Thursday, March 17, 2016

The 1929 Supreme Court Persons Decision and the War Time Elections Act

Emmeline Pankhurst and Carrie Derick.


The famous Canadian Supreme Court (or rather  UK Privy Council House of Lords) decision of 1929, deeming women 'persons' and therefore eligible to be appointed to the Senate, fails to 'mention the war,' or more specifically, the War Time Elections Act of 1917.

The  decision is a bit of a history lesson, but when it comes to explaining how women got the vote, another landmark, one vague sentence is used, something like "women got the vote in dribs and drabs, provincially and federally, between 1916 and 1922."

I admit, the authors did not use the phrase dribs and drabs.

They wrote this: From 1916 to 1922 various Dominion and Provincial Acts were passed to admit women to the franchise and to the right to sit as members in both Dominion and Provincial legislative bodies.

The appellants in this famous case were Henrietta Muir Edwards, the Vice-President for the Province of Alberta of the National Council of Women for Canada; Nellie L. McClung and Louise C. McKinney, former members of the Legislative Assembly of the province; Emily F. Murphy, a police magistrate; and Irene Parlby, a member of the Legislative Assembly  and a member of its Executive Council.


One of these women, or all, might make the new banknote Trudeau has promised us.

I imagine the British authors didn't mention just HOW women first won  the right to vote in 1917, because it wasn't a relevant precedent. The War Time Elections Act certainly was not a pretty precedent.

It was a 'temporary' war measure, anyway.

Had the Supreme Court cited the War Time Elections Act  as a precedent in this 1929 Persons Case, it might have gone this way: During any future war, we'll need to ensure our Senators are on-board with the effort, and since  Senators are appointed for life, and since women can't be counted on to make smart decisions in wartime, as proven back in 1917, then only SOME select patriotic women in Canada should be deemed persons and allowed to be appointed to the Senate.

(Can you tell I am not a lawyer?)

In 1914 The Montreal Suffrage Association put on a dramatic entertainment, "How the Vote was Won" to raise money for the war effort.

Only Nellie McClung figures in my story Service and Disservice, about the Canadian suffragists and their involvement in the 1917 Conscription Crisis, and she figures periperally.

McClung is given credit by historians for giving Premier Borden the idea, in 1917, to allow only women with close relations at the Front to vote in the Conscription Election.

"This was not in the true spirit of democracy,' Constance Hamilton, a keen supporter and co-drafter of the cynical limited suffrage strategy, would later admit.

I believe Constance Hamilton of Toronto was the key female mover and shaker in this regard, not McClung.

It was Mrs. Hamilton who helped Premier Borden send around a dubious telegram in early August 1917, 'discretely' asking certain select women leaders of Canada to poll their membership to see if the Conservatives/Union would win an election if Borden gave women the vote.

And,it was Mrs. Hamilton who suggested Borden give the vote only to women with men at the Front or to women in provinces where they already had the vote.

(She, clearly, was afraid of Quebec women voting.)

I read somewhere that when these Alberta women won their "Persons" court case, one Isabella Scott of Montreal wrote Nellie McClung to congratulate them.

Isabella Scott figures, too, in my story.

She is the VP of the Montreal Suffrage Association who,  in July 1917, took it upon herself, with a certain CM Holt, the Acting President, to send a certain inflamatory letter on behalf of the MSA to the National Equal Suffrage Union, led by Constance Hamilton.

Carrie Derick, President, and all the others on the MSA executive, were conveniently out of town.

This letter was loudly in support of Conscription and against an election. It was printed in the Toronto papers with another statement by Hamilton saying that her NEFU didn't want a election because foreigners and slackers could vote.

This July letter, I believe, led Borden to believe that some Quebec women would be on board with limited suffrage, should he have no choice but to call an election, which was not true at all.

Derick had been working hard all Spring to make sure all the women of Canada got the vote in the next election. She had been frantic about it. She had wanted to organize a giant deputation to Borden in May, with the French Fédération St Jean Baptiste, demanding votes for all women, but then the Premier hinted, in late May, that  he would soon, indeed, give all the women of Canada the vote, so the deputation didn't happen.

In October, 1917, Derick's Montreal Suffrage League passed a resolution against the War Time Elections Act and Derick tried, unsuccessfully, to get the Montreal Council of Women to do the same.

(Too many women walked out on that meeting, so her resolution did not pass.)

Borden wrote the MSA back an angry letter saying he had no choice, otherwise alien women out West could have voted.

So, there you go. My smoking gun.

Borden gave women with men in the war a vote, because he knew they'd vote for Conscription for 'reinforcements' so that their men could come home.


Service and Disservice tells this story. It's all long forgotten by history; I found it written up only in a 1975 scholarly paper printed in Atlantis, a gender and justice journal).

 I had dug out the information myself, while researching Furies Cross the Mersey, about the invasion of militant suffagettes to Canada in 1912/13.