TL;DR It took 84 long years for all Canadian women to win the right to vote. On Monday October 21 I will go to my local school gym, and cast my vote. I can’t wait!
Almost 150 years ago, in 1876 in Toronto, Ontario, Dr. Emily Howard Jennings Stowe started Canada’s very first women’s suffrage organization.
Born in 1831, Dr. Stowe was a woman ahead of her time. She had been refused entry to the University of Toronto in 1852 because she was female. Not until 1886 did U of T change that policy. So she got her teaching certificate, then taught public school, eventually becoming the first female principal in Canada.
After marrying and having 3 children she tried to enter medical school in Canada but was refused because, you guessed it, she was a woman. So she went to med school in New York instead, graduating in 1868 at age 37, then moving back home to Toronto where she became the first woman to practice medicine in Ontario.
It took eight years, until 1884, for Dr. Stowe’s Dominion Suffrage Club to achieve their first victory, winning the vote for women in some Ontario municipal elections. But only for widows and spinsters. Married women didn’t need the vote you see…they had their husbands to take care of all that!
Dr. Stowe and the suffragettes didn’t stop there.
- In 1889 they petitioned Canada’s Conservative Attorney General to give widows and spinsters the federal vote. They were refused.
- In 1903 Dr. Stowe died and her daughter Augusta, Canada’s first female MD trained in her home country, took over the club presidency.
- In 1905 and again in 1906 the club petitioned Ontario’s Conservative premier for the vote and were refused.
- In 1907 they organized a thousand person march, presenting the Ontario government with a 100,000 name petition. For a third time they were refused.
- In 1912 the club petitioned Robert Borden’s Conservative federal government. “No”, they were told. Not until all the provinces say yes.
So they focused on supporting efforts to gain women the vote at the municipal level, and by 1915 women had won the right to vote in a few more Ontario municipalities. Then the suffragettes went back to the province to try again. But the answer was still no.
Between 1915 and 1917, BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba women all won the right to vote provincially. But not in Ontario, where Canada’s suffrage movement had been born. After yet another monster petition the provincial Liberals made the womens’ vote one of their election planks. But the Conservatives stayed in power.
And then finally in 1917, with the First World War raging, “a change came over the hearts of men”. Canadian men and women were making untold sacrifices for the war effort. In the spirit of the times, Premier Hearst’s Conservative Ontario government endorsed a private member’s bill, the Premier intoning solemnly:
“Having taken our women into partnership with us, in this tremendous task, I ask, can we justly deny them the right to have a say about the making of the laws they have been so heroically trying to defend? I think not!”
The Liberals united with the Conservatives, (can you imagine that happening today??? 😳🤣🙄) and Ontario’s women’s suffrage bill passed.
In Ottawa, where Mr. Borden’s wartime Unionist Party (an amalgam of Conservatives and pro-conscription Liberals) had won a landslide election victory the previous year, on April 12, 1918, a bill was passed to extend suffrage to “all women in Canada”. But they really only meant non-quebecois caucasian women. 😠
When the federal bill passed, the remaining provincial and territorial hold outs gave in. Except Quebec, where women did not win the right to vote provincially until 1940. Oh, and except for women of colour, who couldn’t vote in federal elections either, until the 1940s. Oh and except for First Nations women covered by the Indian Act, who couldn’t vote federally until 1960!!!
All in all, it took 84 years; from 1876 to 1960, for all Canadian women to win the right to vote in any election in Canada. Close to a century of prejudice, of hard fought battles and rejection, of being knocked down and getting right back up, of derision and scorn heaped on the suffragettes year after year.
I am so grateful to the women (and men) who fought for this right on behalf of all of us, so tenaciously and for so long. Our society is the better for it.
On October 21 I will be thinking about Dr. Stowe and all the women whose shoulders I’m standing on, as I again relish the freedom, as a woman, to engage fully in our participatory democracy.
Voting is awesome and good for the soul. I can’t wait.