Saturday, December 5, 2015

"Over the Top" for Suffrage: the Canadian Suffrage Association and the Wartime Elections Act of 1917

Canadian Suffragists, all from Ontario, marching in a March 1913 Suffrage Parade in Washington DC. Stowe Gullen in the motar board. Constance Hamilton was there, too.  She would soon start her own national suffrage movement, the National Equal Franchise Union, but she would give up the suffrage fight within a year. Hence, the report below, by the Canadian Suffrage Association, trying to cement their place in history as the one-and-only credible national organization.

WWI was still raging in June, 1918 when the National Council of Women held their annual general meeting in Brantford, Ontario.

1917 had been a bitterly divisive year in Canada, especially among Canadian suffragists, because in order to get re-elected and pass his conscription bill, Premier Borden had concocted a Wartime Elections Act that gave the vote only to women with close relations at the Front.

Suffrage was still a key issue for the National Council of Women during the WWI years, and many provinces, including Ontario, granted the provincial franchise to women during that time, although many society ladies put aside their suffrage advocacy for 'patriotic work.'

I am writing about this bizarre business in a book called Service and Disservice, about the Canadian suffragists and their dubious involvement in the 1917 Conscription Election. It's the follow up to Furies Cross the Mersey, about the British Invasion of Suffragists to Canada in 1911/12.

It was all a bit of a mess, well, a HUGE mess, and in the 1918 Yearbook of the National Council of Women most of the women's societies agreed to let sleeping dogs lie and avoid re-hashing, in their annual reports, any of the raw emotion, bent logic, viciousness and invective that had characterized the Canadian women's movement the final months of 1917.

The Canadian Suffrage Association, led by Dr. Margaret Gordon, a pacifist, had come out vocally against this limited suffrage ploy of Premier Borden's Union Government.  Dr. Gordon called the Wartime Elections Act 'a  disenfranchisement act.'

So, too,  had the Montreal Suffrage Association, under Carrie Derick, although they were 'warmly in favour of compulsory national service.'

(The MSA was careful not to use the word Conscription in their propaganda.  That was a hot-button word in Quebec.)

 The Montreal Local Council of Women had been greatly divided over this Wartime Elections Act. Their President, Dr. Grace Ritchie England suffered an impeachment hearing over her support of Liberal Sir Wilfrid Laurier in the 1917 election, and for a September, 1917 letter to the Press she co-authored with Mme Dandurand, an elite French woman, calling the Wartime Elections Act 'an insult to women'.

But, you wouldn't know it by the  annual reports filed in 1918 National Council of Women  Yearbook.

Only the National Equal Franchise Union, whose President Constance Hamilton had loudly supported Borden's Union Government and this limited suffrage re-election ploy, made mention of dissent within the ranks over the issue, while claiming that all ended well with everyone coming together in a spirit of patriotism.

(Not true, of course.)

The Montreal Local Council avoided discussing the Conscription Election, focusing, in its report, on its work to care and control (and  put away on special farms) the feeble-minded of society, Carrie Derick's pet project. She was a McGill Botanist/Geneticist and a eugenics evangelist.

In the 1918 report, the Montreal Local Council of Women also mentioned  that they distributed Conscription literature around town, in both languages, at the request of the Federal Government.

By 1918, most women in Canada had won the right to vote federally. This was the silver lining in the dark, undemocratic cloud of the very cynical, anti-Quebec and anti-immigrant Wartime Elections Act, that made hypocrites of so many of the society ladies/social reformers of Canada.

The Montreal Suffrage Association uses the Suffrage Play "How the Vote was Won" as a war fundraiser. Although pledging the MSA to war work almost immediately,"We have been asking for our rights, now it is time to do our duty" in September, 1914, President Carrie Derick never gave up the suffrage cause, putting pressure on Borden in May 1917, demanding the Federal Vote for Women: "We have been doing our duty, now it is time to have our rights." 

She tried to organize a nation-wide deputation to Borden that month, but the PM, at the end of May, suddenly promised all Canadian women the federal vote.

 Then, in September, Borden broke his promise, after receiving 'disturbing intelligence from out West,' revealing that citizens in many constituencies weren't likely to vote along patriotic lines. This according to a representative of the Montreal Suffrage Association. 

Borden's main man, Arthur Meighan, was just as afraid of the anti-war sentiment in Quebec, but Borden couldn't come out and say that. He told  Quebec Suffrage Leaders that he couldn't give ALL Canadian women the vote in 1917 until he changed the laws regarding citizenship for new Canadians. As it stood, a female immigrant was granted Canadian citizenship directly upon marriage to a citizen.

