Monday, March 11, 2013

Women, Social Purity and the Suffragists of Montreal




The Montreal Local Council of Women spun off the Montreal Suffrage Association in 1913. The reason to create this new organization (an act that directly contravened their own by-laws)was 'to keep the interest in suffrage alive' after a visit by British Militant Emmeline Pankhurst.

So it was written in the minutes.

I suspect the reason was to find some way to 'control' the suffrage issue in Montreal. Pankhurst's visit didn't stir that much interest (they had to give away 200 tickets) and much of the interest that was stirred was negative (according to Therese Casgrain's autobiography).

But Pankhurst's visit to Montreal likely stirred some unwelcome interest,  too, in the form of Romantic Young  "Restless" Women (like Edith Nicholson) who wanted to take to the streets with placards to shout VOTES FOR WOMEN!  (Right at this time the British Suffragettes were getting put in jail and force-fed which made for great headlines in the news.)

How Un-Canadian of Edith and her ilk! After all, there was no militant suffragette movement in Canada. We didn't need one. Or so it was pronounced from the editorial pages, pulpits and lecture halls. Our suffrage movement was 'reasonable' and about educating the public.

Like Emmeline Pankhurst, who wrote her autobiography in 1913, right in the middle of the fight, Carrie Derick also sought to control the legacy of the short-lived Montreal Suffrage Association and, from what I see, most historians have taken Derick at her word, even if they see the Canadian suffrage movement for what it was: one hijacked by the so-called "maternal" faction.

I've decided to write a book or a TV drama about the Montreal Suffragists, using family letters to describe the more personal side of life in Montreal during WWI. A follow up to Threshold Girl

In Miss Derick's (1930's?) synopsis of the women's rights movement in Quebec (included in the Montreal Council of Women archives in Ottawa ) she states that in October 1917 there was a discussion of the War Time Elections Act by members of the Montreal Suffrage Association "and although the majority  thought it was undemocratic, the association decided to take no part in the dispute."

(Montreal Council of Women President Dr. Ritchie England published a letter in the press in 1917 saying "the War Time Elections act is a piece of unsurpassed effrontery which sets at defiance every fundamental of British Justice" and got into big trouble for it.)

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Funny, this is one time when it would be quite proper for the Montreal Suffrage Association to get involved as their mission statement says they exist to To Promote Suffrage, but they don't.

They get involved in plenty of other areas, all outside their mission. As Derick further writes, "The Montreal Suffrage Association's  activities were varied, working in cooperation with others for social, political and economic reform; they assisted in getting out the women's vote in the municipal elections and threw themselves heart and soul into war work."

 (So, the Montreal Suffrage Association got involved in the municipal elections, getting out the spinster vote, but not so that said spinsters could vote their consciences and their interests and participate in the democratic process, but so that these property owning childless women could vote for the Association's favoured Reform Candidates whose main aim, it was claimed, was to Save the Children.)

The MSA even got involved with iffy social hygiene issues (pushing for women patrols to keep prostitutes away from the soldiers in city barracks) and in the iffier issue of social purity, having a lecture on 'women and social purity'. What has social purity got to do with suffrage? Nothing, although social purity (or prevention of white race suicide) was a clear goal of many on the executive of the Montreal Suffrage Association.

You see these people put the cart before the horse and made a bit of a mockery of things, I think. A mockery of  democracy and what the franchise is supposed to be all about, while lambasting Montreal City Hall for doing the same.

From what I can see, many of the men and women on the exec of the Montreal Suffrage Association were using the platform to promote their pet projects.

For instance, I suspect it was Honorary V.P. Dr. Symonds (of Christ Church Cathedral) who had the Montreal Suffrage Association petition the Montreal Council of Women about prostitution around soldiers' barracks.

 That's because he soon became President of the Committee of Sixteen, a  group set up to combat Commercialized Vice in the City.

Today I visited the National Archives in Ottawa to look at microfilm of the Montreal Council of Women historical papers.

 There is a great deal on these microfilms referencing the Council's Committee on Mental Defectives, and a lot of that material gives me the heebie-jeebies, it's so spooky and racist.

This was Carrie Derick's baby and remained so for many years.

(From 1909-1912 Carrie Derick was President of the Montreal Local Council of Women. She resigned and only took on the Presidency of the Montreal Suffrage Association 'reluctantly' as they couldn't find the 'right' person to take charge.

At the same time she was a V.P. of the Canadian Council of Women, which is why in April 1913 she missed the inaugural meeting of the Montreal Suffrage Association (in the Redpath Library of McGill) because, no doubt, she was busy organizing the Canadian Council of Women's Suffrage Evening on May 6 or so at St. James. Methodist Church, where Mrs. Ethel Snowden, British Suffragist and wife of a Labour M.P. gave a speech.)

A survey of 'defective immigrants' from the Herve Institute is telling. It is written that:
3 were epileptic,
2 were insane
38 were of low grade mentality
1 called "very queer"
1 termed 'simple'
1 had St Vitus Dance
7 were neurotic
4 paralyzed
1 a gambler
2 were beggars
1 had a drug habit
30 were illegitimate
27 were grossly immoral
3 criminal
9 had cancer.

