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Groups Involved in Promoting Female Suffrage

Heritage Community Foundation, Albertasource.ca and The Famous Five Foundation

Reasons Cited For and Against Granting Women the Vote

Groups Involved in Promoting Female Suffrage

The Western Provinces set a Precedent for Others

Ottawa Follows Suit

Election of the First Female MLA's, MP's


Alberta women attending Legislature, Edmonton, Alberta, March 1, 1916Church and women's groups, farmers' organizations, labour unions , and savvy politicians eventually joined together to work to achieve female suffrage—though each group had its own reasons for doing so.

As early as 1891, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) endorsed the enfranchisement of women—following an impassioned speech by prominent American suffragette Dr. Anna Howard Shaw. Although the movement's major goal was prohibition, those involved in the WCTU also crusaded for a variety of social and moral reforms. Official indifference to their efforts increased support within the movement for female suffrage, a response many women viewed as fuel for achieving other reform goals.

Founded by Lady Aberdeen in 1893, the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC) was another organization that channeled the reforming zeal of missionary societies into the secular sphere. Although the NCWC did not officially endorse female suffrage until 1910, many suffrage groups became affiliated with it before then. As both Lady Aberdeen and the NCWC were held in very high esteem, this declaration gave the female suffrage movement a tremendous boost and an increased sense of respectability.

One of the NCWC's founding groups was the Dominion Women's Enfranchisement Association, founded in 1889 by Dr. Emily Stowe. Dr. Stowe was an important suffrage activist who emerged early in the movement. During her education at New York Medical College for Women, she forged strong links with the American suffrage movement, and met such prominent American suffragists as Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. In 1876, after attending a meeting of the American Society for the Advancement of Women, Dr. Stowe returned to Canada inspired to establish a Canadian organization to teach Canadian women what their rights were, to inform its members and the public about issues relating to women and social reform, and to work towards obtaining women's rights. In November 1876, her inspiration resulted in an organization christened the Toronto Women's Literary Club (TWLC) to camouflage its suffrage intent. In 1883, deciding the time was right to make their suffrage goals explicit, the club dissolved and reconstituted itself as the Toronto Women's Suffrage Association, headed by Mrs. Donald McEwan—Canada's first organization dedicated primarily to achieving female suffrage.

Farm and labour women, viewing suffrage organizations as urban and middle-class, preferred to work for the vote from within their own associations. Urban women could not be expected to have genuine interest or understanding of the problems faced by farmers and workers.

Cartoon on women's suffrage, February 26, 1913The organized farmer groups in the prairie provinces—the Saskatchewan and Manitoba Grain Growers and the United Farmers of Alberta—were early supporters of female suffrage in Canada. The farmers, alarmed by the disproportionate political influence exerted by the rapidly growing urban centers, looked at female suffrage as an opportunity to increase the strength of the farm vote. Thus, if rural women had a political voice, they could help implement the farmers' program. The Saskatchewan Grain Growers and the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) both passed resolutions in favor of woman suffrage in 1913, while the Manitoba Grain Growers' Association officially endorsed woman suffrage in 1911. Thus, farmers' organizations supported the suffrage movement a few years before the organized suffrage campaign really got underway in the West, and farmer associations actively encouraged women to join up and form auxiliaries.

One such auxiliary was the United Farm Women of Alberta (UFWA), in which Irene Parlby was heavily involved.

Like the farmers, labour groups saw female suffrage as a means to achieving their own political goals, and so threw their support behind female enfranchisement. Suffragists, for their part, courted the support of the labour movement, because they recognized that they could win powerful new allies and increase the suffrage movement's chances of success.

As women were forced to sell their labour cheaply, they undercut the entire labour market, lowering wages in general. Labour organizations were interested in the issue of equal wages, and believed that political recognition for women would ultimately solve the problem.

On the other hand, Labourites, who promoted independent labour politics based on the model of the British Labour Party, felt that if working class women had the vote, labour stood a better chance of electing working-class representatives to represent workers concerns before government.

Although suffragists viewed labour as a means to achieving their suffrage goals, they generally shared the anti-labour sentiment of the middle class. In fact, suffragists generally opposed strikes and unionization. For these reasons they pushed for reforms to remedy some of the more flagrant abuses of the industrial system, such as arbitration for trade disputes and workman's compensation.

Refusing to grant the vote to women after prohibitionists, Protestant churches, labour organizations, and farmer's organizations had taken women's side could only be seen as political suicide.

In Ontario, British Columbia, and Manitoba, the suffrage movement had to combat hostile Conservative regimes, so suffragists formed alliances with the Liberal parties of their respective provinces. The Liberals recognized in the suffrage movement a strong block of potential political support and reaped the political rewards for doing so.

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