"You don't appreciate the pickle I am in," says Borden to a French suffragist organization in September,1917 defending his Wartime Elections Act that gave only women with men at the Front the right to vote in the December federal election, ensuring that Borden would win the election and that his Conscription Bill would pass.  (He wanted 100,000 conscripts. In 1916 he had asked for 500,000 recruits and the MLCW formally endorsed mandatory overseas service to fill that huge quota, about 1/8th of all the men in Canada!)

Here's a direct translation: "Before women have the vote, we must establish what quality of citizen she is." And some suffragists in Canada bought it. Oy.

Here's the entry for the Canadian Suffrage Association for 1918. It all sounds so very familiar, doesn't it?

CANADIAN SUFFRAGE ASSOCIATION. Margaret Johnston, Recording Secretary.

The many long years of steady educational spade work, together with deputations to Parliament and the bringing of world-famous speakers to Canada by this Association, was undoubtedly the means which resulted in such glorious victories for the cause of Suffrage, as Canada has had during the past two years.

 A movement gathers weight and rapidity, as it grows, and finally it is able to sweep aside obstacles which obstruct its progress, and to "carry on," by its own momentum. The women's suffrage movement has undoubtedly reached the crest of the wave sooner, because of the war, than it might otherwise have done, but had not the foundations been laid secure and sound on the rock bed of Justice, supported by an educated public opinion, no parliamentary action could have taken place.

Naturally, since the war broke out, the energies of the Canadian Suffrage Association had to be diverted into many channels, for it was imperative to loyal citizens that they do patriotic work, both as an Association and as individual members.

 No new Associations, therefore, have been formed since Ontario went "Over the Top" for Suffrage, but we felt that the Rubicon had been crossed, which was soon shown by the Federal Amendment following so quickly in its wake. 

No longer, do we hear the old slogan of Anti-Suffragism, "A woman's place is in the home," for this terrible world war has conclusively proven that "A woman's place is wherever she can be to serve humanity." 

This Association has contributed, through the personal work of its leaders, much that is basic in the making of Democratic opinion in Canada. 

We are too close to the life-work of Dr. Emily Stowe, Dr. Stowe Gullen, Mrs. Flora MacD. Denison, Dr. James L. Hughes and Dr. Margaret Gordon, our five National presidents, to estimate the scope and true value of their work—history will tell the story—but The National Council of Women know the long hard struggle, the many years of intensive work which were necessary, before Woman's Suffrage became a plank in their platform. 

A man-made nation, emphasizing the combative attributes of the male sex and glorying in the ideal of power through might, has launched the human race into a bloody struggle that staggers the imagination, and dazes, almost to madness, the human mind. 

Nations are recognizing that the co-operation of women is necessary, and that the ideal, for which, to-day, the Allies are staking their all, is the same old ideal on which the Women's Suffrage Movement was founded. 

When the Union Government invited many of the representative women to present themselves at Ottawa, to discuss policies for the nation's welfare, our national president. Dr. Margaret Gordon, was asked to represent us. 

(Editor: This is news to me. It is said that 4 leading women, including Mrs. L. A Hamilton of the National Equal Franchise League and Mrs. Torrington of the National Council of Women,visited Borden in Ottawa in early August, 1917. Earlier, he had sent them telegrams, asking them to poll their nation-wide memberships to see if he would win the election if women got the vote. The answer was NO. In my book, I suggest that Mrs. Hamilton, who was convenor for the immigration committee on the National Council of Women, gave Borden the idea of limited suffrage, although Nellie McClung generally gets the credit for this.) 

This notable gathering bore testimony to the truth of the vision of the the pioneers, whose efforts laid the foundation on which has been reared that great modern structure which the President of the United States epitomized when he said, "We must make the world safe for Democracy." 

Though the Canadian Suffrage Association has been in the thick of the fight for over a third of a century, it is not going to rest because of victories won. Our work will not be finished, until women and men, throughout Canada, shall meet on the democratic ground of political equality, for on that foundation, and that only, can a real Democracy be built.

HERE'S a tidbit by Mrs. Torrington from the same yearbook.

The franchise makes women, as they are in the majority, the arbiter of the nation's destiny.

And lest we forget how religious many of these "maternal' reform-minded mostly Presbyterian women were: Mrs. Torrington again.

The future of Canada lies in the home. The victory won on the battlefield must be followed by a realization of the power of consecrated motherhood. To us it is a testing time, and surely there is not a woman to whom war does not bring its problems. Upon woman rests the responsibility, in a great measure, of the development of a higher civilization. Nor is it a time of our personal beliefs or convictions. A writer has said : "The origin of your duties is in God. The definition of your duties is found in His Law. The progressive discovery and the application of His Law is the task of humanity." I am convinced that the solving of the many social problems which we are facing will come through the spiritual touch—our being in touch with the Infinite. 

Read Suzanne Evans' Mother of Martyrs.