Service and Disservice is about the Suffragists and their involvement in the Canadian Conscription Crisis.
The Canadian Suffrage Movement peaked in 1910-1913, the years just before WWI. At first, neither Liberal Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier (1896-1911) nor Conservative P.M. Robert Borden (1911-1920) caved into Canadian suffragists’ demands. Laurier claimed Canadian women didn’t want the vote and Borden said the vote was, primarily, a provincial matter.
In 1916, during the war, Monsieur Laurier, now Leader of the Opposition, said he would support votes for women. In late May, 1917, Premier Borden strongly hinted in all the newspapers that he, too, would soon give all Canadian women the vote.
But, in September, 1917, Borden took back his half-promise and created the War Time Elections Act, awarding the franchise only to women with close relations at the Front. This was a calculated attempt to make sure he would win the December election so that his highly divisive Conscription Bill could pass in Parliament.
This limited suffrage strategy angered many Canadian suffragists, those for and against Conscription. Historians have long assumed that one of these women activists actually encouraged the Prime Minister to implement the undemocratic measure.
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 War Time 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.
Leading her to say: “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.
You want me to start when? In June, 1913. As good a place as any, I guess, a full year into my Presidency of the Canadian Suffrage Association, and about one year before I was deposed, kicked upstairs, if you will and given that title of Honourary President, with Dr. Gordon taking my place.
And all because of that Rosedale socialite, that suffrage upstart, Mrs. L.A. Hamilton.
(If I could let out a giant sigh right now, I would but, of course, breath is in short supply these days.)
Let me start, then, by painting you a pretty little word picture.
After all, that is what I do best – or did best - back in the day.
I was a wonderful wordsmith, you know, a journalist, as well as a capable seamstress. I was a creative person, first, I think, but also a very practical person, whatever my detractors liked to say.
I was a woman who was used to supporting herself and, who, oft times, was the sole support of her entire family.
If I wasn’t perfect with council meetings and agendas and minute books, well, that’s not such a terrible thing, is it?
So, imagine this, if you will: Union Station in Toronto, one bright morning in May, 1913.
A handsome full-figured woman in her middle years, that’s me, with a fine, strong profile full of character, is participating in a little ceremony on the platform in front of her compartment.
She is embarking on a train trip, first to Boston, then to New York, and then on to Europe by ocean liner to attend an important international conference on the woman suffrage issue.
Her strapping college-age son is by her side and he will accompany her on the long trip.
Two little darling brown-haired children, a boy and a girl, each holding a bunch of yellow daisies proudly strut up to the trans-Atlantic voyageurs and hand them each a bouquet.
This is a families-friendly touch I thought up myself.
It is something to allow the cub reporter, sent by the Toronto World, to show what he can do with words to liven up this otherwise dull assignment.
It’s also a little bit of political damage control, as I’ll explain later.
After the children have done their adorable bit, Augusta Stowe-Gullen, that is Dr. Stowe-Gullen, the first female graduate of a Canadian medical school, and daughter of Emily Howard Stowe, the first female doctor in Canada, steps up to present me, just me this time, with a giant bouquet of red roses.
This is yet another carefully-curated scene and we are trusting that the young reporter gets it right in the newspaper the next day.
I am Flora Macdonald Denison, President of the Canadian Suffrage Association, an organization started by Emily Howard Stowe when Victoria was still on the throne, and I am off to Budapest to attend the Conference of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance and to report on it for the Toronto World tabloid in my column, Stray Leaves from a Suffragette.
But, first, I make a little speech for the benefit of the small group gathered, especially the reporter. “I go to Europe,” I say, “As a representative of Canadian women who have pledged themselves to the suffrage cause. Failure is impossible.”
The people clap and I ready myself for departure.
From Toronto I will go to Paris, to report on the latest French fashions. (I am, after all, a couturier by trade, once in charge of the custom dress department at Robert Simpson’s) Then it’s off to England, to survey the suffrage situation there as a guest of Mrs. Pankhurst’s WSPU.
The name of Emmeline Pankhurst is like a red flag to a bull and the suffragists of Canada in this era work harder to prove that they aren’t militant suffragettes than they ever do to fight for the vote.
Such is the sad situation in Canada.
I, myself, entertained Mrs. Pankhurst in my home in Toronto on two occasions, in 1909 and 1911.
For this trip, Mrs. Pankhurst is not in any position to reciprocate, being on the run from the police, so I will stay with Miss Barbara Wylie, a suffragette who is most familiar with the Canadian suffrage scene.
