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Transcript
Between the Wars: Women in Canada
The Suffrage Movement
Prior to 1916, apart from certain municipalities, which allowed women to
vote, suffrage was reserved for male British subjects of 21 years of age. The
women’s fight for the vote began in the 19th century with suffrage movements
popping up around the world: in Britain, in the United States and in Canada.
Manitoba led the way for women’s suffrage. In 1914
Nellie McClung (right) and Manitoba’s Political Equality
League held a mock parliament which debated if women
should be allowed to vote. Their request was turned down by
“Premier” McClung. With the fall of the Tory government in
Manitoba, women's suffrage was given a chance. Manitoba
was the first to give women the right to vote and to stand in
elections in 1916.
The biggest obstacle for female suffrage, especially in
the East, was strong conservatism and in Quebec, Catholicism. The vote was soon
awarded, that same year, to women in Alberta and Saskatchewan. In 1917, women
who had a relative serving in the war could vote in the federal election. Finally, in
1918, the federal vote was extended to all women of legal age
(21 at the time) across the country. Agnes Macphail (left)
became the first woman elected to Parliament in 1921, and
most provinces granted women full suffrage within the next
four years. Quebec was the notable exception, as nearly
50,000 women signed a petition against the vote in the antisuffrage movement, but in 1940, Quebec awarded the two
political rights to women.
Women were also very influential in the Temperance movement that
resulted in laws prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol. Laws were passed
in most provinces by 1916, though they were mostly repealed by 1924 because of
the rampant bootlegging and difficulty in upholding the laws.
The “Persons” Case, 1927-1929
The “Persons” Case allowed women to
be appointed to the Senate of Canada. For
years, many individuals and associations had
been calling for the appointment of women
to the Senate. The Senate was very important
to the women because, until the 1970s, it
approved divorces, among other things. They
believed that if women were to sit in the
Senate, decisions concerning family matters would be more equitable.
On August 27, 1927, Emily Murphy and her companions decided to petition
the government, asking the Supreme Court to examine the meaning of the word
“persons” in Section 24 of the British North America Act to determine whether it
included female persons. The Court took the question under consideration on
March 14, 1928. Six weeks later, it replied in the negative. One of the Supreme
Court's arguments held that the Act should be interpreted in light of the times in
which it was written. Since women were not politically active in 1867, they could
not be elected.
The five Alberta women did not accept this decision, appealing to the
Judicial Committee of England’s Privy Council, the highest Court of Appeal for
Canada at that time. On October 18, 1929, the five Lords of the Judicial Committee
came to the unanimous conclusion that “the word ‘persons’ in Section 24 includes
both the male and female sex.…” According to them, the exclusion of women from
public office was “a relic of days more barbarous than ours.”
In 1930, Cairine Wilson became the first woman
appointed to the Canadian Senate, just months after the
Persons Case. A fluently bilingual mother of eight, Cairine
Wilson spent over 30 years in the Canadian Senate, and was
best known for her support of the causes of refugees.
Throughout her Senate career, Cairine Wilson also supported
issues involving the rights of women and children, more progressive divorce
legislation, and was a proponent of Medicare. In 1949, she became Canada’s first
female delegate to the United Nations. It was 23 years before another woman was
appointed to the Senate in Canada. Wilson died in 1962, while still a Senator.