Thursday, March 10, 2016

Service and Disservice: The Canadian Suffragists and the Conscription Crisis



Chapter 1: Flora Macdonald Denison

So you want to talk to me, about what exactly? You want me to explain my position on Woman Suffrage back in the day, 1913-1918.

Well, you must know of my position. I wanted woman to have the vote. All women. Women equal with men.

You say you  want me to focus on the you-know-what,  the Great Deception of 1917, the Wartime Elections Act that gave the vote only to women with men at the Front;  the Disenfranchise Act as Dr. Margaret Gordon, my successor as President of the Canadian Suffrage Association, so aptly described it.

She wrote: “It would be more direct and at the same time more honest, if it simply stated that all who did not pledge themselves to vote Conservative would be disenfranchised.”

Peculiar laws you moderns have, allowing you to bring people back from the dead  to grill them on an historical point of interest. Not that I am a bit surprised.

To what end all of this?   To promote democracy by shedding light on a shady chapter in Canadian history, you say. Ah.

Well, then, let’s get started.

First, am I on trial, or something? Or am I here to testify against the other ones, the truly tainted parties, those suffragists among us who were guilty of crimes against democracy?

Well, either way, I have nothing to hide.

Never did. I wasn’t like the others. I always wore my heart on my sleeve.  But you have already figured that out, haven’t you?

I can tell by that half-smile on your lips.



Chapter 2: Frances Fenwick Williams



So, my novels, the Arch Satirist and A Soul on Fire are available for the entire  world to read, on some kind of Web, except that no one reads them. But, Edith Wharton’s novels are still very popular, you say, thanks to movies and something called television.

Well, if you are not here to talk about my novels, that haven’t, apparently,  stood the test of time, what are you here to talk about?

My poems? My WWI poems Before Verdun and Recruiting Song.

I certainly have no objection to that. What about them makes you curious?

You say, you find these two poems to be contradictory in tone.

All I can say to that is : A poem is like a child, it is meant to stand on its own.

OK.  I guess if you think about it, these poems, they are very different but it can be explained in a very blunt manner: One poem was a commissioned work to attract young American men to join the military and one poem was written, well, from the heart.

Believe me, I’m not the only Canadian suffragist who was of mixed mind during that perilous time, WWI, although I was of less mixed mind that most of prominent Canadian suffragists, let me tell you.

I was a feminist first and a suffragist second - and when war broke out I was a patriot, all the way, but, still always an artist with, how might I put it, the sensibilities of the outcast, of the person on the outside looking in.

My good friends were Ivy Compton Burnett and Ida A. R. Wylie, the British writers who introduced me to the movement and the Pankhursts, on a trip to England in 1912. Have you heard of them? Are they remembered?

I was not and never was a social reformer, as such, one of those maternal-style suffragists who took over the Canadian movement around 1910, even if I was married, technically, on paper.

No, I wasn’t like those society ladies I spent time with on the executive of the Montreal Suffrage Association, you know, the  wives of the Montreal millionaires who followed that Presbyterian call to clean up society, one factory, one brothel , one squalid tenement at a time.

My God, they wanted to whitewash society, take all the texture and nuance out of its very fabric.

 No writer in her right mind wants that. What would be left to write about if everyone was  exactly the same?



Chapter 3: Kathleen Weller

So, you want to talk to me about the suffrage movement in Montreal, in Canada, in those early years, right through to the end of the Great War?

Well, first, let me say that I am truly amazed that I have gone down in Canadian history as an important suffragist. (Although, I clearly was.)

By 1919, the time of the dissolution of the Montreal Suffrage Association, they’d already erased any record of my contribution to the suffrage cause in the country, the province and, even in the city of Montreal.

By then most women in Canada had already won the right to vote federally and in Quebec it was just the beginning of a long campaign to win the provincial vote – and  I wasn’t invited to that particular party.

From then on, it was all Dr. Ritchie England and Professor Derick and Mesdames  Gerin-Lajoie and Casgrain of La Ligue des droits de la femme.

No Britishers need apply.

Shortly after the MSA was dissolved, in 1919,  an anonymous letter to the Editor was published in the pages of the Montreal Gazette, complaining that only seventeen of the two hundred or so MSA members were present at that final meeting, so that the vote to disband was hardly representative.

The same letter tore into the Association's President, Carrie Derick, without mentioning her name, for having turned against Borden’s Union Government during the 1917 election, and for making a formal protest, in writing, against limited suffrage and the Wartime Elections Act.

This was a big embarrassment for some people on the MSA Executive who had led Premier Borden to believe Quebec suffragists would  be on board with any plan he might concoct  to get more soldiers over to Europe and to win the war.

As this anonymous letter stated, many members of the MSA quit the organization, right then and there, in protest.



Chapter 4: Constance Hamilton


Let me start off by saying I have nothing to be ashamed of.