I am trying to sound strong and purposeful with this short speech on the train platform.
As it happens, there are a number of women in my suffrage organization, perhaps half of the 2,000 total, who do not like me as their leader.
There are whispers and grumblings and these women will surely take advantage of my lengthy absence to hatch a plot to oust me, if they can.
Well, they have already concocted a clever plot to force me out. I can almost feel their poison daggers sinking into my back as I turn to climb onto the train, but, wait, it’s only my dear Merrill’s hand protectively guiding me up the steps.
When I ascended to the Presidency of the CSA the year before, appointed, some say anointed, by the former President Augusta Stowe-Gullen, I knew I had some built-in enemies.
Many high up in the Canadian suffrage movement, particularly Mrs. Constance Hamilton, President of the Toronto Equal Franchise League, did not think it was ‘natural’ that I was selected as successor to Stowe-Gullen ‘due to my experience and gifted ability as a writer and a speaker,’ as was explained at the National Council of Women’s 1912 Annual General Meeting.
Somehow, because she was British and well-born and successfully married, Mrs. Hamilton felt that she was better suited to the leadership of the Canadian suffrage movement, despite having adopted the suffrage cause only that year.
As I explained back then, in 1914, in a formal letter to the membership: "From the time of the formation of the Toronto Equal Franchise League in 1912 led by Mrs. L.A. Hamilton, the society has displayed a spirit of antagonism to Chief National Officers, and since its affiliation its members have adopted obstructive tactics which are incompatible to the harmonious cooperation of the Executive Council and an absolute detriment to progressive work.”
The problem: Mrs. Hamilton had powerful allies. Because she had lived in Vancouver and Winnipeg, she had many friends out in the Canadian West and one of these friends was that tea-totalling schemer Nelly McClung.
In Montreal, she had Miss Carrie Mathilda Derick on her side. Two peas in a pod they were, even if Carrie Derick was a woman of high accomplishment, a university professor, unlike Mrs. Hamilton, who had been born to comfort and had married her way into even greater social respectability.
It was Miss Carrie Derick who first introduced Mrs. Hamilton to the useful side of women suffrage, you know.
Derick's Montreal Council of Women had had great success in the 1910 Montreal municipal elections. By getting the spinster and widow vote out, they were able to install a brand new reform-minded ticket at City Hall.
So, in 1912, Miss Derick (who could be an equal rights suffragist, a real feminist, when it suited her) convinced Mrs. Hamilton, through the Toronto Local Council of Women, that she, too, could purify City Hall, by getting rid of unscrupulous alderman and putting in her own people, those men who fell in line with her pious reform ambitions.
That is what women's suffrage meant to Mrs. Constance Hamilton and her ilk back in the day. It was merely a means to an end.
And didn't she prove it in 1917 with the Conscription Crisis? That undemocratic and dismal affair dealt Canada’s female leadership a fierce body blow, forcing each one of us to take a firm side in the Federal Election.
The hypocrisy was contagious. Before the war, the women’s vote had been all about valuing humanity and protecting children and, suddenly, with the war, it was all about sending sixteen-year-olds overseas to die in a trench.
Anyway, before the war, back in January, 1913, at a meeting of our local Toronto Suffrage Association, I was given a rousing ovation as I rose to speak for the first time in front of my membership as in-coming President of the one and only national suffrage body, the Canadian Suffrage Association.
Even then, there was a plan afoot to create a federation of the six Toronto suffrage organizations with a constitution written up and regular meetings.
This was the plot my adversaries had hatched, most of them suffragists from the Old Country, to force me out. They were going to federate, absorbing our local Toronto Suffrage Association, and then vote in Mrs. Hamilton as President of the new federation. This federation would then take over the national movement in the place of our Canadian Suffrage Association.
At this same January, 1913 meeting, I announced to the Press that the Canadian Suffrage Association had been invited to participate in the Washington Suffrage Procession in the spring. My good friend, Mrs. Chapman Catt of the National American Women Suffrage Association had invited me personally.
So, in March nine other Ontario suffrage leaders travelled with me to the American capital. It was a group that included Dr. Gordon, Augusta Stowe Gullen and Mrs. Constance Hamilton. We made up ‘the Canadian delegation.’
