Women's suffrage in Canada occurred in 1918. By the close of that year, all the Canadian provinces except Quebec had granted full suffrage to women. Municipal suffrage was granted in 1884 to property-owning widows and spinsters in the provinces of Quebec and Ontario; in 1886, in the province of New Brunswick, to all property-owning women except those whose husbands were voters; in Nova Scotia, in 1886; and in Prince Edward Island, in 1888, to property-owning widows and spinsters. In 1916, full suffrage was given to women in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. Women in Quebec did not receive full suffrage until 1944.
The cause of for women's suffrage began in 1867, Canadian Confederation year, when Dr. Emily Stowe came to Toronto to practise medicine. She was the first, and for many years the sole woman physician in Canada. Stowe, vitally interested in all matters relating to women, at once came before the public as a lecturer upon topics then somewhat new, “Woman's Sphere” and “Women in the Professions,” being her subjects. She lectured not only in Toronto, but, under the auspices of various Mechanics' Institutes, in Ottawa, Whitby, and Bradford. After attending a meeting of the American Society for the Advancement of Women, in Cleveland in 1877, and meeting many women of the United States, Stowe, on returning home, felt that the time had arrived for some similar union among Canadian women. Talking it over with her friend, Helen Archibald, they decided that it would not be politic to attempt at once a suffrage association but, in November 1877, organized what was known as "The Toronto Woman's Literary Club".
The Toronto Woman's Literary Club
During the next five years, this club made phenomenal growth, adding to its ranks such woman as Mary McDonell (WCTU), Mrs. W. B. Hamilton, Mrs. W. I. Mackenzie, Mrs. J. Austin Shaw, besides others. It also called forth a surprising amount of attention from the press. Among the most able assistants from its very inception was Sarah Anne Curzon, for several years associate editor of the Canada Citizen. It was the habit of the club to meet each Thursday at 3 p.m., at one of the members homes. Though not avowedly a suffrage society, no opportunity was lost of promoting this basic idea of the founders. One of the earliest efforts in this direction was a paper, by Archibald, entitled “Woman Under the Civil Law,” which elicited discussion and served as an educator. During these years, too, mainly through the work of the Woman's Literary Club, the University of Toronto, was opened to women. Eliza Balmer was the first female student.
Canadian Woman Suffrage Association
It was believed in 1883 that public sentiment had sufficiently progressed to warrant the formation of a regular Woman-Suffrage Society. On February 1, 1883, the club met and decided the following was record: "... that in view of the ultimate end for which the Toronto Woman's Literary Club was formed, having been attained, viz., to foster a general and living public sentiment in favor of women suffrage, this Club hereby disband, to form a Canadian Women's Suffrage Association.” The following month, on March 5th, at a meeting of the City Council, the Toronto Women's Literary and Social Progress Club requested the use of the Council Chambers for the purpose of holding a conversation on March 9th to discuss the advisability of granting the franchise to those women who possess the property qualification which entitles men to hold it; and then to proceed to form a suffrage club. Accordingly, on that date, Jessie Turnbull McEwen, then President of the Club, was present along with Mayor Arthur Radcliffe Boswell, ex-Alderman John Hallam, Alderman John Baxter, John Wilson Bengough, Thomas Bengough, Thomas Phillips Thompson, and Mr. Burgess, editor of Citizen. The Canadian Woman Suffrage Association was formally inaugurated, and 40 persons enrolled themselves as members that evening.
The first piece of work undertaken by the Association was the securing of the municipal franchise for the women of Ontario. On September 10, 1883, a committee was appointed to urge the City Council to petition the Local Government to pass a bill conferring the municipal franchise upon women. The committee consisted of Stowe, McEwen, Mrs. Hamilton, Mrs. Miller, Mrs. Mackenzie, and Mrs. Curzon, with the power to add others. The committee waited upon Hon. Oliver Mowat. From the beginning, the members of the Association recognized that it would be manifestly unjust to exclude married women from the exercise of the franchise, bestowing it only on widows and single women. However, it was agreed that it was not politic to criticize the franchise bill before the House, on the principle of 'half a loaf being better than no bread'. Accordingly, objections were set aside, and every woman worked towards securing this partial reform, even though, if married, she would not directly benefit by it.
In 1882, the municipal act was so amended as to give married women, widows and spinsters, if possessed of the necessary qualifications, the right to vote on by-laws and some other minor municipal matters. Again, in 1884, the act was still further amended, extending the right to vote at municipal elections to widows and unmarried women on all matters. In Toronto, January 4, 1886, the women polled a large vote, resulting in the election of the candidate pledged to reform.
