How Canadian Newspaperwomen Won the Vote
May 1, 2011
by Megan Cécile Radford
2011 Dalton Camp Award FINALIST
“There was a tradition among women in newspaper work not only to write the news, but to make it.”
Marjory Lang, Women Who Made the News (226)
On May 24th, 1918, they did it. After decades of petitions, demonstrations, and rallies, female citizens over the age of 21 in the Dominion of Canada won the right to vote. The girls of the newspapers put down their pens to celebrate, then sat up straighter at their desks, ready to take on another social issue. The women of the press had fought for the vote in every way available to them. Their women’s pages had provided a forum for people of many social classes across the country to discuss suffrage, in all its complications. Through the press, what was considered a women’s issue was plunged into the general discourse, helping to usher in a new era of democracy. This is how Canadian suffrage was won through the women of the media.
From the start, suffrage was caught up in the newspaper business, because the press was one of the only places where women could voice their opinions. In the late 1890s and into the early 1900s, it was not considered appropriate for a woman of good breeding to stand at a pulpit, pound with her fist and preach social change. A more liberal view of a “woman’s place” began to evolve as the new century wore on, but more often women would take the avenue that was available to them: writing in letters or editorials in the women’s pages, or under pseudonyms if they managed to break into the main pages of the paper (Rex x). According to information from a 1911 census, 25 percent of female suffrage leaders were journalists or authors, the highest-represented profession among the group (Bacchi 6).
In an interview, Carleton Journalism adjunct professor Barbara Freeman maintained that women working for newspapers in those early days were well-educated, bright, progressive and informed. They meshed well with other professionals, such as doctors, teachers and civil servants who joined them as leaders of the suffrage movement. In 1911, almost 60 percent of female suffrage leaders were employed outside the home, compared to 14.3 percent of the general population of females over the age of ten in 1911 (Bacchi 6). They were privileged, and with that came the responsibility to represent the concern of the common woman, despite the fact that for many this consideration did not seem to encompass those outside the Anglo-Saxon race (Bacchi 104).1
Freeman argues that for many female journalists, their support of suffrage was a reflection of their concern for women and their families, and later their patriotism. Many suffragettes were teetotalers, including the vivacious Nellie McClung. Their desire to ban alcohol arose from the plight of women whose husbands came home drunk and penniless, leaving their children hungry.2 Then, when many women took up work on the home front of the First World War, women of the media lobbied Prime Minister Borden for the right to vote for conscription. It was this fight that pushed Borden to grant women the federal vote (Freeman). Their passion and awareness served them well, both on the women’s pages and in the public sphere.
In the corners of Canadian papers and magazines, women editors, writers and readers alike gave vent to their opinions concerning their right to vote. Early in the game, the globe-trotting Sara Jeanette Duncan sparred with readers and politicians with her characteristic wit and satire (Fiamengo 11). Marjory Lang writes that views like Duncan’s were ignored in other sections of the paper (156). Indeed, it seemed as though women were carrying out a revolution under the very noses of the men who isolated them.
But it wasn’t kept secret for long. In the Grain Grower’s Guide and other newspapers, women began to circulate petitions demanding women’s rights and the right to vote (Lang 225). Coverage of women’s club events often discussed the issue of suffrage, and gave rise to lively debate in
letters from readers. One example is from a woman named Elizabeth to the Grain Growers Guide on March 18th, 1914:
I am a farmer’s wife, or rather a homesteader’s wife, nineteen miles from a town and certainly know what the farm woman has to contend with. Cheer up, sisters, better days are coming. The men are waking up and so are women. ... I noticed in The Guide that Premier Roblin refuses to grant suffrage to women. How can he, having a good wife, and addressed by such a splendid woman, wife and mother as Mrs. McClung, also petitioned by so many other progressive women, deny a woman’s right to have a voice in the affairs of the nation? It is certainly a “mother’s” right. Oh, that we could do something effective to put a stop to this awful traffic of liquor... .
The talented women’s pagers were inspiring ordinary women to take a stand with them. And while their peers in England resorted to molotov cocktails and hunger strikes, all Canadians seemed to need were words.
Their words often earned them undesirable consequences. In 1913, during a presentation at the Alberta Legislature, Premier Sifton was reported to have said to Nellie McClung and Emily Murphy: “Did you ladies wash up your luncheon dishes before you came down here...? If you haven’t you’d better go home because you’re not going to get any votes from me” (“Interview”). Even the brave Kit Coleman of the Toronto Daily Mail held back her opinions on suffrage because of the views of her conservative paper (Freeman). It was not easy or popular to be a “progressive woman”.
But women of the press had been standing up to the insults of men since they had first entered the newsroom. Kay Rex writes that in the early 1900s the newspaper business was all but closed to the female sex because men didn’t want women in their “smoke-filled dens” (Rex x). Women at the turn of the century were “expected to be ‘seen and not heard’” (Rex ibid.). Those women who did manage to become reporters did so by crashing through barriers or by setting up shop as permanent fixtures in the discourse of women’s pages. They fought for their jobs, earning them on the skill of their pens and the strength of their connections in the world of women. As Isabel A.R. MacLean of the Vancouver Province once said, “Why shouldn’t women become first-rate book reviewers and critics of music and drama?” (in Rex 19).
Still, many female journalists had to content themselves with editorials in the women’s section. There, at least, women were needed for economic reasons, to attract advertisements from companies that sold household and fashion goods (Lang 8). The women’s pages helped to finance the news, and even the stodgiest newsman couldn’t say a thing about that.