This Washington suffrage parade was simply breath-taking in scope, with over ten thousand marchers. It was led by beautiful New York City lawyer Inez Milholland, on horseback, draped in white robes and carrying the colours, white, purple and green of Mrs. Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union.
News of this amazing parade got into the Toronto newspapers, too, thanks to me. I was the one who arranged for a Toronto World photo shoot that captured, for the first and last time, Canadian women marching in a suffrage parade.
I also arranged for my cute little niece, Flora Lapham, to participate, all decorated up in the Canadian flag. Being so adorable, she got to march at the head of the Parade, right beside magnificent Inez on her fine white horse.
But, what bothered Mrs. Hamilton most about this parade, I think, was the order in which we marched. Augusta and me at the front, Mrs. Hamilton and the others following.
At the special suffrage meetings, before the parade, Augusta and I both were given the opportunity to speak to a large and enthusiastic audience.
I could sense Mrs. Hamilton’s simmering condescension the whole time during the trip. All those private tutors and the piano lessons at the Leipzig Conservatory and the Bach Society in Winnipeg and the La-De-Da older husband, big shot with the CPR had given her a sense of entitlement.
Less than two years on the suffrage bandwagon and she felt she had the right to address a sophisticated international suffrage crowd!
So, when we got back to Toronto, Augusta, always the diplomat, suggested to me that it was best to allow Mrs. Hamilton to address reporters, to talk about the parade at the follow-up press conference, and this during a meeting of Hamilton’s Toronto Equal Franchise League in Margaret Eaton Hall. I had no objections. I tagged along.
Mrs. Hamilton quoted from a newspaper report that said the marchers “walked in rows as delicate as sweet peas.” She conveniently left out the part about the accompanying riots.
She also mentioned a letter from Miss Barbara Wylie, the English suffragette who had just completed a one year coast-to-coast tour of Canada. The letter, Mrs. Hamilton said, urged us to get a declaration from Mr. Borden saying he supported the cause. In truth, Wylie wanted us to organize a march from Toronto to Ottawa as was almost organized in Montreal, but even if Mrs. Hamilton changed the details, clearly she wasn’t afraid of associating her name with the militant Women’s Social and Political Union, not at that moment in time.
Mrs. Hamilton got her chance to shine as a suffrage leader before the Press, but it was all too little too late, at least in her mind. A mere twelve months later she’d have my scalp and proclaim herself to be Canada’s leading suffragist.
She was a ruthless opponent, this ermine-swaddled socialite. Or, maybe, she merely played the game of politics better than I did.
I, Flora Macdonald Denison, was an equal rights suffragist, but, by 1913, the days of the equal rights suffragists like Augusta and her mother Emily Howard Stowe were on the wane and had been for some time.
All those people rushing to live in the big cities, and the immigrants pouring in East and West. There was much anxiety among the ruling classes, so many problems to fix, it aroused the sensibilities of the society’s care-takers, the society matrons with all their money and oceans of leisure time.
These women, high born or well-married, many, if not most, in the millionaire club, came to dominate the woman suffrage movement in Canada by the beginning of WWI. But, at what price? I wonder.
We equal right suffragists, long-standing disciples of Emily Howard Stowe, were never indifferent to all the social betterment schemes advocated by the reformers, especially the sad and sickening aspects of some girl life, but our vision from the first was always clear and the goal we wished to reach was straight forward.
We wanted women to have the vote. Women equal with men.
For these social reformers, the woman’s vote was merely a means to an end, or various ends, depending on which women you asked: temperance, for example, was a popular issue, milk and babies, another. Widow’s pensions, the social evil, prostitution, the care of the feeble-minded, compulsory schooling, housing and women’s hotels, the list goes on.
In 1912, the World Presbyterian Congress came out in favor of active involvement in social reform with respect to Sabbath observance, temperance, gambling, the social evil, suppression of the white slave trade and rescue of its victims, immoral books, obscene pictures and literature, recreation and amusement, and the study and improvement of industrial conditions.
(This church was afraid the State was taking over its work, stealing its thunder in this regard.)
And many, if not most of the suffragists in Canada were Presbyterian. Almost all of them were Protestant. Sometimes I wonder if these pious and energetic women were just angry at their husbands, you know, on account of them never being around when the evening dinner bell was rung.
As I stated earlier, my problems at the Canadian Suffrage Association started immediately upon my installation as President, in late 1911.
