Sunday, July 19, 2015

Montreal and its Suffrage History


Edith Nicholson's clipping of the Montreal Woman's Suffrage Exhibition held between February 1 and February 15, 1913, two months before the "sweet and reasonable' Montreal Suffrage Association was officially launched on April 25, 1913.

Read Furies Cross the Mersey on Amazon.


I was right.

As the old newspaper reports seem to indicate, there were some bad feelings between the two organizers of the 1913 Montreal Woman's Suffrage Exhibition, the Montreal Women's Club (Citizenship Committee) led by Kathleen Weller and the Montreal Council of Women led by Dr. Grace Ritchie England.


It is clearly spelled out in the Annual Report of the National Council of Women for May, 1913.

The National Council's  AGM was held in Montreal May 1-7.

On May 5  a special Suffrage Evening was held, where moderate British Suffragist, Mrs. Ethel Snowden, gave a speech.

Edith Nicholson  of Threshold Girl writes this  in a May 2, 1913 letter home: "We are hoping to hear Mrs. Snowden, but she is not a militant. For which I am sorry."

The following tidbit is in the 1913 AGM Yearbook, in the report of the Citizenship Committee of the National Council (of which Mrs. Weller was likely a member).


The Montreal Local Council's report contained this contradictory statement:



A Gazette account of the activities at the opening meeting of the National Council's AGM claims that Octavia Grace Ritchie England spent some time clearing up this apparent contradiction.

Ritche also talked about the new Montreal Suffrage Association.

As it happens, Mrs. Weller and Mrs. Fenwick Williams of the Citizenship Committee of the Montreal Women's Club were asked to come on board the new Montreal Suffrage Association, but not as officers.

Weller was head of the Literature Committee;Fenwick Williams Press Secretary.

Kathleen Weller was the lady who invited militant suffragette Barbara Wylie into her Westmount living room in September 1912. (According to Wylie in a note home to the W.S.P.U.)

Wylie later spoke publicly at the YMCA, where the some men in the crowd almost came to blows.

Upon landing in Montreal, some journalists caught up to the British Suffragette and Edith Nicholson, my husband's great aunt, clipped the following.

 Apparently, the reporters almost missed Wylie, expecting a battle-ax to de-train but instead being met with a tall, elegant-looking woman, escorted by a gentleman. (This was a common way reporters often de-fanged militants, but describing how feminine they looked.)



Frances Fenwick Williams was an author (and wife of a stock market officer) who poked fun at anti-suffragettes in her 1915 book A Soul on Fire. (No doubt Mrs. FW used her 'friends' at the M.S.A. as fodder for the book.)

When WWI broke out, it was Weller and Mrs. John Scott of the Quebec Christian Women's Temperance Union who took over the outreach for the M.S.A., giving out literature at the Auto Show and at County Fairs in the Eastern Townships, still using the yellow banners that decorated the 1913 suffrage exhibition.

Fenwick Williams was also the one voice against the post-war disbandment of the M.S.A.  in 1919.

It is likely she who penned an angry anonymous letter to the Editor in the Gazette, asking why a handful of people could disband an organization unilaterally and why the monies left-over were being given over to 'help' the 'feeble-minded.' (This was M.S.A. President Carrie Derick's pet project.)

I'll never get to the bottom of the relationship between the Montreal Women's Club and the Montreal Council. The Women's Club has left behind no minutes.

But they did briefly take up the cause of Provincial Woman Suffrage in the 1919-1920's era... and I have yet to investigate how this all rolls into the new bilingual organization set up my Derick, England and Gerin-Lajoie in 1922, La Ligue des Droits de la Femme.

The Montreal Suffrage Association minutes are archived because Carrie Derick gave the documents to La Ligue in the 1930's. It says so in another Gazette report, where Therese Casgrain is applauding Derick at a talk she is giving for La Ligue.

These fonds are at Montreal City Hall.

Anyway, this is all unfolding at the climax of my book, Furies Cross the Mersey (read it here)where two Royal Victoria College students try to start a suffrage parade in 1913 Montreal, not understanding what a mess of complications the issue of woman suffrage generates in bicultural Montreal.

So this event is important.

Years ago, when I contacted a best-selling author of historical novels for young adults in Canada, she said "Forget the History. Go for the Story."

In this case, I think she is partially right, but I have to sneak some history in there, without it being too complicated or boring.


Recruits: A funny choice of words for the headline for the end of the Montreal Women's Suffrage Exhibit.   The suffragists of Montreal weren't recruiting, like the militant W.S.P.U in England, who actively trained their "troops." In Montreal, they were looking for silent supporters to sign their petitions and give them credibility.

In order to become a member of the Montreal Suffrage Association, a person had to be nominated by two members of the Executive, who were mostly McGill Profs, former Donaldas and Clergyman.

There was nothing democratic about this M.S.A. organization: it was a CLUB, a club designed to keep 'aggressive' elements out of the suffrage debate in Quebec.