Emmeline Pankhurst and Carrie Derick
Service and Disservice: Chapter 5. About the iffy involvement of the Canadian suffragists in the 1917 Conscription Crisis.
A follow up to Furies Cross the Mersey, about the British Invasion of Suffragettes to Canada in 1912/13.
So, you think I can shed some insight into the mysterious machinations of the Borden’s Government in 1917 with respect to the Wartime Elections Act, that affront to democracy and women's equality that gave the federal vote only to women with men at the Front.
And , this because at the time I was Vice-President of both the National Council of Women and the National Equal Franchise Union, as well as President of the Montreal Suffrage Association and very involved Past-President of the Montreal Local Council of Women?
You assume I, above everyone, knew about everything that was going on in Canadian suffrage circles in that tumultuous era.
The truth is, what I knew is all in the minutes, the minutes of the Montreal Council of Women and of the Montreal Suffrage Association, to be specific.
Everything I want you to know.
Had I wanted you to know more, I would have left behind diaries and letters, like Flora Macdonald Denison or Madame Gerin-Lajoie. But, no. I didn't save rough copies of my speeches with lines crossed out, or little notes, all blotched, penned on the back of cafe menus, and the like, to be archived for future generations.
I was more, how might I say it, Protestant in my efforts to leave a legacy.
Had I not made the newspapers, so often, there would remain no record of any of any of my speeches, and I gave many of them back in the era, on a wide range of topics, not just women’s rights.
The minutes of the Montreal Suffrage Association, (1913-1919) I handed over, myself, to Madame Therese Casgrain, at a 1933 luncheon of La Ligue des droits de la femme, where I gave yet another speech on the history of woman suffrage in Quebec, a speech I could have given in my sleep by then.
I thought it was time to hand them over. I was in my 70's was in sharply declining healthy. I had quit McGill four years, my legendary energies almost spent.
At this luncheon, I started out by showcasing my knowledge of the Classics, bringing up Hypatia and Sappho, then the Abbesses of England and Mary Wollstonecraft, leading up to the Donaldas of McGill who kick started the feminist movement in Quebec.
I mentioned how my friend Miss Ritchie defied the governors of McGill in her Valedictory speech in the 1880’s, calling for McGill Medical School to be opened to women.
Then I talked about the ‘inert’ woman suffrage movement in Quebec in 1910, how we started the MSA in 1913, with an executive made up of half women and half men.
I left out details of the Conscription Crisis, sorry to tell you. No one wanted to rehash that grotesque chapter.
I went straight to the launch of the bilingual La ligue des Ddroits de la femme in 1922, with Dr. Ritchie England and me leading the English side and Mme Marie Gerin Lajoie leading the French side and then I described how Mme. Casgrain took over the reigns of the organization in 1927.
Quebec women hadn’t won the vote by 1933. And in some ways you can blame Mrs. Hamilton and the Toronto Suffragists for that. It wasn’t only the Roman Catholic Church and Napoleonic Code that made it so difficult. There were scars, you know. Much bitterness.
Yes, it’s all in the minute books.
(I’m guessing it isn’t in the history books. Otherwise, why would you bother to ask me?)
Yes, look in the minutes books. I couldn’t edit those down. The editing of minute books takes place on the fly. It's an art, really.
Most of what you want to know is in the minutes. Some of it, anyway.
At that same 1933 luncheon, Mrs. Casgrain told the group assembled that I was a great Canadian lady and that my name would go down in history. Has it? Do school children struggle to remember how to spell my name at exam time?
No? Well. That puts me in good company, I guess.
Yes, go read the minutes of the Montreal Suffrage Association if you want to know what I was up to in 1917, with me and my association.
I may have whittled the MSA documents down to the essentials before I passed them on to Mme Casgrain, but no one can accuse me of being a slacker when it comes to proper governance, or maintaining proper records.
No one can accuse me of being a Mrs. Flora MacDonald Denison or a Mrs. Constance Hamilton with respect to that.
When we created the Montreal Suffrage Association in March, 1913, we did it all on the up and up. We wrote a Constitution and Articles of Incorporation. We wrote a mission statement, a very general one: ‘to promote suffrage.’ And, to make sure only the right kind of people would be able to join our new organization, we put it in the by-laws to that effect. “Anyone could become a member of the MSA, but only upon nomination by the Executive Committee and approval at a general meeting.”
If that doesn’t sound fair to you, if that doesn’t sound in the spirit of true democracy, either, let me explain.
We could not open our new suffrasge organization to just anyone in the city. There were some people out there, some young folk, some excitable young women, specifically from the UK, who wanted to hijack our movement, our Montreal suffrage movement and make it more British or more American in style.