At the May, 1912 Annual General Meeting of the National Council of Women, I was the one who proposed a motion for a resolution condemning the white slave traffic. I also stated, on the record, that I thought the problem was an economic one. In this regard, I did not agree with Professor Derick of Montreal, who believed that fifty percent of all prostitutes were feeble-minded.
But, the very next year, at the 1913 AGM in Montreal, I dared to stick to my principles around the very same issue, and officially condemned one of the National Council’s resolutions that supported the flogging of procurers.
At the session in question, I was quickly shot down by the good ladies of the Council, not allowed to utter another word on the subject.
So I responded in the best way I knew, in my newspaper column.
It was some of my best writing ever, if I say so myself.
Crime Against Criminals
“The history of the race, especially of the Dark Ages, reeks with the tragic tale of thumbscrew and rack and torture. The whole gamut of vindictive cruelty has run and the consensus of scientific thought is that punishment does not reform.”
This public outburst was not looked upon with favour.
Some of the Council ladies treated me as if I had come full out in favour of women selling their bodies, these imperious society women who dared to call themselves ‘progressives’ when their main goal was to maintain the social order, which had served them all very nicely, by the way.
Am I sounding bitter, harsh?
I have nothing against those social reformers, women like Mrs. Torrington, the President of the National Council of Women, who come to realize after years of promoting social justice that the only way to achieve it was through the vote. Life is a learning process, after all.
But let’s be honest, these maternal-minded suffragists were mostly motivated by religious fervor.
As Mrs. Torrington said in her address at the 1918 National Council AGM.
“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 responsibilities, 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.”
I was an outsider in this respect, having questioned institutionalized religion early on and put it into words in my 1900 novel, Mary Melville: Psychic: “It seems to me that while improvement is lauded upon almost any line, mechanics, art, literature, a corner is placed upon religion and on every church door is emblazoned: ‘He who enters here should not change, either broaden or grow.’ While development seems the natural order of things, religion must stand still. The brain that has no conception of the rotation of the Earth, the brain that knew not of the attraction of gravity, is not a brain enough to mould my ideas of the nature and destiny of the soul.”
I was, indeed, an outsider – and in so many ways.
So, despite my best efforts at reconciliation with the dissenting suffragists in the Canadian Suffrage Association, in the fall of 1913 and the spring of 1914, I lost the battle with Mrs. L.A. Hamilton, who stole 1,000 of our 2,000 members for her new 'national' organization and my co-executive had no choice but to kick me upstairs, to the position of Honorary President.
Honourary President: An unpaid position more suited to society women like Montreal’s Lady Julia Parker Drummond, who right away joined Mrs. Hamilton's organization, if you want to know, as Honourary Vice-President. Carrie Derick of the Montreal Suffrage Association, came on as VP at the same time.
I had invited the new MSA and Miss Derick to join our organization back in October, 1913, but nothing came of it. Mrs. Hammond Bullock of the Provincial Franchise Association remained our only Quebec delegate.
Perhaps, using hindsight, my biggest mistake was to defend Mrs. Pankhurst in my first speech after returning from Europe. That was in October, 1913. I had long been a Pankhurst supporter, this was no secret, but the timing was poor, I can see it now.
But, it's hard to stay silent after seeing what I saw, that summer of my European escapade, especially in the East End of London with Sylvia Pankhurst. I described in it detail for my readers back home in my Toronto Sun column.
“Sylvia Pankhurst was half-carried, half dragged to the platform disguised in very grand clothes which she proceeded to throw off, leaving her in a very plain, very simple dress of khaki.
“What Sylvia Pankhurst had to say, she read from a paper. She had arranged, if it were possible, to escape the police, to take refuge in a small baker's shop directly opposite the hall. She said the police were many, but the men of Bow and Bromley were more and if they believed her cause to be right she believed they would protect her. The audience was a difficult one to manage, but to a man they shouted they would protect her.
“First the nurses and two of these other women half carried her. Then a half dozen big strong men locked arms about the center group and then another group around them. They had a flight of stairs to go down before reaching the street. When they were about at the street door, the fire hose was turned on by policemen who were outside guarding the entrance. This caused a commotion. A girl dressed as Miss Pankhurst hurried up a side street with many of the crowd protecting her, the police followed and in the meantime, Sylvia Pankhurst was being put to bed in the humble bedroom of the poor baker's shop in Bow.
“A spray of water made me turn around and the hose had become disconnected and a two and a half inch stream of water was fast flooding the hall. Miss Wylie and I started to leave the hall. Cries on all sides were "Heaven bless the angel." "Praise the Lord she has escaped." "Curses on the government."