Another important work accomplished about this time, more or less directly through the influence of the Suffrage Association, was the opening of the Woman's Medical College, Toronto. Stowe (with her friend, Jennie Kidd Trout) had, in the 1870s, forced her way to a season's lectures on chemistry in the Toronto School of Medicine. About 1879, she intimated her intention of entering her daughter, Miss Augusta Stowe, as a medical student. Dr. Augusta Stowe Gullen, was awarded her degree of M. D. C. M. in 1883, the first woman to be awarded such a degree under Canadian institutions. As a consequence of the persistence of Stowe and her daughter, other women became aware of the possibilities in the medical profession, and so numerous were the applications for admission that it was deemed expedient to open a Woman's Medical College in Toronto. Gullen was appointed Demonstrator in Anatomy.
After the labor involved in securing the municipal suffrage in 1883, and later, in struggling for the opening of the Woman's Medical College, there was a lull until 1889, when Stowe made arrangements to bring Dr. Anna Howard Shaw to Toronto, to lecture. Stowe sent out 4,000 invitations, to every member of Parliament, council, school Board and ministerial association, inviting each member to be present to hear about the Woman Question. The lecture was a success, creating so much interest in the matter that the old suffrage association, which had been practically non existent for several seasons, was re-organized, with Stowe as president, and Mrs. Curzon as secretary. In December 1889, Susan B. Anthony was secured to lecture in the Woman's Medical College auditorium. She succeeded in increasing interest in suffrage work, until it spread from the women of Toronto to those of surrounding towns, with new groups organizing in many places. Next, the Association secured Mary Seymour Howell, of Albany, New York, to lecture. Mrs. McDonell, ever indefatigable in her zeal for women, accompanied Howell to many towns throughout Ontario, to stimulate suffrage clubs already in existence and to form others.
In early 1890, it was believed that a Dominion Woman's Enfranchisement Convention might be assembled. This convention was duly announced to be held in Association Hall, Toronto, June 12-13, 1890. Delegates were received from the various Suffrage Clubs then existing. Also, there were representatives from American Clubs, among the latter: Dr. Hannah A. Kimball, Chicago; Rev. Anna Shaw ; Mrs. Isabella Hooker, (sister of Henry Ward Beecher), and Mrs. McLellan Brown, lawyer, and president of a Cincinnati college. The papers that elicited most attention were: “The Ballot, its Relation to Economics; ” “Woman as Wage-Earner,” and “Woman in the Medical Profession.” Yellow, the color of gold, and the symbol of wisdom in the East, was the badge of equal suffragists all over the continent, and was used for decorations at all meetings of the hall. Some of the mottoes used were "Canada's Daughters Should be Free", "No Sex in Citizenship", "Women are half the People", and "Woman, Man's Equal". The Dominion Woman's Enfranchisement Association became duly incorporated.
In 1890, in accordance with the desire of the Equal-Suffragists, Mayor Edward Frederick Clarke and the Toronto City Council determined to invite the Association for the Advancement of Women (A.A.W.), to hold its 18th annual Congress in Toronto. One is well within bounds in saying that no more brilliant gathering ever honored our country, Julia Ward Howe, author and litterateur, the friend and associate of Emerson, Longfellow, and Holmes; Mary F. Eastman, one of the leading New England educationists; Alice Stone Blackwell, editor of the Woman's Journal, and daughter of the Rev. Lucy Stone; Clara Berwick Colby, editor of the Woman's Tribune in Beatrice, Nebraska, in 1883; Rev. Florence E. Kalloch, of Chicago; Mrs. Kate Tannatt Woods, journalist and writer.
