Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Closet Militants in Montreal, circa 1910




Here's the list of Canadian suffragists and suffragettes on Wikipedia. Pretty pathetic, eh?

And The Famous Five are famous for a 'persons' case held in 1927-28 (the era of my story Milk and Water - about Montreal City Hall in the era of US Prohibition. I'm guessing the Famous Five were all for Prohibition, temperance types.

Emily Stowe was an Equal Rights Suffragist, that I know and was her daughter Augusta-Stowe Gullen, but maternal suffragists pushed them from the movement in and around 1910.

I never learned much about these suffragists, being schooled in Quebec. And I learned nothing about the Canadian suffrage movement or any suffrage movement in school. Odd, since I went to school in the era of "Women's Lib" and we had lots of debates in class.

My information was restricted back then to 'bra-burning' issues from the media and what I could find in the school library.

 (I guess I could have gone out and asked any old lady on the street, but how was I to know under those thick surgical stockings and mound of grey hair rolled up into a motherly bun, there once was a young social activist with big dreams.)

Still, I knew what a suffragette was from TV and movies. A silly person in silly costume waving a placard and (in newsreels)walking about jerkily, like a giant chicken in a big big hat. Or a pretty girl like Natalie Wood in The Great Race, who was all talk about women's rights but who really wanted love.

So when I found the Nicholson letters from the 1908-1913 era and read them and transcribed them and posted the online at Tighsolas, I was intrigued by the many references to the suffragettes and the many press clippings of suffragette stories.

These were Canadian women, Montreal women,  my husband's great grandmother, grandmother and great aunts.


Edith and Flora Nicholson, Richmond Quebec.1913. LIke many young Canadian middle class women of their era, they supported the militant suffragettes of Great Britain.


I had a copy of Pierre Berton's Marching As to War about the Great War  and saw the book contained only a few sentences about the Canadian Suffrage Movement. Berton says the movement peaked in 1910 and was propelled by temperance types. (Very boring.)

So I dug out from the McGill Library the only two books on the Canadian Suffrage Movement, one a Master's Thesis by an American, Catherine Cleverdon and one a book based on a thesis by McGill student Carole Bacchi and read them. (That was 8 years ago, and as I had no context, I can't say I recall much about them.)

Over the next few years, while researching the background to the Tighsolas letters from my sSchool Marms and Suffragettes series, including Threshold Girl, Diary of a Confirmed Spinster and Furies Cross the Mersey, about the British suffragettes and their invasion of Montreal in 1912/13.

I learned a lot more from primary and secondary sources and right now I think I know enough to start on my documentary, Sister Salvation.

Emmeline Pankhurst being rushed away from some demonstration (Hyde Park?) in the 1913 era. Canadian suffragists distanced themselves from the British militants, at least 'officially.'

I also think I've figured out why our Canadian Suffrage Narrative has little to do with women who actually campaigned for the vote.

(Women in Canada (and the British Suffragettes) pressured Borden to give women the vote but he passed the buck and claimed this was in provincial jurisdiction.

He gave women with military connections the vote for the 1917 conscription election and after that all women with exception of recently naturalized foreign women from outside North America. (I think that's how it went..)

The Montreal Suffrage Association, founded in 1913, disbanded in 1919 - and a 1919 letter to the editor in the Gazette at the time of its dissolution suggests the group lost all its members when the President sent a letter to Borden opposing conscription.

So the organization probably had little influence on women getting the vote in Canada although they had input into a collective effort to give married women in Quebec more rights.

The same 1919 letter to the editor claimed only 9 members (out of original 300) were present at the meeting to disband.

 It is clear from press clippings, however, that the Montreal Suffrage Association spent a great deal of time on War Work and fundraising efforts  in the 1914-18 period. At the start of war in 1914 they pledged to divert all their efforts to the cause. They held weekly meetings on University Street. A Mrs. Scott, English born, took over the leadership from Miss Derick. She had two boys at the front and was a Temperance Advocate. The Montreal Suffrage Association also had booths at country fairs, Dominion Park and the Automobile Show.

A news clipping from December 1912 before inauguration  reveals that there is friction between the new members and a small but active group of would be militants, but also admits that Mrs. Pankhurst and Miss Barbara Wiley (British militants) inspired the Montreal Council to spin off the Suffrage Group. (So without minutes it's hard to guess what exactly is going on with these people. They appear all over the map, perhaps even floating trial balloons in the newspapers.)

In one article The Montreal Suffrage Association says  it is neither militant or anti-militant as that issue is irrelevant in Montreal.

Toronto Suffragettes too probably had little influence. They got into trouble in the 1913-1914 era supporting the Militant British Suffragettes or by opposing the war effort entirely (something the Militant British Suffragettes didn't do. Mrs. Pankhurst was no fool.)

(We are told differently now, but as Pierre Berton shows, not everyone in English Canada was for the war effort, . Indeed, I have a letter from a doctor relation of the Nicholsons in BC in 1917 who claims the only men signing up are British men hoping for a cheap ride home as the jobs have dried up for them. In a 1916 letter, Marion Nicholson says her mother in law rails against conscription "as if her sons are the only ones to go." Family friends, the Tuckers, lose a son in the War just before Armistice. First they hear he is dead, then alive, then dead. Flora writes about it in a letter, but the story makes the Montreal Gazette. Flora's beau is the brother, Herb, who is also overseas and writes Flora letters. "Don't come over here to work as a nurse," he writes from the Belgian front. "It is not bonne over here.")

So NO CANADIAN SUFFRAGE MYTH. History Forgotten if not Effaced.

Edith Nicholson as Commandant of the Canadian Red Cross in WWII. In the WWI era I suspect she was involved with the Montreal Suffrage Association as she knew Carrie Derick, the organization's first president, and as she later worked under Mrs. Hurlbatt, the Warden of the Royal Victoria College, who was also a suffragist/suffragette.

And there's probably another reason for this  'cover-up': the movement's murky relationship with eugenics, especially in Montreal, especially with respect to  McGill professors and students.

And since most social history in Canada is Toronto-centric and little is done concerning the history of Anglo Quebec that doesn't come out of McGill, well,....

Now, I assumed that the suffrage movement in Canada has been sort of censored because its narrative  threatened that delicate balance between English and French Canada.

Quebec did not give the vote to women until the 1940's, with Therese Casgrain (a relation of mine, I think) doing the work. (A Canadian Suffragette off the Wikipedia list but not not Harper's list, he's not putting her, with the Famous Five, on the new Holographic Canadian plastic money.

But the real story of our suffragist/suffragette movement actually explains a lot about why French Canada didn't want any part of the movement.

Anyway, I'm off to write the script for my documentary.