Women's Suffrage

Women in Canada obtained the right to vote in a sporadic fashion. Federal authorities granted them the franchise in 1918, more than two years after the women of Manitoba became the first to vote at the provincial level. Québec women fared the worst, as both male legislators and leaders of the Catholic Church united against them to deny them the provincial vote until 1940.

Compared to the flamboyance and occasional violence of British, French and American suffrage campaigns, however, Canada's was peaceable and urbane, with humour, reason and quiet persistence.

Early Voting Rights

In the 19th century, female property holders could demand municipal voting rights on the principle of "no taxation without representation." Propertied women in Québec voted unchallenged between 1809 and 1849, when the word "male" was inserted into Québec's franchise act. What Québec women lost, Ontario women soon gained: from 1850, women with property, married or single, could vote for school trustees. By 1900 municipal voting privileges for propertied women were general throughout Canada. But most 19th-century Canadians, women as well as men, believed that the sexes had been assigned to "separate spheres" by natural and divine laws that overrode mere man-made laws, and this stood squarely in the way of achieving votes for all women as a democratic right.

Debate in Ontario

At the provincial level, public debate in Ontario began among members of the Toronto Women's Literary Club, a screen for suffrage activities created in 1876 by Dr Emily Howard Stowe, Canada's first woman doctor. She and her daughter, Dr Augusta Stowe-Gullen, spearheaded Ontario's suffrage campaign for 40 years. In 1883 the club became the Toronto Women's Suffrage Association, then in 1889 the Dominion Women's Enfranchisement Association — however, this was a national group in name only.

Despite numerous petitions and bills, Ontario's lawmakers, confident that they had public opinion behind them, repeatedly blocked changes. Suffrage groups were thus forced to undertake long years of public education. Valuable support came in the 1890s from the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), whose leaders saw votes for women as necessary in achieving prohibition. In 1910, the respected and influential National Council of Women spoke out for suffrage.

Suffrage in the West

The WCTU was also active in Manitoba, where women's suffrage had first been proposed in the 1870s by the Icelandic community. Among Manitoba's early leaders were Mrs M.J. Benedictssen, Mrs A.V. Thomas, Dr Amelia Yeomans and Mrs J.A. McClung. McClung's daughter-in-law, Nellie McClung, a best-selling author and member of the Women's Press Club, later became the Prairie movement's dominant figure. Between 1912 and 1915 there was a sharp, concerted campaign, with the birth of the Political Equality League in March 1912. The League staged a popular mock reverse-role Parliament in 1914 which helped finance additional suffragist campaigns through the proceeds of the ticket sales. During the evening's entertainment at the Walker Theatre in Winnipeg, women played the roles of politicians, with Nellie McClung as premier, debating whether or not men should get the vote. The event drew national attention.

Victories in the West and Ontario

Prairie women gained provincial rights largely on their record in helping to settle and build the country.On 28 January 1916, Manitoba women became the first in Canada to win the rights to vote and to hold provincial office. They were followed by Saskatchewan on 14 March and Alberta on 19 April. British Columbia approved women's suffrage on 5 April 1917, and Ontario suffragists, after many years of struggle, celebrated their hard-won victory one week later on 12 April.

Achieving the Vote in Federal Elections

Meanwhile, pressure was mounting on federal politicians who wished to retain power, but feared those not of British descent, especially of "enemy alien" birth, would oppose conscription. In the controversial Wartime Elections Act of 1917, the federal vote was extended to women in the armed forces, and to female relatives of military men. At the same time, thousands of loyal citizens naturalized after 1902 were disenfranchised. Though suffragist organizations had been campaigning for the vote on the basis of women's contribution to the war effort, the Wartime Elections Act was not an honourable victory for Canadian women.

On 24 May 1918, all female "citizens" aged 21 and over became eligible to vote in federal elections, regardless of whether they had yet attained the provincial franchise. However, the Elections Canada website specifies what conditions were attached to such eligibility: "age 21 or older, not alien-born and meet property requirements in provinces where they exist." In July 1919 they gained the complementary right to stand for the House of Commons, although appointment to the Senate remained out of reach until after the Persons Case of 1929. Throughout the preceding debates, the compelling argument in women's favour was their service, sacrifice and proven competence during WWI. Although democratic right did have a place in the argument, service was the keynote.

Suffrage in the Maritimes and Québec

The provincial franchise for Nova Scotia women came on 26 April 1918, after a lacklustre campaign. The cause was even less popular in New Brunswick, which approved women's suffrage on 17 April 1919. Prince Edward Island, with practically no popular agitation, changed its Election Act on 3 May 1922, and Newfoundland women gained the vote on 13 April 1925. In Nova Scotia, PEI and Newfoundland, the right to stand for provincial office accompanied voting rights, but New Brunswick avoided that radical step until 9 March 1934. In Québec, under the courageous leadership of Thérèse Casgrain, the struggle continued until 25 April 1940, when women finally achieved the provincial counterpart to the federal vote they had been exercising for over 20 years.

Women in Politics

Increasing numbers of women are found in politics. Canadian women only began to consider careers in politics seriously in the 1970s, having learned in the preceding half century that winning the vote was only a first step in a movement, far from over, for fundamental political and social change. As of 2011, the greatest number of women (76) had been elected to the House of Commons and as of 2013, the greatest number (12) had become Cabinet ministers. A total of 38 women had been appointed to the Senate. Meanwhile, as of 2013, six women premiers governed 85 per cent of the population of Canada.