“When we got outside, the police were trying to disperse the crowd. The automobile of the WSPU was standing in front of the hall and Miss Emmerson asked me to get in. Miss Wylie thought it might be dangerous but I thought if a young woman like Miss Smith could drive the car through such a crowd, I could at least be a passive spectator, so I got in amid the cries of "We'll not let the police touch you."
“As a matter of fact, the police had no wish to touch anyone. They were busy assisting women with babies, old lame men and protecting anyone who needed them in a terrible crush."
All very theatrical, it was. And spine-tingling scary. And, heart-breaking, too.
So, you can see why, in that October, 1913 speech I gave in Toronto I said, “A great play is unfolding, with Mrs. Pankhurst as the heroine, and the UK government as both the villain and the clown.”
I do wish the Toronto Sun reporter hadn’t written that I had become intimately acquainted with Mrs. Pankhurst and her militants. True, I attended rallies on the platform, but I did so as an international observer and as a member of the Press.
With this disclosure, the discontent among the Toronto rank and file came to a head. Rumour had it I had joined the WSPU as a full member. Even my more devoted followers at the CSA started getting very uncomfortable.
In December, 1913, I gave a very smart speech, this time, a very calculated speech, determined to stop the hemorrhaging of the CSA membership. I tried to balance my feelings of bitterness with an invitation to all Toronto suffragists to work together, and I announced a torchlight march through the streets of Toronto to promote out next meeting. A march that never happened. No marches ever happened here in Canada. That was part of the problem.
That same month the CSA donated a bust of Emily Howard Stowe to the City of Toronto, to make a symbolic point.
(It was very difficult to get attention for the suffrage cause without appearing in any way pushy, in any way militant. This donation was a very good idea.)
Yes, I was an unapologetic Pankhurst partisan, and had been for years, but I know I wasn’t alone in this, not in Canada. Plenty of women supported Pankhurst and it wasn’t all excitable, maidenly seamstresses and spinster school teachers.
Mrs. Hurlbatt of the Royal Victoria College of McGill, for one, liked to defend the militants. You can't get more respectable than that.
Still, they shot me down for my support of Mrs. Pankhurst. Well, not only for that.
My enemies accused me of being an autocrat, of not adhering to practices of good governance, with meeting and minutes and such, but I wasn’t hired to be fastidious with agendas and minutes and motions. I was hired as a speaker and writer.
One of the more curious criticisms of me was that the Canadian movement, under the Canadian Suffrage Association, had stagnated. Stagnated? During the past year we had kept up our educational campaign; we had sent letters and distributed literature and marched in Washington; and all the newspapers in Toronto were on the side of woman suffrage because of us and clamouring for news items about our Canadian movement.
But we hadn’t done anything, according to my accusers. I had been to Europe for Heaven’s sake. What more did they want?
If the Canadian movement had stagnated, it is because it had nowhere else to go except in the direction of what some called proto-militantism, or peaceful militantism, as in street marches with banners and loud speakers and emotional speeches and elegant theatrics. You know, the “deeds not words” path of Mrs. Pankhurst.
And that’s what everyone in Canada was afraid off. So, it was clearly a case of ‘damned if we did and damned if we didn’t.’
The truth was, they didn’t like me for who I was, my enemies. I was too sympathetic to the working class for their tastes, those Rosedale socialites, who, as I said, had no interest in really changing the system. Why would they when it had served them so well? They only wanted to set right the parts of society that were threatening to challenge their status as the arbiters of morality, and take away their creature comforts and their children’s right to the best of everything.
What do you want to know? If my free-spirit scared them? You mean my spiritualism and unorthodox opinions toward marriage.
Had these women read my 1900 novel, you ask. I doubt it. I sincerely doubt it. These dutiful, industrious women weren't the novel-reading kind.
At a pivotal Toronto suffrage meeting in mid-March, 1914 the women staged their coup, demanding that the CSA draw a constitution and install an executive of regional vice presidents and then they demanded to see a treasurer’s report. Dr. Gordon refused on behalf of the Canadian Suffrage Association.
After consulting our by-laws, and seeing I had the right to do so, I expelled Mrs. Hamilton and her followers from the Canadian Suffrage Association with that speech I told you of earlier, saying she had been obstructionist from the start.
