Women’s Long Journey for the Right to Vote
On January 28th a special day needs particular attention in Canada: On that same date 100 years ago women in the Province of Manitoba were the first in Canada to be given the right to vote. This served as a catalyst for the other provinces to follow suit, albeit in a sporadic fashion. Also important to note is that immigrant women from countries such as China were not allowed to vote until later. And for Canada’s indigenous peoples it would be many decades until men and women could vote. Read on to learn about women’s hard fought battle across several countries for the right to vote. This is a story of leadership perseverance.
It’s easy to forget history, or to pay lip service to it. But history matters and can teach us a lot. It especially helps put current issues, whether political, economic or social, into perspective. If you’re a woman, perhaps Generation Y (19 to 34) or Gen X (35 to 48), you view your right to vote as unquestionable. In the vernacular, it’s a no-brainer. However, it wasn’t always that way.
The history of women fighting for the right to vote was long and arduous, requiring female leaders to galvanize action. It started in Great Britain in 1872, extending into the early 20th Century. These women were called Suffragettes, derived from the word Suffrage and defined as the right to vote in political elections. The National Society for Women’s Suffrage was formed in 1867, later evolving to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies 1897.
However, it wasn’t until the creation of the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903 that the movement became militant. The WSPU functioned until 1917, and during this period it was the primary militant organization operating in Great Britain. Two women were particularly instrumental in the movement’s advancement: Emmeline Pankhurst, a radical militant who led the Suffragettes, and her daughter Christabel Pankhurst.
Chaining oneself to railings, breaking windows and even engaging in arson of unoccupied buildings were some of the tactics Suffragettes used to raise awareness and to provoke those in authority. Those caught and criminally charged spent time in London’s Holloway Prison. Some of the women went on hunger strikes, only to be force fed by their guards.
During World War One, all political activities, including suffrage protests, ceased. In 1918, the coalition government passed the Representation of the People Act. This legislation gave women over age 30 who met minimum property requirements the right to vote. Ten years later, parliament passed the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act, enabling women over age 21 to vote.
In the In the United States, the suffrage movement began in the later 1840s. The first two national suffrage organizations were formed in 1869, merging in 1890 after years of rivalry to produce the National American Suffrage Association. Protests and lawsuits followed during the 1870s as women fought for the right to vote, only to be turned down by the Supreme Court. Decades of protests ensued.
Alice Paul formed the militant National Women’s Party in 1916 to increase pressure on the federal government. One major outcome was the arrest of 200 of its members in 1917 while picketing the White House. Similar to protest activities in Great Britain many of the women were arrested and imprisoned, where some went on hunger strikes, only to be force-fed.
The perseverance of these women paid off on August 26, 1920, when the 19th Amendment was passed and became part of the U.S. Constitution. It states:
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
In Canada women’s suffrage also underwent a long process, though not with as much militancy. The federal government’s inaction finally produced legislation to give women the right to vote in 1918. However, this came after women were given the right to vote in Manitoba in January, 1916 (Saskatchewan and Alberta followed a few months later) and Ontario and British Columbia in 1917. Quebec women fared the worst, thanks to the push-back from the Catholic Church. In that province, women were not allowed to vote until 1940.
Nellie McClung led the campaign for women’s right to vote in Manitoba, She rented the Walker Theatre in Winnipeg in 1914, holding a mock parliament in which she cast herself as premier with men playing the role of having to plead for the right to vote. The event was a political and financial success. McClung was also part of a five-women contingent who worked to have women recognized as “persons” by the Supreme Court of Canada in order that they could qualify to be a Senator. This campaign succeeded in 1929.
For Canada’s First Nations peoples, they didn’t receive the unencumbered right to vote until 1960. Until then and since Confederation in 1867, First Nations had to surrender their status. The Inuit had their right to vote restored without qualification in 1950.
What seems to be hard to grasp for people nowadays, the right to vote was historically a male purview–a white man’s domain. Moreover, having the right to vote required one to own property. Witness the fight that African Americans had to wage to obtain the right to vote, which didn’t come until fully 1964 with the 24th Amendment.
Last October, Canadian went to the polls to elect a new national government. It was the first time in the country’s history, going back to 1867, that there was a three-way race among the main political parties. Political analysts agreed during the campaign that it was the most important election in many decades.
Unfortunately, Canada has a very weak voting turnout, whether at the national, provincial or municipal levels. The October 2015 election saw 69% of eligible Canadians voting. While nothing to brag about, the 2011 election had a meager 61% of eligible voters turning out at the polls; the all-time low was in 2008 when only 59% of Canadians voted. The turnout for youth voters in 2011 was abysmally low at 39%. In contrast, 75% of those 65 to 74 years of age voted. And what about women who voted in the 2011 federal election? That was also modest, at 59.6% while men were at 57%.
Living in a rich, safe and secure country can produce the mindset of “all is well.” Apathy sets in among the electorate, with a minority of citizens actually engaged in politics. But that’s dangerous because voting outcomes don’t reflect the actual population. And it certainly dismisses the hard-won rights for women to vote. We, as a society, conveniently ignore history’s teachings.
Never retract, never explain, never apologize; get things done and let them howl.
– Nellie L. McClung
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