Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Have you heard the one about the eugenicist and the Prime Minister?

Carrie Derick of the Montreal Suffrage Association who managed to stay out of trouble during the Conscription Crisis by making ambiguous statements in the Press, rather than ambivalent ones.

In June, 1917 the Press was reporting that Prime Minister Borden was likely going to give Canadian women the vote for the next election. So, a huge deputation of suffragists from all around Canada, who were about to descend on Ottawa, cancelled their plans.

By September, 1917, it was clear only women with men at the front, brothers, sons, husbands, would get to vote.

What happened in between?

Well, that narrative will provide the climax of the book I am working on, Service and Disservice, a follow up to Furies Cross the Mersey.

Furies Cross the Mersey covers the Canadian Suffragists from 1910 to 1913 and Service and Disservice will cover the WWI years.

Mrs. Pankhurst and her troops figure in both books, in spirit and, occasionally, in body.

According to Pierre Berton, in his book Marching As to War, what happened was that Arthur Meighen, Borden's Right Hand Man, met Nelly McClung out West and she warned him that many women living out there would not support Conscription.

Berton claims McLung was the one who floated the idea of some kind of limited franchise.

Borden could have limited the franchise to women who had been in Canada a certain length of time,  but then Quebec women would get the vote and that was no good either, in the minds of Win-the-War types.

And some weren't shy about saying it, either.

So, on Augusts 2, 1917, at the Win-the-War meetings in Toronto, Borden  took a few Women's leaders aside (leaders of the WCTU, IODE, The National Council of Women and the National Equal Franchise League run by Constance Hamilton) and asked them to poll their Canada-wide membership to see if women would support his Union Government and, by extension, his Conscription Bill if they were allowed to vote.

The Leaders did just that and the answer came back a resounding NO.

I recently read a hairy account of these very Win-the-War meetings in Toronto in the Women's Century, the organ of the National Council of Women.

It seems the women leaders were only given 48 hours notice, which means that inviting them was a last minute decision on the part of the Borden Government.

A few speakers were invited especially to 'educate' the women. One woman who had three sons at the Front was blunt about why Conscription was necessary: to increase the odds of her own sons surviving.

Not a very noble reason, if you think about it. More of a selfish one.

"If we don’t send men to the front, we can’t get back our boys who are there. Those men who have kept our home and our liberty for us."

A "great war veteran" said:

“What we want is a union, a common platform of sacrifice and duty to be distributed all over the country."

So, these Social Work women got all caught up in the emotion of it and then, later on, the suffragists among them got caught up in their own ambivalence/hypocrisy.

Some suffrage leaders had to backtrack, claiming publically that they OPPOSED limited franchise on principle, because many among their membership did.

The minutes of the Montreal Council of Women show that they supported WWI from the start. The yearbooks says, "most women were away in the country when war broke out' but they soon got their act together and started a Khaki League, to provide soldiers with convalescent care, clean laundry and 'wholesome' entertainment. Miss Derick was appointed President.

Most Suffrage leaders had long expressed their support of Conscription, but in Montreal, the Local Council was forced to say in 1918 in the Press that it never supported Conscription, not technically at least. It supported Mandatory National Service for both men and women.

Their minutes show otherwise. In 1916 the MSA Executive passed a strong resolution in favour of Conscription and sent it on to the National who sent it on to all locals, who voted on it  16 yes to 11 no. It was even referred to as "the Montreal Resolution." LOL.

Still, President Grace Ritchie England stumped for Wilfrid Laurier in the 1917 election and suffered an humiliating impeachment hearing for her efforts.

Mrs. Torrington, the President of the National Council of Women, also had an especially hard time of it. She too was chastised for speaking (and writing letters to the editor) on behalf of the entire MCW membership on these touchy political issues when she hadn't been given the mandate. It was easy to see why she did, though.

The Woman's Century Magazine printed another article in September, 1917, revealing that an official resolution was passed by the National Council of Women protesting against Borden's Dominion Franchise Bill - and sent to his office.

Then the article immediately goes on to explain why Limited Franchise is a very good thing. Did you know that many POW's caught by the Allies were Canadian Germans fighting for the enemy?  Did you know that 'foreign' women voted in greater proportion than British born or Canadian-born women, in the provincial elections?

"The greater is hidden in the lesser" with this Dominion Franchise the author of the article, suggesting  the Suffragists of Canada had found a way to trick Borden into giving women the vote, one parcel at a time.

(Borden told the lawyer for the Montreal Suffrage Association, Lansing Lewis that this Limited Franchise was a way to let fighting men vote, through their relations. Lewis bought the explanation but the MSA Executive still passed a Resolution condemning the bill.)

Whatever excuse worked.

I have a letter Borden sent to the Fédération St. Jean Baptiste in Quebec, in reply to their letter of protest. Borden says he is busy with war work, so is sending her a copy of another letter he sent to another group.

The PM sounds very frazzled in this letter. "Don't you realize how hard it is for me?" he writes. "Would you want a woman who had been in Canada just 3 months to be allowed to vote, because she married a British Subject?"

In the Press, he was claiming that "the Women of Canada support my Dominion Franchise Bill."

He wasn't exactly lying, was he?