I sense that is what you want of me, a confession of sorts, and after all this time. You want me to confess my part in the Conscription Crisis of 1917 with respect to the Wartime Elections Act.

You think that I had a hand in designing that essential emergency legislation, maybe?

To tell the truth, I’d prefer to discuss my pioneering status as the City of Toronto’s first female alderman. War brings out the best and the worst in people and sometimes it is best forgotten what happened during those perilous times.

Still, I won’t apologize. I will demystify, for you, the backroom manoeuvering that went on at that time. If that’s what you want. I am very proud to admit I was privy to a lot of it as Chairman of the Women’s Section of the Win-the-War Committee.

And, me, a mere housewife.  You know, that’s what they called me when I first ran for Toronto alderman in 1919. A woman with no profession, as if the decades I had devoted to social reform work counted for nothing.

Anyway, I was never two-faced about my part in the Win-the-War effort. I stated my case loudly and proudly, in 1915, in all the Toronto newspapers and in the New Century Magazine, the organ of the National Council of Women.

I am giving up all suffrage activities, I said, until the war’s end.

Here are my exact words:

“Will you kindly notify all the affiliated societies and others concerned that I have decided to postpone my trip out West until a more favorable occasion. The war has reached such a serious and critical stage that I feel I am in no way justified in using my own and other women’s energies and means on behalf of the suffrage cause when the war and all that implies, needs us so urgently.  Though political freedom for Canadian women is very near to my heart, at present there is a far great issue at stake, the freedom of the whole empire. I will say to you what Mrs. Pankhurst said to Lloyd George lately ‘Our fight for votes is a forgotten issue in the National Crisis.’”

It was only a few days before, in June, 1915 that I attended my first Win-the -War meeting in Toronto.  I was asked on the fly to give a speech to the women in the audience. I liked it!

This took place a mere week after the first ever meeting of the NEFU, the National Equal Franchise Union, at my home in Rosedale.

 I had been chosen as President back in March, 1914, at our official launch, when half of the 2,000 members of the Canadian Suffrage Association, and three of the five Toronto suffrage societies, defected to us.

Before that, I had been President of the Toronto Equal Franchise League, which I founded in 1912, as a counter–balance to the old-school socialists and pacifists and would-be-militants who called themselves 'equal rights suffragists' dominating the suffrage scene for decades.

We defectors called ourselves the Progressives, because we were.


 Chapter 5: Carrie Derick

So, you think I can shed some insight into the mysterious machinations of the Borden’s Government  in 1917 with respect to the Wartime  Elections Act, that affront to democracy and women's equality that gave the federal vote only to women with men at the Front.

And , this because at the time I was  Vice-President of  both the National Council of Women and the National Equal Franchise Union, as well as President of the Montreal Suffrage Association and very involved Past-President of the Montreal Local Council of Women?

You assume I, above everyone, knew about everything that was going on in Canadian suffrage circles in that tumultuous era.

The truth is, what I knew is all in the minutes, the minutes of the Montreal Council of Women and the Montreal Suffrage Association, to be specific.

Everything I want you to know, anyway.

Had I wanted you to know more, I would have left behind diaries and letters, like Flora Macdonald Denison or Madame Gerin-Lajoie of La Fédération St. Jean Baptiste.

But, no. I didn't save rough copies of my speeches with some lines crossed out, or little notes, all blotched, penned on the back of cafe menus, and the like, to be archived in on high shelves in cool, dark rooms, for the benefit of future generations.

I was more, how might I say it, Protestant in my efforts to leave a legacy.

Had I not made the newspapers, so often, there would remain no record of any of my speeches, and I gave scores of them back in the era, on a wide range of topics, not just women’s rights.

The minutes of the Montreal Suffrage Association, (1913-1919)  I handed over, myself, to Madame Thérèse Casgrain,  at a 1933 luncheon of La Ligue des droits de la femme, where I gave yet another speech on the history of woman suffrage in Quebec, a speech I could have given in my sleep by then.

I thought it was time to hand the papers over. I was in my 70's and in sharply declining healthy. I had quit McGill four years before, my legendary energies almost spent.

At this luncheon, I started out by showcasing my knowledge of the Classics, bringing up Hypatia and Sappho, then the Abbesses of England and Mary Wollstonecraft, leading up to the Donaldas of McGill who kick-started the feminist movement in Quebec.

I mentioned how my very dear friend and life-long colleague, Miss Ritchie, defied the governors of McGill in her Valedictory speech in the 1880’s, calling for McGill Medical School to be opened to women.

Then I talked about the ‘inert’ woman suffrage movement in Quebec in 1910, how we started the MSA in 1913, with an executive made up half of women and half of men.

I left out details of the Conscription Crisis, sorry to tell you. No one wanted to rehash that grotesque chapter.