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Suffragettes Led the Way for Women’s Right to Vote

February 28, 2021

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 Gen Y (Millennials) or Gen X, 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 noun Suffrage, 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. (Above photo: British Suffragettes)

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 as leaders 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, the British parliament passed the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act, enabling women over age 21 to vote.

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. (Above photo: Suffragettes parade in New York City, 1917)

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 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.

What seems to be hard to grasp for people nowadays, the right to vote was historically a male purview–a white man’s domain. 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.

When Justin Trudeau was elected in 2015, his majority government’s new cabinet was composed of an equal number of men and women. Although this was a Canadian first, it’s important to note that his inner cabinet was still largely male dominated. This improved in his second mandate (though with a minority government) where Chrystia Freeland, previously Global Affairs Minister, is deputy prime minister and Finance Minister. (Photo above: Canadian Suffragettes)

With the country—and the planet—besieged by a pandemic, Trudeau faces a possible election this June or in the fall due to his minority government status. If an election’s called in 2021, achieving representative voter turnout will be a major challenge. Canada has historically had a very weak voting turnout, whether at the national, provincial or municipal levels. The record highs for voter turnouts were in 1958, 1960 and 1963 when they exceeded 79%. The average since Confederation in 1867 has been 70.5%.

Recent years haven’t been so kind. In the 2011 federal election, for example, a mere 61.4% of eligible voters turned out at the polls; the all-time low was in 2008 when only 59% of Canadians voted. However, when Trudeau ran in the 2015 the turnout jumped to 68.5%, edging down to 66% in 2019 when he was awarded a minority government.

The turnout for youth voters has been abysmally low. In 2011, for instance, it was 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 57%.

Canada can do better than this–much better. And a possible election in 2021 demands that as many Canadians vote as possible—in the face of constraints presented by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. More youth must vote. More First Nations and Inuit must vote. And more women must vote if they wish to be heard and to assume a more prominent role in the country’s political system.

Make a difference in the next federal election. JT


Look back, to slavery, to suffrage, to integration and one thing is clear. Fashions in bigotry come and go. The right thing lasts.
– Anna Quindlen (American author and journalist)

Connect with Jim on Twitter @jlctaggart and LinkedIn

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