Saturday, March 2, 2013

How NOT To get Attention: The Montreal Suffragists

Suffragettes in England.


I was watching Parade's End which played on HBO Canada last week, and that story involves a suffragette, and they showed a short scene with women and signs reading Votes for Women.

It's become iconic. Upstairs Downstairs had the same scene.

They made the movie Iron Jawed Angels a few years ago with Hilary Swank and they had the girls (pretty young girls) tied to lamp posts at the White House.

The militant suffragettes (especially if you make them young and pretty and some were) make good TV.

I am trying to write a documentary (point of view documentary or docudrama or drama) based on the letters of  The Nicholson Women of Montreal about the Canadian Suffrage Movement but I realize it can't be done. Not a documentary.

The Canadian Suffragists (and especially the Montreal Suffragists) were not 'militant'.  Militant back then could mean anything from carrying a sign and yelling at a government official as he passed in a motorcade, to parading in large groups, to having a loud event in a park, to throwing bricks and breaking windows (which is what got all the attention).

It was all about getting attention - for the press, for the pictures that would go down in history and be put in documentaries or re-created for TV mini series.
British Suffragettes and their new motorcar- a donation from a friend.

The bricks and window-breaking (and diving under horses)were when someone got a little carried away, and were sometimes orchestrated.  And this led to jail and then the famous hunger strikes!

I'm thinking of putting together a quick 'draft' documentary about the Canadian movement, maybe today, and I was dreaming about it last night. I would start with images of women from the UK and the US - women with signs - and then say, unlike these movements, there was no militant movement in Canada. No images of "restless" Canadian women marching down St.Catherine Street.


Emily Davison kills herself at the racetrack.

And then maybe I'd put in a serene portrait of Julia Parker Drummond writing one of her letters or a portrait of Herbert Ames, the Reformer.

Herbert Ames, the Montreal Social Reformer. He was not on the Board of the Montreal Suffrage Association, but men of his ilk were, Reverend Pedley and Herbert Symonds, both Reverends. But when the Executive of the MSA wanted a copy of the Hansard of the War Time Elections Act in 1917, they contacted Sir Ames, an MP.

Julia Parker Drummond was Honorary President of the Montreal Suffrage Association. At the launch of the organization in 1913 she told the press that the MSA was to be a REASONABLE suffrage organization.

The fact was, Montreal was the seat of the establishment in Canada in 1913. The establishment hijacked the suffrage movement for their own ends. There were more dynamic and inclusive movements out west, in BC for instance. Even Ontario had a broader range of suffragists, including Flora Macdonald Denison, a socialist, pacifist, journalist, spiritualist.

No doubt there were some very pretty young women in Montreal who were keen on grabbing a sign and marching down St. Catherine Street yelling VOTES FOR WOMEN. Edith Nicholson for one.

In a 1913 letter to her mom she writes, "We are going to see Mrs. Snowden speak, but she is not Militant, and for this I am sad." Mrs. Snowden was the wife of a British MP who was a moderate Suffragist, but also very beautiful, so the press loved to go see her.

I found a bit in a newspaper from 1913 that suggests there were other women in Montreal who were for a militant movement, but they were squashed.  A Miss W, a Jewish girl, wanted to start the Montreal Equal Franchise League.


The Auto Show 1916 from the McCord Museum Flickr stream, creative commons. This is a picture of the Montreal Suffrage Association at Work. See, they have a both down there at the end.  Great TV? Not.

How NOT to get attention.

Of course, the Montreal newspapers didn't seem to have photographers back then. Only the French tabloids did as their readership was less educated. So what use would a good photo op be?