Women’s page editors would often use their columns to debate men’s arguments against suffrage, or to argue with other women who were less sympathetic towards the cause. Most suffrage supporters were not shy of public speaking, but expressing their views in print allowed them to reach a wider audience. This was especially true of Camille Lessard-Bissonnette, a columnist for Le Messager of Maine. Lessard-Bissonnette is often overlooked as a suffrage supporter in the annals of both Canadian suffrage and Canadian women of the press, perhaps because she spent part of her life writing for the Quebec diaspora in the United States. But in those days the debate across borders was fluid, and Lessard-Bissonnette engaged with other French-Canadians as well as with Franco-Americans (Shideler 74). She offered scathing observations about the hypocritical nature of saying that women should not get involved with politics or voting because it would soil their superior virtue (Shideler 70). On February 4th, 1910 she wrote in the Le Messager:
You say, sirs, that it is the woman who lights up your home. You compare her to a ray of sunshine. You exclaim that women must not be dragged into the mud of politics. But sirs, when a ray of sunshine falls on the mud does it dirty itself, or does it dry up and purify the mud?3
It was not only men that suffrage writers had to contend with. To see the deep divisions within Canada on the issue of suffrage you need look no further than the fact that the National Council of Women did not declare its support for the cause until 1910. Even within the Canadian Women’s Press Club, consensus could not be reached. Despite being a founding member of the CWPC, Anne-Marie Gleason-Huguenin (pen name Madeleine) of La Patrie did not support the women’s vote. While Lessard-Bissonnette was less harsh in disagreeing with Madeleine than with men, she stood firm in her conviction that women must support their suffragette “sisters,” even if they did not agree with them (Shilderer 74). She bitterly rebuked women who, as Janet Shilderer writes, “maliciously characterize, generalize, and verbally assault their sisters engaged in the fight on behalf of all women” (75). Her frustration was warranted: Quebec chose not to give women the vote till April, 1940, decades after most other provinces.
Women from all provinces were often recruited to write for newspapers because of their work in women’s clubs (Lang 222). Their connections meant that women would pay attention, and advertisers would want their wares shown alongside prominent female columns. Their social aptitude may have landed them the job, but it also helped them promote their pet cause (Lang 224). Emily Murphy is said to have “dragged the CWPC’s Edmonton branch kicking and screaming into the feminist world of confrontation” (Rex 15). Journalism was a medium for change.
Networking was crucial to spreading the word about the need for women to vote, but the women of the press went further than that. They staged rallies, and hosted prominent British suffragettes to make sure that the public heard their cries loud and clear. Flora MacDonald Denison of the Toronto Sunday World was a key player in bringing controversial British suffrage leader Emmeline Pankhurst to Massey Hall in Toronto in the fall of 1909 (Fiamengo 155). Denison, who was at the time the vice-president of the Canadian Suffrage Association, wrote in her column after meeting Pankhurst that “she left us crowned with the admiration of everyone who heard her... .” (in Fiamengo 155)
Of course, no account of the effect Canadian journalists had on suffrage would be complete without mention of the famous Mock Parliament staged in Winnipeg in 1914. Nellie McClung had joined the Canadian Women’s Press Club in 1910. Because of her efforts, those of agricultural reporter Cora Hind and the spirited Beynon sisters, the journalists of Winnipeg became the keepers of “the cradle of the women’s suffrage movement in Canada,” forming the Political Equality League (Rex 14; Lang 225). Women of the press played the key roles in the Mock Parliament held by the Political Equality League, with Nellie McClung starring as the premier, Sir Rodmond Roblin (Lang 226). Their efforts to promote equality outside of paper and ink were as fervent as their written words. Even after suffrage had passed, McClung, Murphy and others were not satisfied. Equality would not be achieved till women could not only vote for their representatives, but become them.
In the May 1916 issue of Maclean's, one month after Alberta became the third Canadian province to allow female citizens to vote, Nellie McClung wrote, “Democracy has its faults; the people may run the country to the dogs, but they will run it back again. People, including women, will make mistakes, but in paying for them they will learn wisdom.” It is because of McClung and her peers that Canadian women now have the opportunity to make those political mistakes. Whether we will “learn wisdom” from those mistakes is now a choice that is solely our own.
1. A notable exception was Francis Beynon, who was forced to resign from the Grain Growers Guide when she opposed World War I and McClung’s position that foreign-born women should not be granted suffrage (Lang 227).
2. Nellie McClung’s prohibition stance led to her being defeated after one term in the Alberta Legislature (Rex 14).
3.Translation from the original French by the author of this essay.
Bacchi, Carol Lee. Liberation Deferred? The Ideas of English-Canadian Suffragists, 1817-1918.Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983.
Elizabeth. “Good Time at Lethbridge”. Grain Grower’s Guide. 18 March 1914.
Fiamengo, Janice. The Woman’s Page: Journalism and Rhetoric in Early Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.
Freeman, Barbara. Personal Interview. 3 March 2011. “Interview with Tom Wilson, 1913 MLA for Rocky Mountain House.” 2002.
The Famous Five. Heritage Community Foundation. 4 March 2011. http://www.edukits.ca/famous/murphy_reading4.html.
Lang, Marjory. Women Who Made the News. London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999.
Lessard-Bissonnette. Le Messager. 4 February 1910: 2.
McClung, Nellie. “Speaking of Women.” Macleans. May 1916. http://www.edukits.ca/famous/mcclung_reading4.html.
Rex, Kay. No Daughter of Mine: The Women and History of the Canadian Women’s Press Club 1904-1971. Toronto: Cedar Cave Publishing, 1995.
Shideler, Janet L. Camille Lessard-Bissonnette: The Quiet Evolution of French-Canadian Immigrants in New England. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc, 1998.