(Really!)

The documents include a couple of case histories and then it is said, "It is impossible even to gather the sad stories of so many families, but one or two demonstrate that the assimilation  of the immoral and defective means a lowering of standards and a weakening of older stocks which more than offsets any slight advantage accruing from the newcomers."

Social purity meant filtering immigrants as well as keeping the genetically (and morally) imperfect from procreating. (Carrie Derick was a Botanist and in 1910 she gave a lecture to The Women's Literary Society on Eugenics, using the Jakes/Edwards study, the same study published in the Ontario Hygiene Manual for High School Students. She says, "Laws are for Bad People, Good People don't need them.")

Venereal disease was a big issue with the Montreal Local Council (as it was with Cristobel Pankhurst "Votes for Women: Chastity for Men")

  It is even suggested in a MLCW document that Canadian soldiers who contract VD while overseas fighting should be treated no better than immigrants upon their return.

Anyway, my main reason for going to Ottawa was to see the November 1913 issue of the Montreal Daily Herald, the edition that  contained the Suffrage Special Feature  edited  by the Montreal Suffrage Association.

(Herald Editor in Chief Edward Beck had approached the Association's Executive in late October 1913 to ask if they wanted to mount such a feature. They thought it a good idea.)

And I did find it! And even better, on the same roll of microfilm for November I found a rant by Edward Beck over the 40 year Montreal Tramway Contract.

I now suspect Beck of ulterior motives in approaching the suffragists.

The Tramway Company's Brazen Demands! was the headline of the full-page editorial/rant in 16 or 18 point.

"It is well-known that the tramway company has City Hall under its thumb and it can work its sweet will with the people working there."

It is known to have an alliance with a sector of the newspaper industry, stifling public opinion. (La Presse, I guess.)

The President of the Tramway and several of his henchmen occupy seats in the Legislative Assembly and unblushingly vote away people's rights."

How interesting.

I have to figure out (by checking the time-line)  if Beck is the one who gets the Montreal Council of Women to make a resolution against the Tramway Contract and write Mayor Martin who trashes them in the press, calling them idle women, which causes the paper to write an editorial in praise of the Council (who are aligned with the French Canadian Federation National so Martin had better watch it) which forces Martin to apologize to them.

And soon after Beck leaves the Herald, sets up his own Tabloid, Beck's Weekly, and catches my grandfather, Jules Crepeau, the Assistant City Clerk (and a relative of the Forget's of Montreal Tramways) in a bribery sting. (My grandfather would go on in the 1920's to work under Martin as Director of City Services, perhaps his reward for helping get the Tramway deal passed.Who knows.)

As for the suffrage special, well, it's not, as I expected. I thought it would be an entire section devoted to the issue.

The Montreal Suffrage Association merely has a few articles scattered in what appears to be a lengthy Women's Section, with tonnes of ads and articles on fashion and whatnot.

 The front page is theirs, however, and that page features a giant centerpiece graphic (in ink, of noble womanhood)  and framing that visual is an article about Woman Suffrage AIMED AT MEN.

"We don't ask for the vote because we want to revolutionize the world. We do not want the vote because we think ourselves better than men. We do not ask for it because we want to shirk our duty as women and mothers.  WE ASK BECAUSE WE ARE INSPIRED BY MOTHER SPIRIT. Every suffragist is at heart a mother.  We ask for the right to share in the governing of our fair land. We ask to be a part in the making of laws under which we live.

There is another long article by Julia Grace Parker Drummond titled "A Noble Cause" or something like that; a "short pithy" one by Christabel Pankhurst (they had written to ask for such a jot. She's in France); an article by Reverend Symonds on The Bible and Suffrage; and a lawyerly article "What is the Franchise."

But no invitation to join up....No attempt to attract young women (who like most young women might not care a whit about other women's children) to the cause.  No explanation of what the Montreal Suffrage Association will be doing as an organization. All so very fishy.

So what do I think? I think that the Montreal Suffrage Association was not about giving diverse women a democratic voice. It was about a powerful group of people keeping the movement to themselves to promote a certain set of values, Protestant values.

It was about using this world-wide interest in suffrage to promote their own (often xenophobic) causes. (Of course, it was Carrie Derick who proposed bringing Emmeline Pankhurst to Montreal in the first place.)

 And then when they shut down the organization in 1919, they claimed it was because no French Canadians had signed up to join the Montreal Suffrage Association. Why would they, eh?  And they couldn't just continue. I'm sure Gerin-Lajoie and the others from the Federation had no interest in being associated with the MSA, who had supported Borden's unrealistic conscription aims, while claiming they were apolitical. (The Federation stopped participating with the Montreal Council in the Municipal Elections during the War and that says something,too.)

It's weird, come to think of it. Race Suicide was a major fear of these people and yet they were all for sending 500,000 young, healthy Canadian men, that would be 1/8th of all men, to their doom.

But then, Borden gave women with military connections the vote in the 1917 Conscription Election because he knew that women with men at the front would want replacements for their sons, to increase the chances of their men coming home.

Because when it comes down to it, we all are selfish creatures and we put our own children first.