MANITOBA WOMEN WIN THE VOTE
By George Siamandas
A bill to give women the vote was passed on January 27, 1916 in the Manitoba Legislature. Manitoba became the first province to enfranchise women. Hon T. H. Johnson declared that January 27 1916 will for all days remain a milestone for this province. There was a time in society when women were considered chattels of their husbands. They were thought not to be interested in worldly issues like voting. It was thought that they were pre-occupied with other things. Home, the children and their husband’s needs. And it has to be noted that the Rodmond Roblin government of the day was not at all interested in any kind of reform. Nowhere in Canada did women have the right to vote. But things were about to change in Manitoba.
Women had been working on this issue since the late 1890s. On January 28 1914 a delegation from the Political Equality League met Premier Roblin in the old Legislature to ask for the right to vote. It was novelist Nellie McClung and President of the League, Dr. Mary Crawford who led the delegation. They stressed that women would help clean up corruption. She felt women were inherently purer and more virtuous than men.
Nellie McClung noted women were about to vote in the US, they had been voting in China and England. She declared women were ready to be let out of the asylum. And she compelled men to be the fair sex. The women said they were not asking for a favour or a gift, but for a right.
McClung wanted to address Roblin’s cabinet, a request which Roblin refused. He considered her a “rather conceited young woman who may have had some success at Friday afternoon schoolhouse entertainment and so was labouring under the delusion that she had the gift of oratory.”
She responded “You’ll hear from me later Sir Roblin.. and you may not like what you will hear.” “Is this a threat?” Roblin asked. “No,” Nellie said, A prophecy!”
Roblin refused their request for the vote. Roblin felt that Winnipeg women didn’t want the vote. The next night at a meeting at the Walker Theatre, Nellie McClung parodied Roblin to a great reception by the audience. The movement for the women’s vote had gathered a lot of political backing. The Political Equality League had support from the Icelandic Women’s Suffrage Association, the Women’s Temperance Union, the Trades and Labour Council, the Canadian Women’s Press Club, and the Young Women’s Christian Association.
She was born Nellie Moonie in Ontario in 1873. In 1880 her family moved west to homestead in Manitou. As a young woman she fought for higher education and against the customs that kept women at home. She went to the Normal School (Teacher’s College on William Ave.) and later taught in Treherne and Manitou.
In Manitou she married Wes McClung a druggist who gave her the freedom to be herself. Nellie wrote that she “could be happy with Wes. We did not always agree, but he was a fair fighter. I would rather fight with him than agree with anyone else.”
She began to write children’s literature and published her first novel “Sowing Seeds in Danny” in 1908 which became a Canadian best seller earning her $25,000 for 100,000 sales. Wes, who had joined Manufacturer’s Life, Nellie and their four children moved to Winnipeg in 1911 and lived in a house at 97 Chestnut Street.
Winning the vote took what it seems has always been required in politics. And that is being able to get the ear of a party that is willing to listen. Thus in the provincial election of July 10, 1914 the reformers supported the Liberals and their leader TC Norris.
Roblin’s government did however win with a slim majority. But his days in power were numbered. The Legislature construction scandal blew wide open forcing Roblin to resign on May 12, 1915. Norris took over, called, and won the election of August 16, 1915. On December 23, 1915, a delegation of 60 men and women presented new Premier TC (Tobias Crawford) Norris a petition of 40,000 names in support of women’s suffrage. Two weeks later, Norris brought in a bill and it received third reading on January 27 1916. A year later, another act gave women the right to vote in civic elections if they met property qualifications. But suffrage was still not available to all women. Aboriginal women had to wait till 1952 to get the same privilege.
WHAT HAPPENED TO NELLIE MCCLUNG?
Her husband’s job caused a move to Alberta in 1916, where she continued to press for the vote in Alberta winning that one by late 1916. She was elected to the Alberta legislature in 1921. And she continued to champion issues mother’s allowances, public health nurses, free medical and dental for children, new laws for women’s property rights. She served on the Board of the CBC during 1936-1942. She continued to work for improved prison conditions and liberalized divorce laws. She died in Victoria BC, in September 1951.