Thursday, July 13, 2017

WWI and the Canadian Suffragettes: A Murky Tale



You know that movie It's Complicated? Well, I think my WWI era ebook should be titled that instead of Service and Disservice.

Service and Disservice is about the  1917 Canadian Conscription Crisis and the 'iffy' involvement of  the Canadian suffragists,  a follow up to the e-book Furies Cross the Mersey, about the 1912/13 Bristish invasion of militant suffragettes to Canada.

And it's all so very complicated. I don't think even the few scholarly accounts of the event get it one hundred percent correct.  It's complicated because even back then in 1917 people didn't know what was going on.

Lots of people involved lied, too.

When I was writing up the first chapter of Service and Disservice, where Carrie Derick, President of the Montreal Suffrage Association, tells her side of the story, I realized I was missing some critical information, info from the summer of 1917 when Mrs. Constance Hamilton, President of the National Equal Franchise Union, held an emergency meeting of the NEFU in her home to ask Borden NOT to hold an election, because if he did, "slackers from out West and Quebec would get to vote."

In the Toronto press report the Montreal Suffrage Association (a member of the NEFU) sent a statement of support for Conscription, a somewhat hysterical one, quoting from John McRae's war poem.

"Is Canada going to fail? Never. If ye break faith with those who die, they shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders Fields. Canada's honor is at stake. She will not, cannot fail to carry on and keep her word to our brave fighting men and to our glorious dead."


Above, Emmeline Pankhurst, Carrie Derick; below,  Toronto "Canadian' suffragists march in Washington DC, 1913, Constance Hamilton among them as President of the Toronto Equal Suffage League. She would soon start her own 'national' organization.

This struck me as very uncharacteristic of the MSA. Miss Derick was always very careful about what she said to the Press.

For instance, the MSA executive supported Conscription, but called it 'Mandatory Overseas Service', a euphemism. (Later, Derick would say they never supported Conscription, per se.)

So I went over to the Montreal City Hall archives and took a look at the 1917 minutes to learn, as I had suspected, that Derick didn't have anything to do with the bizarre pro-conscription resolution.

 A Mr. Holt and Mrs.Scott received Hamilton's telegram back then and replied on their own, without holding an executive meeting.

Mr. Holt, a lawyer, was the man who had an angry confrontation with militant suffragette and WSPU memeber Barbara Wylie, when she spoke in Montreal in November, 1912.

 Miss Wylie made fun of him from the speaker's platform. A year later, in 1913,  Holt was on the executive board of the newly-minted Montreal Suffrage Association.

Quite a few men, many clergymen, were on the executive of the MSA. No young unmarried women, though. Too 'excitable'.

The importance of all this: well, that 'bogus' statement probably made Premier Borden think that Quebec suffragists would be on-board with a limited suffrage option for women voters if the PM was forced to hold a federal election to get his Conscription Bill through parliament.

Indeed, Mrs. Hamilton, in her press statement for that July meeting, made a point to say the Montreal Suffrage Association represented all the women of Quebec, which couldn't have been farther from the truth.

 In September, 1917,  Borden gave the vote to women only with male relations at the war front.

The Montreal Suffrage Association, led by Miss Derick,  passed a resolution in protest against limited suffrage and sent it to the PM.  Some members of the MSA Board dissented.



Premier Borden, clearly exasperated by this resolution, replied to the MSA explaining his position. "You don't realize the difficult position I am in. Would you want unpatriotic foreign women out West to vote just because they married a Canadian?"

Borden didn't mention Quebeckers in his reply to the MSA, as if they were irrelevant.

Toronto suffragists, who liked to think of themselves as the leaders in the Canadian Votes for Women movement, were clear about their contempt for 'unpatriotic' Quebeckers. It was written all over the National Council of Women Magazine, The New Century.

Derick, living and working in two solitudes Quebec, couldn't be so blunt.


The quote from John McCrae's In Flanders Fields is all very tell-tale.  It was Professor Andrew MacPhail of McGill who reportedly found the unsigned poem in  Europe in 1915, recognized it as McCrae's by the style, and then sent it  on his own to be published. (The story around this is all very sketchy, I think. File under Wartime Propaganda.)

Francis Fenwick Williams, a writer on the Board of the Montreal Suffrage Association, and a woman who would soon speak in favour of Conscription at an August 1917 Win-the-War rally in Montreal, had been MacPhail's secretary for a while, working with him on a McGill Journal.