Monday, September 28, 2015

Madame Defarge, Constance Hamilton and the Conscription Crisis


Toronto Suffragists March in Washington in 1913. Constance Hamilton, the leader of a provincial assocation, walked behind Mrs. Flora Macdonald Denison and Dr. Stowe-Gullen of the Canadian Suffrage Association.  Hamilton soon mounted a coup against Denison and started her own National Equal Franchise Union, that didn't do much during the War, but in 1917 she used her position to act as a spokesperson for Canadian women.


Well, in 1916, before he was forced to call the infamous Conscription Election, Premier Borden of Canada called for 500,000 new recruits.

The population of Canada in 1917 was 8,000,000.

I did the math, looking at the Census figures, and, yes, 500,000 was about every able-bodied man from 14 to 35 in Canada.

And if you figure they weren't allowing foreign born or people of colour into the forces, well...

In early August 1917 they held a Win-the-War meeting in Toronto, where they invited the women (with only two days notice, apparently).

The newspaper accounts make it sound very much like a religious-revival meeting, with testimonials and tears and no shortage of hysteria. Did you know Prussians were cannibals?


Constance Hamilton, of the National Equal Franchise Union, a national suffrage organization she started just before the war and which never really got going, used her position to give a keynote speech, saying she didn't want an election.

But, she was all for Conscription.  All the women of Canada were for conscription she said, perhaps overstating her authority to say so.

According to the Toronto Star report, you could hear the sound of knitting needles clicking all through the meeting a la Madame Defarge. (Women knitted socks for the men at the Front.)

I have to use that in my book, Service and Disservice, about the iffy involvement of the Canadian Suffragists in the Conscription election of 1917.

It's the follow up to Furies Cross the Mersey, about the British Invasion of Suffagettes to Canada in 1912/13.

Not sure how to use it; it's kind of an inverted metaphor. Or is it? Maybe these 2,000 women in attendance at the Win-the-War meeting, some accompanied by their limbless husbands and sons, were out for blood and revenge?

Anyway, at the same time, the Premier of Ontario took out a half page ad in the newspapers saying he needed 100,000 men to bring in the crop in Ontario.

(A little problem, here, obviously.)

Constance Hamilton tried to figure it out by starting a women's agriculture committee on the National Council of Women.

She had previously been head of the Immigration Committee, a subject she got interested in when she lived in BC and in Winnipeg with her husband, L.A. Hamilton, a legendary surveyor who had a street in Vancouver named after him.

They had no children together.

I have to wonder what Hamilton thought about the 'cannibal' accusation. She was a from a wealthy Yorkshire family and had spent time in Leipzig studying music and piano.

She even started a Bach Society in Toronto.

Anyway, it was at this Win-the-War meeting that Prime Minister Borden took Hamilton and the other Lady Leaders aside and asked them if they could go out and poll their membership to see if he'd win the election if he gave women the vote. (Note added later: It was at these meetings that Hamilton took aside 3 other women leaders to ask the to ponder Borden's telegram of the day before, asking them to poll. The four ladies met with Borden two days later in Ottawa.)

He told them to be discreet about it.

The answer came back NO. So Borden ended up giving only women with close relatives fighting in the War  the vote in the 1917 election, with the War Time Elections Act.

Constance Hamilton loudly defended the Act in the Press. The President of the other (more legitimate) Canadian Suffrage Organization, Dr Margaret Gordon, called it a "Disenfranchise Act."

Gordon wondered in the Press why women with men in the war were so keen on seeing other women send their men to die in war.

It was a good question, and it was answered by a mother of soldiers giving a speech at the Win-the- War meeting.

If more men went to war it would improve the chances of their own men coming back.