And these excitable young women scared a lot of people, a lot of our elite men and women, who otherwise were quite willing to entertain the idea of woman suffrage, seeing the value in it, seeing how it could be used to stabilize our society in a time of roiling change.
Was I scared of these girls? Absolutely not! As if I would be afraid of any young woman or man. Me, a college professor. I wasn’t even intimidated by Mrs. Pankhurst or her daughters. But, I understood the situation, the situation in the province all too well. Being Quebec born.
As President, I carefully curated every word that came out of the new suffrage organization, out of necessity, with one unhappy exception, in the summer of 1917
The time Mrs. Constance Hamilton, that Torontonian, Chairman of the Women's Section of the Win-the-War Committee, beat me at my own game.
So what questions do you have for me, precisely? You think a lot of what I said, back then, was contradictory?
Well, I didn’t get where I was, the first female full professor at a Canadian university only by brains, hard work and good fortune.
I was a political animal, first and foremost, with a grounding in the Greek and Latin classics and the art of rhetoric as good as any high-quality lawyer; and if anything is true about the game of politics, you can’t always say what your mean, especially to the Press, and you can’t always mean what you say, either, especially in difficult times.
Especially during a time of crisis, a time of war.
I’m guessing little as changed in your time. Am I right?
So, you think that because I was a VP of both the National Council of Women and the National Equal Franchise Union in 1917, as well as President of the Montreal Suffrage Association and Past-President and Life Member of the MLCW that I was privy to all and everything that was going on at that time in Canadian suffrage circles, even during the undignified national debate over the Wartime Elections act.
And most of that, you think, I probably did not include in any Montreal minute books.
You may have a point, but, to tell the absolute truth, when it comes to the critical period, May, 1917 to December, 1917,when Votes for Women was being debated in Parliament and on Peel and Sainte Catherine, I was preoccupied not with politics but with something much more traditionally feminine. I was busy with the canning and preserving of food – so critical at that junction of the war.
During the Conscription Crisis, itself, December 1917, when the riots were happening in Quebec, I was giving talks on heredity to women’s groups in the Ontario, raising funds for the MSA.
In other words, I tried to stay clear of the controversy, right at that time. I tried to steer the Montreal Suffrage Association clear of the controversy, too, and might have succeeded, were it not for that game-changer, that major slip up in the summer of 1917, where I surrendered control of the message to others at the MSA and paid dearly for it. The whole country did.
Well, it all unravelled from there on, didn't it?
Mrs. Torrington of the National Council of Women and Dr. Ritchie England of the Montreal Council of Women both finding themselves in hot water. The French never forgiving us.
OK. So it is 1917. The war is been dragging on and food preservation is now a top priority in patriotic circles.
The other top priority is getting more more men to the Front. Fodder for Cannon, as Mrs. Weller liked to put it. That was certainly Premier Borden’s priority. And he made it our priority, the women of Canada’s priority, by, in turns, cajoling and praising us in the Press and by censuring us in private.
He put the dirty task of finding new recruits at the top of our to-do list. Knitting socks and rolling bandages and raising money wasn't enough.
Don’t get me wrong. I had been on-side with the war effort from the very beginning. In September, 1914, just a month after war was declared, I called a meeting of the executive of the MSA and said, “We have been asking for our rights, now it is time to do our duty.”
I can see now that the statement made no sense, but I was a natural when it came to the vacuous Press Statement.
I volunteered immediately to start a Khaki League, to provide soldiers, coming and going, with lodging, laundry services and wholesome entertainment.
In the summer of 1915, I followed Mrs. Weller and Mrs. Scott to the Eastern Townships, as far as my hometown of Clarenceville, near the US border, and gave recruitment speeches under the guise of suffrage speeches, “Women, Suffrage and War” and such, although we didn’t characterize them as such in the Montreal newspapers.
And, when Mr. Borden came back from England, asking for 500,000 new Canadian recruits, I spear-headed a motion by the Montreal Council of Women in favor or mandatory overseas service.
(Not Conscription! I never said that, whatever is written in the minutes.)
The resolution was passed and sent to the National Council of Women who sent it to all the locals and it was ratified by 11 locals and rejected by 7.
Add to this the fact that we women in the province of Quebec raised more money for the war effort than women anywhere else, and you can hardly characterized our province as being a province of slackers.
But, Mrs. Constance Hamilton did just that. And she made it seem in the Press, she made it seem to Premier Borden, as if we at the Montreal Suffrage Association were in agreement.
And, all because I was out of town in July, 1917
And, all because I was out of town in July, 1917