Sunday, December 6, 2015

Sacrificing Democracy and Men, for Democracy's Sake?

Constance Hamilton, Augusta Stowe Gullen and Flora Macdonald Denison at the Washington Suffrage Parade 1913. Hamilton, a social reform suffragist, was plotting to take over the Canadian movement at this time from the more established equal rights suffragists.

Here follows a bit from a letter-to-the-editor written in September, 1917 by elite Torontonian Constance Hamilton, President of the National Equal Franchise Union.

It's a letter supporting Premier Borden's Wartime Elections Act that gave the vote only to women who had close relations at the WWI Front, rigging the upcoming election in his favor so that he could pass a contentious Conscription Bill.

I'm writing a book Service and Disservice, about the iffy involvement of the Canadians suffragists in this infamous Conscription Election.

Constance Hamilton was a Yorkshire-born Toronto social reformer who only adopted the woman suffrage cause late in life, in 1912. 

That year, she waged war with the long-time pioneer equal rights suffragists of the 30 year old Toronto-based Canadian Suffrage Association, Augusta Stowe-Gullen, Dr. Margaret Gordon, and Flora Macdonald Denison, stealing half of their members, about 1,000, and starting up the Toronto-based National Equal Franchise Union.

When war broke out Hamilton soon proclaimed, in all the papers, that she was giving up the suffrage fight for 'patriotic work' (while staying on as NEFU President). 

In 1917, with conscription a hot-button issue in the country, especially in Quebec, Hamilton exploited her post as NEFU President, claiming in letters and articles and Win-the-War speeches that "All Canadian suffragists support the Wartime Elections Act."

This irked some other prominent Canadian suffragists, including pacifist Dr. Margaret Gordon of the Canadian Suffrage Association, who called the Act a "Disenfranchisement Act," and the highly-principled Dr. Grace Ritchie England of the Montreal Local Council of Women, who stumped for Sir Wilfrid Laurier during the election, and suffered severe censure for it.

It also irked many members of her own NEFU organization. 

But, by Hamilton saying so, Borden could then, in turn, say 'the women of Canada support the act."

And today's Wikipedia page on the Wartime Elections Act can say the same thing, even if it is wrong. So it goes.

Constance Hamilton. Politics over Principles. 

Nelly McClung, who was in Edmonton in 1917, usually gets the credit for giving Arthur Meighen the idea of limited woman suffrage for the 1917 election, sometime in the Spring.

I believe I have good evidence it was Constance Hamilton who conspired with him much more closely. 

Hamilton was the convenor of the Immigration Committee of the National Council of Women, having lived in Vancouver and Winnipeg, where her husband had worked as a town surveyor.

She had contacts out West. 

Hamilton went on to become the first female alderman in Toronto. 

Here's her letter, shortened. It all sounds so familiar, doesn't it? Making a mockery of democracy to preserve democracy.

This bit of history has been ignored, because it's embarrassing and because it is women's history. (I think.) I've only found one article, in an obscure 1970's feminist journal, covering this story.

.....The Wartime Elections Act, as explained by Mr. Meighen, is a war measure, pure and simple. 

It is a measure which will enfranchise the women of obvious loyalty, while the many good loyal women not possessing male relatives of military age may console themselves in knowing that they have not been called upon to sacrifice loved ones and by the knowledge of their own temporary sacrifice of the privilege of citizenship they prevent the women slackers from voting. 

It has been said that suppose the women of Quebec and the foreign women voted against conscription, they would only double the vote of their men. 

True, but they would also double the chance of an anti-conscription majority in the House of Commons, and seeing that the pursuance and winning of the war is the main business before the country, it is for the country to take such steps as to assure the election of a win the war government.

The women of Canada, while they feel deeply of the principle of democracy, will yet be conscientious of the greater principle of sacrifice and service. 

And may be willing to forego a right today so that others may have a fuller freedom and they know that whomever would save his own life, be it practical or otherwise, must first be willing to lay it down.....