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women take the right to vote

May 30, 1997

1960! That's when all Canadian women were allowed to vote!

Women won the vote in small and incremental steps, with our western provinces leading the way.

The first federal election in Canada was held in August, 1867. Women didn't have the right to vote in it. Even if women met the same requirements around citizenship, property, age and race as men, women did not have the right to vote. Why? Because the laws of the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario, amended earlier in the 19th century, specifically excluded women from voting. Just because we were female ... Yeah, right!

It was five decades before relatively privileged, mainly white women, and almost a century (1960) before all women citizens over the age of 18, regardless of racial origin, had the right to vote and hold office in Canada at all levels of government. By the 1880s, women in Canada and other industrialized countries were passionately seeking fundamental and extensive social reform. Winning the right to vote and to hold office at the provincial and federal levels of government became a key goal. Disenfranchisement made women seem like second-class citizens, an increasingly unacceptable status to many women. This was unacceptable particularly to those in the growing middle class who had both religious and secular education, inherited or earned money and some leisure time to devote to an organization.

Women had some success introducing social reforms - like changes in married women's property laws, temperance, changes to education and employment laws - but women were still denied the vote and the political power that went with it. Now, what do you think about that?

Sonia Leathes, speaking in 1913 to the National Council of Women, put the challenge clearly:

"It is on this account that women today say to the governments of the world: you have usurped what used to be our authority, what used to be our responsibility. It is you who determine today the nature of the air we breathe, of the food which we eat, of the clothing which we wear. It is you who determine when, and how long, and what our children are to be taught and what their future prospects as wage earners are to be. It is you who condone or stamp out the white slave traffic and the starvation wage. It is you who by granting or refusing pensions to the mothers of young children can preserve or destroy the fatherless home. It is you who consider what action shall be considered a crime and how the offender, man, woman or child shall be dealt with. It is you who decide whether cannons or torpedoes are to blow to pieces the bodies of the sons which we bore. And since all of these matters strike at the very heart strings of the mothers of all nations, we shall not rest until we have secured the power vested in the ballot; to give or withhold our consent, to encourage or forbid any policy or course of action which concerns the people, our children, every one."

As social reformers, women learned how to use the tools - petitions, publicity, private contacts [e.g. the men they knew] and lobbying- that were used to gain the vote.

In 1916, the first hard-won victory came in Manitoba after a new provincial government which supported women's suffrage was elected in the summer of 1915. Taking nothing for granted, the Manitoba Political Equality League presented two petitions to the new Premier. One petition contained 39,584 names. The second contained 4,250 names, all collected by Mrs. Amelia Burritt of Sturgeon Creek, Manitoba. Mrs. Burritt, included seated on the right in the photograph here, was 94 years old! She must have felt strongly about the vote for a century. On January 28, 1916, women in Manitoba ceased to be disqualified from voting and holding office solely because they were women.

  • Alberta and Saskatchewan followed later in 1916,
  • British Columbia in 1917,
  • Ontario in 1917 (women could not hold office until 1919),
  • Nova Scotia in 1918,
  • New Brunswick in 1918 (women could not hold office until 1934),
  • Prince Edward Island in 1922,
  • Newfoundland in 1925 and
  • Quebec in 1940.

The first women to be given the vote in federal elections were nurses serving in World War One. In 1917, women who were British subjects and who were wives, widows, mothers, sisters and daughters of those who had served or were serving in the Canadian or British military or naval forces were given the vote in federal elections. At the same time, people born in foreign countries and naturalized since 1902, or conscientious objectors, lost the right to vote. Finally in March 1918, all women who were otherwise qualified could vote in federal elections, and by 1920 qualified women could hold elected public office.

Native women covered by the Indian Act were prohibited by federal legislation from voting for band councils until 1951, and in federal elections until 1960. Most women of colour - Chinese women, "Hindu" or East Indian women, Japanese women - were prohibited from voting at the provincial and federal level until the late 1940s. That it took so long for these women to gain their rights raises a couple of interesting questions:

  • How were women of colour treated in the women suffrage movement?
  • How did this legislated racism affect their day to day lives in Canada?

This feature was first published on section15.ca's predecessor site CoolWomen.

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