In 1895, the Equal Suffragists in Manitoba were under the leadership of Dr. Amelia Youmans. She indicated that the women of the W.C.T.U. were the first to espouse equal suffrage in Manitoba, they having twice brought largely signed petitions before the Provincial Legislature. As early as 1872, the statutes in British Columbia were constructed in such a shape as to give married women a vote in municipal matters. By 1895 in Quebec, women for many years had exercised the municipal franchise, although historically, when it was held that a woman would be polluted by entering a polling-booth, it was customary for a notary to call upon the Quebec women in their homes, where they would, in his presence, record their vote without leaving their chair.Prince Edward Island was the only province in Canada in which there is no legislation regarding woman suffrage. Not even the municipal franchise had been conferred. In New Brunswick, Sarah Manning, of St. John, was president of the W.E.A. In the Maritime Provinces, Edith Archibald was president of the Maritime W.C.T.U. and was perhaps, the pioneer suffragist of Nova Scotia. Mrs. Leon Owens was president of the Dominion Women's Enfranchisement Association (W.E.A.) of Halifax.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Canadian Magazine (1895). Canadian Magazine. 5 (Public domain ed.). Toronto: The Ontario Publishing Co., Ltd.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Finley, John H; Falconer, Robert; Newbolt, Henry John (1920). Nelson's Perpetual Loose-leaf Encyclopaedia: An International Work of Reference, Complete in Twelve Volumes, with 7000 Illustrations, Colored Plates, Colored Maps and Engravings (Public domain ed.). T. Nelson and Sons.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Stanton, Elizabeth Cady; Anthony, Susan Brownell; Gage, Matilda Joslyn (1886). History of Woman Suffrage. 3 (Public domain ed.). Susan B. Anthony.
Women’s suffrage (or franchise) is the right of women to vote in political elections; campaigns for this right generally included demand for the right to run for public office.
Women’s suffrage (or franchise) is the right of women to vote in political elections; campaigns for this right generally included demand for the right to run for public office. The women’s suffrage movement was a decades-long struggle intended to address fundamental issues of equity and justice and to improve the lives of Canadians. Women in Canada met strong resistance as they struggled for basic human rights, including suffrage. Representative of more than justice in politics, suffrage represented hopes for improvements in education, healthcare and employment as well as an end to violence against women and children.
By the mid-19th century, full citizenship was legally limited to men; by the end of the century, laws across the country mandated near-universal, White male citizenship at the federal and provincial level and explicitly excluded female voters. Around that time, many women began to agitate for the vote as well as for social reform.
Suffragists — people who advocated for the extension of suffrage — were typically White, middle-class women, many of whom believed that suffrage would increase the influence of their class and result in a better country. Women’s suffrage was also supported by Blackabolitionists (such as Mary Ann Shadd), as well as unionists, socialists and temperance activists. The majority of Canadian suffragists relied on peaceful campaigning. Only a handful identified with the militant suffragettes led by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928) and the Women’s Social and Political Union in the United Kingdom.
While they campaigned at every level of government for the vote, suffragists often prioritized local rights. By 1900, propertied women had won some voting rights — including the right to vote and to stand for office in some municipal council, library and school board elections. They next went on to win the right to vote in provincial elections. The first provincial victory occurred in Manitoba on 28 January 1916. In 1940, Québec was the last province to concede the vote.
Federal authorities first granted a limited female franchise in 1917. In 1918, this was expanded to include most women. However, Asian women and men were left out and were not included until after the Second World War. Indigenous women and men living on reserves — and most everywhere else as well — were viewed as wards of the Crown under the Indian Act, and were excluded from the vote across Canada, except in rare cases, until 1960 (seeEnfranchisement). After enslavement was abolished in 1834, Black women and men were not formally excluded as a group from the Canadian franchise.
See alsoRight to Vote; Indigenous Suffrage; Indigenous Women and the Franchise;Black Voting Rights.
Early Voting Rights
A few women have also been identified as voters, notably in Lower Canada (Québec) but also in the Maritimes and Canada West (Ontario). At least 27 Mohawk women from Caughnawaga (Kahnawake), Lower Canada, cast ballots in an 1825 election and some Catholic, Protestant and Jewish women with property voted in early Québec elections.
The insertion of the word male in 1843 in New Brunswick, and in 1849 into Québec election law, reflected an emerging ideology that placed women and men in separate spheres. This reflected the increased idealization of women as guarantors of cultural survival, who had no place in political life. Under this ideology, women were expected to remain at home, producing children and guaranteeing culture. As French Canadians increasingly became a minority culture among English-speaking Protestants in British North America, women’s suffrage was seen as a particular threat to their national survival.
Opposition flourished wherever independent women were believed to endanger religious, ethnic or national communities. Exclusion from the franchise also remained acceptable to many Canadians because many women as well as men believed that men had greater capacity for reason and that men’s potential for military service justified more rights. Opposition would only dissipate as suffragists successfully reconfigured women as legitimate public subjects and the public sphere as a respectable space for women to exercise authority.
In 1885, House of Commons debates over a new federal franchise act (previously the right to vote was set by provinces) demonstrated the significance of suffrage in shaping the country. The decision to exclude all women, most Status Indians and all Asian persons from the franchise confirmed that only White men merited full citizenship and the right to rule. With the advent of the Wilfrid Laurier Liberals in 1896, determination of the franchise returned to the provinces, all with gender exclusions and many with particular racial and gender exclusions.