I defended the Canadian Suffrage Association, my Presidency and my support of Mrs. Pankhurst, who I described as the greatest women alive, although I half-denounced militancy as a way forward for Canadian women, saying it wasn’t likely to happen in Canada, although there were Englishwomen in the country, so who knows.
I was referring to Caroline Kenney in Montreal, who had started a militant-friendly Equal Franchise League there in late 1913. Caroline was the one who tried in vain to organize a suffrage tramp from Montreal to Ottawa earlier in the spring.
In this same speech, I defended the working class woman’s right to vote in all elections. “Someone who can’t speak well or doesn’t have the money for fine dress is as much allowed to vote as rich women,” I said.
This was a failed effort to win back some supporters from Mrs. Constance Hamilton.
Mrs. Hamilton’s allies then went to the press and said they had broken away from us. Broken away? From us? Ha.
One of them said,” Devotion to the cause was not a proof of business ability.” So, now we were supposed to be a business?
Three of the five Toronto suffrage organizations went with Mrs. Hamilton. She then sent lettergrams all over the country asking local suffrage associations to join their new ‘national’ group.
She visited Montreal in person, giving a talk to the Montreal Suffrage Association, ostensibly about industrial working conditions for young women, but really to feel Miss Derick out.
Miss Derick took the bait and joined her organization as Vice-President. Or, maybe it had all been long planned out that way. You could never tell with those two.
So, 1000 of these Canadian suffragists, many British-born, fell in line behind Mrs. Hamilton in March, 1914. And, they had the gall to call themselves the Progressives because they were new to the suffrage movement, when the truth was quite the opposite. They were anything but Progressive, as I’ve already told you. But, it seems, if you repeat something enough times, people start to believe you.
These maternal social reformer suffragists couldn’t see rights and liberties if these flew up and hit them in the forehead. Their idea of perfect womanhood was so tied into their stock religious beliefs, they could never be true feminists.
I was proven right in the end, wasn’t I? Where did Jesus say sending young men to an almost sure death was a Christian thing to do? I’m talking about the 1917 Conscription Election, of course.
That filthy business in August, 1917, with Mrs. Hamilton conspiring with Mr. Borden behind everyone’s back and then claiming to speak for all Canadian suffragists. Their one goal, to send more and more healthy young Canadian men, BOYS, to their death, to turn every Canadian mother into a Mary-style martyr.
Very maternal of these suffragettes, eh? 500,000 was the number stated. In a country with just 8,000 000 people. Did anyone bother to actually think about it? That meant virtually every able bodied man from 14 to 35, to be sent to be killed or maimed.
But people don’t think in times like these. The mob mentality prevails.
Dr. Gordon, my successor was the only Toronto suffrage leader to keep her head during the Conscription Crisis and to dare ask when Compulsory Service was on the table: “Why would women with men at the Front want to force other women to send their own men to die?” It was a fair question. A voice in the wilderness she was.
Her question was answered at the August 2nd Win-the-War meetings in Toronto, according to the New Century, the magazine of the National Council of Women. These women wanted to save their men by sending out other women’s men to take their place.
How very Christian of them. How very noble.
In July, 1914, when war broke, I went to work as a seamstress in Napanee, outside of Kingston, Ontario, to earn money for Merrill’s college tuition. I wanted him to be a lawyer.
When this contract finished, I couldn’t pay my own way at Bon Echo, my own Walt Whitman-inspired spiritual retreat nearby, so I washed dishes there, like a common scullery maid.
In summers past, I had vacationed at the most fashionable spots, like Atlantic City, and now here I was with my head over a steamy sink.
I was having trouble finding writing work for pay. (Not that I was ever paid for my Toronto Sun column.) Do you know how easy it would have been for me, during the War, to write patriotic articles or give patriotic speeches, like Mrs. Pankhurst, ‘the voice of the martyr’ herself, and so many lesser suffragists?
But, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead, I scraped my knuckles raw scrubbing dirty pots and pans.
In 1917, just in time, as I was in a mess financially, my kind friend Mrs. Chapman Catt gave me some work in New York, fighting for the women’s vote in that great state.
Mrs. Catt never stopped praising my efforts the whole time. Now, that's a leader, for you. That's the way to run a suffrage organization.
In 1918, I came back to Canada, to attend the AGM of the National Council of Women on behalf of the CSA. Ironically, I seconded a number of motions proposed by Mrs. Constance Hamilton.
