Sunday, February 28, 2016

Why do I write about the Canadian Suffragists? It's personal

Edith and Flora Nicholson of Richmond, Quebec. They look genteel but they had to work hard all their lives - and they loved the militant suffragettes.

Why do I write about the suffragists/ettes in Canada, a topic very few people, especially in Canada, care about?

Well, it's personal.

It's personal because about a decade ago I found a huge stash of letters from the 1910 period, letters belonging to my husband's grandmother, Marion Nicholson, from Richmond, Quebec and her family and I must have had time on my hands, because I transcribed them all. It was back-breaking work and I was 10 years younger then.

At the time, I was a first-time empty nester with, apparently, no freelance writing contracts to keep me busy.

I learned all about the Laurier Era in Canada from these 300 family letters, albeit from a cash-poor Presbyterian, middle class point of view.

A couple of lines in one of the letters  especially intrigued me.

One letter from May 2, 1913 and was written by my husband's great aunt, Edith, in Montreal to her mom, Margaret, in th Eastern Townships.

"We are going to try to hear Mrs. Snowden speak, but she is not militant and for this I am very sad."

Well, as you know, the info on the Internet has exploded exponentially in the past ten years.

If, at first, I couldn't find much info on Mrs. Snowden, moderate British suffragist, and her trip to Canada 100 years ago, I found it later.

Mrs. Ethel Snowden, beautiful, young wife of Labour MP Philip Snowden, came to Montreal twice, in 1909 and 1913, to speak to the Montreal Council of Women.  In 1909 she called Mrs Pankhurst and her troops  a Frankenstein Monster and in the 1913 she called them Cavemen.

In between these two visits, the Montreal Council of Woman invited Mrs. Pankhurst to speak, in December 1911, 'to hear the other side of the question,' at a time when English Reformers had briefly taken over French City Hall. (Oddly, this is a key element in the Conscription Crisis, and  no scholar has yet  dug this up.)

Another WSPU  suffragette came to Canada in September 1912, Miss Barbara Wylie, a Scot. Ten years ago there was nothing on her on the Internet, now there is quite a bit.

The Saturday Mirror, a short-lived Montreal Tabloid aimed at elite Anglos that loved Emmeline Pankhurst and hated French City Hall.

Barbara Wylie came to Canada on a country-wide propaganda tour but she got nowhere trying to convert Canadian women to her cause, according to the newspapers, anyway, and then, in 1913, she returned home to fight with the Pankhurst troops once again, to go to jail once again.

The Nicholson  family letters came with yellowed newspaper clippings and one of them was about Wylie's landing in Montreal, at Viger Station.

Apparently, Miss Wylie condoned the hurling of a hatchet at British Prime Minister Asquith, saying had it landed, "It might have knocked some sense into him."

Now, I had learned nothing about the suffragist movement in Canada in high school. Our textbook, Canada Then and Now, contained stories of only three women: Jeanne Manse, Marguerite Bourgeoys and, naturellement, Laura Secord, a nurse, a nun and a farmgirl.

Carrie Derick, Canada's first female full-professor at McGill (and President of the Montreal Suffrage Association) didn't make the cut.

The textbook  contained a couple of pages on the Laurier Era, but nothing about 'the new women of the era.' (Of course, all I had to do was go downstairs and ask my landlady about her childhood, but hey.)

I didn't take any history courses in college, just art history, classics, theatre, and communications. Back then I was intrigued by La Belle Epoque in France but not the Laurier Era.

Laurier's home in St Lin was not far from our burb. My French Canadian mother often threatened to drag me there.

As it happens, while I was at McGill, a couple of scholars there were, indeed, covering the suffragettes. Two articles on the movement were written up in Atlantis, the gender and social justice journal out of Mount St Vincent University in the Maritimes.

One of the articles was about the Miss Wylie's visit and another about the suffragists and their involvement in the Canadian Conscription Crisis.

These  1975 articles are now online.

And these articles are about the only ones ever written on the topic. Imagine!

 In 2008, however, a Sir Wilfrid Laurier scholar wrote a paper on the 1919 impeachment hearing of Dr. Grace Ritchie England (Divided by the Ballot Box) at the Montreal Council of Women, a related topic.

Canadian suffragists: Not a popular topic, then or now.

By happenstance, my ebooks Furies Cross the Mersey and Service and Disservice cover the same territory as these two Atlantis papers from 1975.

With these books, I tried to 'Go for the story, not the history" as a leading author of  Canadian historical fiction once advised me.

But, I stuck in some history, too. Indeed, Service and Disservice is, in many ways, a mystery, a giant political puzzle of the past.

And, here's the weirdest thing about this unheralded hobby of mine. While I researched the Montreal Suffragists in 1914, the start of WWI, I realized that my own French Canadian grandfather, Jules Crepeau, at the time Assistant City Clerk at City Hall, was peripherally involved in all these suffrage intrigues and escapades.

He got caught in a bribery sting by allies of the Montreal Suffragists, who simply HATED French City Hall. He almost lost his job.

That's really really weird. That REALLY makes it personal for me.