Rise of the Suffrage Movement
By the last decades of the 19th century, Canadian women increasingly protested against discrimination in education and paid employment as well as violence against women and children. One remedy was the suffrage campaign, which was led by many first-generation university graduates and female professionals in medicine, teaching and journalism. Suffragists insisted on the justice of their claim and on the value of women’s maternal qualities in private and public life.
Suffragists made their first inroads at the local level, where many Canadians believed their mothering and domestic qualities were especially useful. By 1900, suffragists had won municipal voting privileges for property-owning women in many cities, and some women could vote in elections for park, library and school boards.
Mary Ann Shadd, editor of the Provincial Freeman, was a pioneer suffragist and abolitionist, who used her newspaper as a platform to discuss women’s rights, including the right to vote. The paper also informed readers of suffrage meetings held in Canada and the United States. However, Shadd was marginalized as a Black woman and as an opponent of American slavery. Her influence was all the more minimal as she returned to the United States in the 1860s.
In Ontario, widening public debate about suffrage and women’s rights produced the Toronto Women's Literary Club (TWLC), a group devoted to higher education and intellectual development as well as to the physical welfare and employment conditions of women workers. To the TWLC, extending the vote to women would help to improve women’s safety as well as their chances of employment and education. The TWLC was created in 1876–77 by Dr. Emily Howard Stowe, one of Canada's first female doctors; she and her daughter, Dr. Augusta Stowe-Gullen, spearheaded Ontario's suffrage campaign for 40 years (see Women’s Suffrage in Ontario). In 1883, TWLC became the Toronto Women's Suffrage Association, which in 1889 became the Dominion Women's Enfranchisement Association. From the 1880s on, many Ontario unionists and socialists, including Knights of Labor journalist Thomas Phillips Thompson, also endorsed women’s suffrage.
Suffragists were not a homogeneous group; nor did they focus only on suffrage. Campaigns also called for improved public health, equality in employment and education, social assistance and condemnation of violence.
Despite numerous petitions and private members’ bills, lawmakers across the country (with a few exceptions) repeatedly voted against the enfranchisement of women. Suffragists had to undertake long years of public education and agitation, and face repeated abuse and efforts at shaming. In the 1890s, critical support came from Canada’s largest women’s group, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), whose leaders believed the franchise would help introduce prohibition and thus reduce violence.
By 1914, the suffrage cause was both progressive and conservative. Growing urbanization, industrialization and immigration in the years before the First World War raised fears about how to integrate newcomers and control working-class Canadians. Some suffragists, especially those who were unionists and socialists, took up the cause of women workers, who were for the most part ill-paid and unprotected. However, other suffragists viewed the vote as a means of strengthening White, middle-class power. While progressive members championed suffrage early on as an expression of women’s right to equality, the respectable and cautious National Council of Women of Canada only endorsed the vote in 1910.
The First World War interrupted the suffrage campaigns and divided activists. Many concentrated on supporting the war effort, including conscription, in groups such as Women’s Patriotic Fund. Socialist and pacifist suffragists preferred to place their hopes on an armistice and international collaboration. Some endorsed the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, formed in 1915. A Canadian, Julia Grace Wales, wrote the League’s founding document, “Continuous Mediation without Armistice.” During the war, Winnipeg suffragist and journalist Francis Marion Beynon left her job and moved to Brooklyn due in part to her opposition to the war. Beynon and Ontario pacifist and suffragist Alice Chown left moving testaments to their views in Aleta Dey (1919) and The Stairway (1921) respectively.
Suffrage in the West
Opposition to feminism seemed strongest in central and eastern Canada, while the western provinces appeared more receptive. The West’s greater openness to women’s suffrage can be interpreted as strategic: newly colonized regions relied on White settler women to guarantee the displacement of Indigenous peoples. The vote might both attract and reward White newcomers.
Though the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was a powerful advocate for the franchise in the West, the farm movement was at least equally influential. As early as the 1870s, the Manitoba Icelandic community was endorsing women’s suffrage.
Early Manitoba leaders included Margret Benedictsson, Dr. Amelia Yeomans, Francis Marion Beynon, E. Cora Hind and Nellie McClung. A popular author and member of the Canadian Women's Press Club, McClung became the Prairie movement's dominant figure. Her best-seller In Times Like These (1915) combined serious argument with satiric put-down of anti-suffragists. Manitoba’s Political Equality League, established in 1912, was a star-studded assembly of articulate and hard-working activists. In 1914, the League held a successful fundraiser with a well-publicized mock parliament, a tactic employed elsewhere as well.