It’s odd, don’t you think? In 1915, Mrs. Hamilton gave up the suffrage fight to direct all her energies toward the War Effort, so she said, and yet, during the war, she still had the time for all that busy-work, to act as Convenor on all those social reform committees
The minute she won the right to lead the suffrage fight in Canada, she gave it up. It’s as if her heart just wasn’t in it.
Or, if was just personal, against me? That’s a possibility. Maybe, she just wanted me out of the way.
And, irony of ironies, I was the one who got to scratch out my X in the ballot box in the 1917 Conscription Election, unlike so many Canadian suffragists who had worked their fingers to the bone rolling bandages and the like for the patriotic cause.
I had a son in the war, you see. My dear Merrill had signed up voluntarily in 1916.
I have to say, that was a life-changing moment of truth for me. Merrill, my only son. My only close relation in this life. Over there.
We exchanged dozens of long, detailed letters between 1916 and 1918. Merrill couldn’t include any discussion about the fighting, even had he wished to, so he penned me pages and pages about his friendships, his thoughts and feelings and his insights, spiritual or otherwise.
He was a writer, too, my son. No lawyer in-waiting; a real writer like me.
As for what went on, exactly, in 1917, in Canada, in Toronto and Ottawa, between Mrs. Hamilton and Mr. Borden, I can’t say for sure. I wasn’t there, was I? I was in New York State.
Dr. Gordon blamed Nellie McClung for the War Time Elections Act but I suspect Constance Hamilton had a bigger part to play, much bigger, as she was high up on the Win-the-War Committee.
And, maybe, Carrie Derick, too, even if, as a Quebecker, she had to come out publically against the Act. Did I mention? She could be two-faced that Miss Derick.
All I do know is that I ended up on the right side of history.
(I assume I did. I died in 1921. Did I? Did I do the right thing? Am I remembered kindly? Am I remembered at all?)
Whatever my legacy, I suffered for my beliefs. That surely counts for something.
Yes, many Canadian suffragists got all caught up in the demagoguery of the times, honest ones and dishonest ones.
Mrs. Hamilton was the War Time Election Act’s staunchest defender but many in her NEFU were dismayed by the very thought of it. After all, the organization had declared itself against any limited suffrage scheme in 1917.
Defenders of the Act, like Mrs. Hamilton, employed clever arguments in the Press against us dissenters. They called us traitors and fanatics. They called us hysterical women. Imagine! They said we were proving women didn’t deserve the vote because we wouldn’t fall in line with what the majority believed.
After all was said and done, some bad suffragists got away with everything, with their reputations unscathed. And, some good ones were pilloried for their beliefs. So it goes in times of war. Everything is turned upside down.
I got to vote in the 1917 election, as I said. I was one of the few prominent suffragists who did.
How did I vote, you ask. Wouldn’t you like to know.
With my only son away in Europe and in the thick of things, I would have been justified to vote for Borden’s Union Government, if it was true, what many suffragists believed, that more reinforcements meant a greater chance of seeing my son return home alive and in one piece.
I spoiled my vote, if you must know. As a protest.
And, then I returned home and pushed my straight-backed chair up to my little writing desk in my house that was mortgaged to the hilt by this time and I began to scratch out another essay, Women and War, for the Canadian Suffrage Association’s 1918 Biennial Meeting in Toronto. Yes, our organization was fifty years old in 1918.
“And what does it all mean? Have the Altruists all lived and worked and thought for nothing? Have women come into the game of life in the past generation with their wondrous power of organization as shown at their world's represented congresses and passed resolutions of peace and arbitration to be absolutely ignored by the sons to whom-they have given birth? Has Democracy appeared on the stage only to have the curtain rung down at the beginning of the first act and slapped in the face by autocracy? Is there any meaning to the great platitudes about the "Brotherhood of Man" and "Love your Neighbor as Yourself," and 'We're all one human family." Is Nietzsche right and will war eternally return to tell its gruesome story?
“Had women stood shoulder to shoulder with men in thinking out world problems this war would never have been. This war is the most conclusive argument that has ever blazed its electric message across the sky of human consciousness in favor of political equality. ‘Prevention is better than cure.’ We are learning to apply this great truism, and, besides, war never cured.
“The conquered Napoleon left behind a legacy of hate which is bearing fruit to-day. The battle of Waterloo was not decisive and the only decisive battle will be a bloodless one, fought out by representatives from nations who will be elected, by the whole people. In that court of arbitration great men and great women will discuss side by side what is best for their children-best for the human race.”
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.