Monday, August 8, 2016

When Canada's Suffrage Movement Split in Two - and Changed WWI History

A full page pictorial about the Canadian delegation in the Washington DC 1913 Suffrage parade in the Toronto World, Mrs. Flora Macdonald Denison's newspaper.


Beware the Ides of March, Mrs. Denison.

Well, it was a day or two before said date, in 1914, that a certain event occurred, an important one in Canada history, but an event  that hasn't gone down in the history books, like, say, Julius Caesar's murder.

It was the date the Maternal (constitutional) suffragists of Canada led by Constance Hamilton of Toronto took over from the Equal Rights ("militant") suffragists, led by Augusta Stowe-Gullen and Flora Macdonald Denison.

And it happened  in Toronto.

I have written a book, Service and Disservice, about the iffy involvement of the Canadian suffragists in the 1917 Conscription Crisis.


Service and Disservice is the follow up to Furies Cross the Mersey, my book about the British Invasion of Militant suffragettes to Canada in 1912/13.


I tried to imagine how Flora McD and Constance Hamilton might explain this bit of history to us, if they were brought back to life.

This ebook is from a first-person point of view.

I mean, what else do you do when you write history? You bring people back to life, right?


The Toronto Globe has the clearest explanation of this mid-March coup 100 years ago.

Here is a summary: The Canadian Suffrage Association was chartered in 1912 (but it was an organization started decades before by Emily Howard Stowe).

The CSA was a member of the august National Council of Women, a sea-to-sea umbrella group of women's organizations.

The Toronto Suffrage Leaders

In turn, the CSA had it own member organizations, suffrage organizations from around the country.

However, who they were and how many was a bit of a mystery, even back then.

Two of these member organizations were in Toronto. There was the Toronto Equal Franchise League led by Mrs. Constance Hamilton, a Yorkshire-born society lady who had lived around the world and in the Canadian West, and the Toronto Suffrage Society, run by Dr. Augusta Stowe-Gullen, and Flora McD Dension and Dr. Margaret Gordon.

Flora Macdonald Denison, a working journalist, seamstress and self-supporting working woman, was President of the C.S.A.

The Toronto Equal Franchise League was more Rosedale Society - and brand new.

It's no secret, Denison admitted it herself, the CSA executive kind of resented  these upstart suffragists, who were richer and of the maternal (social reform) variety.

What Denison resented most, I think, is that these 'society women' (as they were called)  felt they had a right to take over the Canadian suffrage movement, "with just a few weeks suffrage experience' by virture of their social position and all the good social reform work they had done before jumping onto the woman suffrage bandwagon.

So, in mid-March, 1914 the Toronto Equal Franchise League demanded that the C.S.A. hold an annual general meeting where officers could be voted upon and the Constitution ratified. They also demanded to see a treasurer's report and list of member organizations.

Denison, instead, kicked these women out of her organization. They had no right to tell her what to do, she said in the Press.

Some Toronto papers characterized the split as between 'militant' and 'non-miliant' factions of the suffrage movement. As Denison pointed out in a speech, the CSA hadn't exercised any militancy at all.

Inez Milholland, NY lawyer, led the parade in robes on a white horse carrying the colours of the WSPU, Mrs. Pankhurst's Women's Social and Political Union.


They hadn't mounted one solitary march.

The closest they came to  any militancy was by attending a huge parade in Washington, in March 1913. Many leading Toronto Suffragists were in the Canadian delegation, including Mrs. Constance Hamilton.

(Mrs. Hamilton had to walk behind Denison and Stowe-Gullen in Washington and she didn't get to speak like the others,so maybe her pride was hurt. Maybe this was the last straw for her.)

The CSA had only pursued their suffrage goals through (boring) constitutional means, like letter writing.

One coup participant actually criticized the CSA for this, for being too stagnant. A case of damned if you do and damned if you don't.

It was true that Flora Macdonald Denison had visited Mrs. Pankhurst's suffragettes in England in August, 1913 and written about it, in vivid fashion, in her Toronto World column. (See a recent post.)

And, apparently, she had joined the WSPU herself. But it was no secret Flora MacD liked the Pankhursts. She had entertained Emmeline in her home on two previous occasions. Sylvia, too.

 (And Christabel would visit in November, 1914.)

One line in the Toronto Globe report makes me laugh: It appears the Toronto Suffrage Association (Stowe-Gullen's org) had had the audacity to hold a meeting in the summer of 1913, when the socialite ladies were out of town. LOL.

I guess that says it all.

As it happens, one year later, FATE had the audacity to start a World War when these uppercrust ladies were out of town, in August, 1914.

Constance Hamilton's new National Equal Franchise Union had no time to really get going; they had to postpone their first AGM from October to June, because the suffrage ladies of the country were busy trying to figure out how to conduct themselves during the war.

The NEFU meeting in June, 1915 was pretty low key and soon thereafter Constance Hamilton published a letter in the press saying she was putting aside suffrage affairs for Patriotic Work  until the end of the War.

Throughout the War, the NEFU  carried on in a helter skelter manner, random meetings, no minutes. This was ironic, considering their earlier criticism of Denison.

The pacifist C.S.A., under Dr. Margaret Gordon, worked diligently during the War to get the municipal vote for women across the country.

Flora's niece got to go too. 


Flora McD was moved upstairs at the CSA and became Honorary President. She also continued to be VP for the Toronto Suffrage Society.

But during the War Flora MacD had to find ways to keep herself afloat -  as no one would pay her to write. She sewed and washed dishes and turned back to her spiritualist roots at a retreat at Bon Echo, near Kingston, where she started a Walt Whitman club.

(For his particular reason her place in history has been devalued, I think.)

Denison's only son, Merrill, enlisted in the Army so, ironically, she got to vote in the 'fixed' 1917 Conscription election.  Borden passed a War Times Election Act just before said election, allowing only women with close male relations in the War to vote.

Constance Hamilton actually helped engineer this undemocratic War Times Election Act, using her position as President of the NEFU as her authority to speak for 'all Canadian women'.

And once the Act was passed, she loudly supported it in the Press and elsewhere, quashing any dissent in her NEFU.

She probably didn't get to vote herself as she had no children.

In 1919, Constance ran for Toronto City alderman (alderlady) and lost. She was described as someone with no profession. She ran again a year later and won, becoming Toronto's first female alder...person.

Neither the CSA nor the NEFU left behind any minutes, so there's no record there for historians to pick apart.

The Montreal Suffrage Association left behind their minutes, at Montreal City Hall, only proving (to me) that Constitutions and  minute books can be manipulated. But, that's another part of my story, the one about Carrie Derick, of Montreal, McGill Botany and Genetics Professor and President of the Montreal Suffrage Association between 1913 and 1919 and VP of the NEFU (supposedly).

Derick was an equal-rights suffragist (a Donalda, early McGill graduate) but her professional interests made her a much sought after authority on eugenics, so she had much in common with the social reform suffragists, who supported her efforts to care for and control the 'feeble-minded' and who also believed her when she stated that 50 percent of prostitutes were mentally defective.


Right from the start, September, 1914, Derick plunged the MSA into war work. "We have been asking for our rights. Now it is time to do our duty." After the war, Derick gave a speech in Toronto where she said all wars are about economics.