” she says.
X Marks The Spot
Saskatchewan was a Liberal stronghold for its first 40 years as a province. We didn’t elect a non-Liberal government until the CCF’s 1944 victory under Tommy Douglas.
So what, if any, impact did suffrage have on provincial politics?
“In the 1970s and ’80s a lot of scholars tried to figure out what happened to the middle-class women’s movement after they got the vote,” says the University of Regina’s Donica Belisle. “Because it quickly became apparent they were not voting as a block, and that class, region and race continued to be key factors in women’s voting decisions. Historians have shown women tended to vote more along the lines of class and political allegiances rather than along gender allegiance.”
Belisle points to two leaders in the suffrage movement to dramatize the different viewpoints that existed.
“Nellie McClung lived in Manitoba and helped bring down the government there. She epitomizes all these contradictions. She was a radical feminist in promoting equal rights but she was also very conservative. She was racist, she supported eugenics through the sterilization of the mentally ill, along with prohibition.”
Then there’s Saskatchewan’s Violet McNaughton.
“She campaigned for suffrage, but then in the 1920s became a leading voice in the co-operative movement. She abandoned all the middle-class feminists she’d formed ties with. Farm interests were more important to her, so she got fed up trying to find alliance with affluent urban women.”
An even greater divide was evident in the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919, says Belisle.
“A lot of East European women were involved in that. So there were working class women, radical women, communist women active in politics. But they didn’t form a lot of ties with suffragists. So there was both a class and ethnic divide.”
So how does Belisle sum up her feelings about the centennial of suffrage in Saskatchewan?
“I’m not very enthusiastic about it in promoting social change, but I think it was symbolic, because prior to getting the vote white women were not considered citizens in a legal sense. So getting the franchise and just being able to be considered a citizen had a huge impact on the status of women.”