On the stage of Winnipeg’s Walker Theatre, women played politicians, with Nellie McClung mocking Conservative Premier Sir Rodmond Roblin, as she debated whether or not to give men the vote. In 1915, suffragist support was critical to the victory of the pro-suffrage Liberal Party in the provincial election. (See also Women’s Suffrage in Manitoba.)
Victories in the West and in Ontario
Western suffragists found powerful supporters in the farm, labour and social gospel movements. Like men of their own class and community, Prairie suffragists never paid much attention to Indigenous women and were generally convinced of the superiority of Anglo-Celtic peoples.
On 28 January 1916, Manitoba women became the first in Canada to win both the right to vote and to hold provincial office. Manitoba was followed by Saskatchewan on 14 March and Alberta on 19 April 1916. In these instances, the farm movement supported women’s suffrage as the proper course for a democracy. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union’s determination to protect the home and to end violence against women and children strengthened the suffrage cause. British suffragette Barbara Wylie visited Saskatchewan in 1912. Her communications, like those by activists from the United States and the rest of Canada, affirmed powerful global ties among suffragists.
In 1914, a number of political equality leagues were created in Saskatchewan as well as the Women’s Grain Growers’ Association (WGGA). Farm journalist and president of the WGGA Violet McNaughton was Saskatchewan’s most powerful feminist for many years. In 1915, the WGGA and the WCTU collaborated to form the Provincial Equal Franchise Board. Their petition campaign ensured the Liberal government’s passage of a suffrage bill in 1916.
Alberta showed a similar groundswell of support. The United Farmers of Alberta endorsed suffrage in 1912, and three years later the United Farm Women of Alberta (UFWA) emerged to campaign for suffrage, temperance and improvements in health and education. By then, Nellie McClung had moved to the province and joined suffragists such as journalist Emily Murphy, WCTU leader Louise McKinney and UFWA activist Irene Parlby.
In British Columbia, campaigns drew most heavily on urban activists, notably in Victoria, where suffrage demands were pioneered, and Vancouver, which had assumed centre-stage by the First World War. Once again, the WCTU was influential, but so too were the local councils of women as well as university women’s clubs. British Columbia also produced various political equality leagues and heard suffrage speakers from the rest of Canada, the UK and the US. British Columbia’s socialist and labour movements were critical, with the BC Federation of Labour endorsing suffrage in 1912. As elsewhere in Canada, BC suffragists showed little interest in Indigenous or Asian women, who served more often as an inspiration for charity rather than for sisterly alliance. On 19 March 1913, the Vancouver Sun sold out a special women’s edition that, together with massive petitions, demonstrated the breadth of support mobilized against anti-suffrage Conservative governments in Victoria and Ottawa. Suffrage leaders such as Helena Gutteridge, Mary Ellen Smith and Laura Marshall Jamieson displayed the talents that would later make them successful elected politicians. British Columbia was the only jurisdiction in Canada to put women’s suffrage to a referendum of male voters, during the provincial election of 1916. Bolstered by the favorable results (43,619 to 18,604 ballots), the new Liberal government approved women’s suffrage on 5 April 1917. (See alsoWomen's Suffrage in the West timeline.)
A week later, on 12 April 1917, Ontario suffragists caught up with the West. It was the first Conservative government to pass women’s suffrage. Ontario produced the only suffrage organizations claiming a nation-wide mandate — the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association and Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association — but their campaigns were largely restricted to the province. Although the WCTU was the strongest provincial group in support of women’s suffrage, Ontario also produced charismatic non-conformists such as social reformer, writer and spiritualist Flora MacDonald Denison. Denison admired British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and was a Canadian representative in giant protests in the UK and the US. (See alsoWomen’s Suffrage in Ontario.)
Achieving the Vote in Federal Elections
During the First World War, pressure mounted on federal politicians in the Conservative — later the Union Government (1917) — of Sir Robert Borden. The government wished both to acknowledge women’s contribution to the war effort and to appeal to future female voters by extending the franchise; it also wanted to firm up support for conscription. The government also feared that voters who were born in countries with which Canada was at war would oppose conscription, especially men born in those countries. In the controversial Military Voters Act andWartime Elections Act of 1917, the federal vote was extended to