Extending the Vote
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Extending the Vote
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Extending the Vote
Canadian women win the right to vote in national elections
In 1917, Canada's federal electoral law stipulated that idiots, madmen, criminals and judges were not allowed to vote. It didn't mention women who were also excluded from voting in national elections.
Canadian women gained more clout during the First World War when they worked in factories, banks and offices, replacing the men overseas. (National Archives of Canada, PA024640)
Canadian women gained more clout during the First World War when they worked in factories, banks and offices, replacing the men overseas. (National Archives of Canada, PA024640)

But times were changing. About 40,000 Canadian women now worked in factories, banks and offices, replacing the men who were fighting in World War I. Women were making the economy work and manufacturing the weapons and munitions for the war effort.

Women were also determined to use their increased clout to bring ten years of struggle for the federal vote to fruition.

Canadian suffragists (women who sought the vote) had already earned the vote in Manitoba in 1916 and other provinces were also extending the vote to women. Now suffragists were setting their sights on Ottawa. But they faced stiff opposition around the country.

Henri Bourassa, editor of the influential newspaper, Le Devoir, opposed the womens suffrage. He feared for the sanctity of the family:

"[It is] the introduction of feminism under its most noxious guise: the voter-woman, who will soon spawn the man-woman, that hybrid and repugnant monster who will kill the mother-woman and the wife-woman."

Author Stephen Leacock feared more for the sanctity of his social club.

"I was sitting the other day ... with another thing like myself, a man. At the next table were a group of Superior Beings in silk, talking. ... When women have the vote, said one, there will be no more war. The women will forbid it ... there will be no more poverty, no disease, no germs, no cigarette smoking, and nothing to drink but water. It seemed a gloomy world."

Prime Minister Robert Borden wasn't keen on the idea of women voting, but he

was desperate to win the upcoming fall 1917 election and felt he needed extra votes. The election was fought solely on the issue of mandatory military service, which Borden's government had legislated months earlier.
Agnes Macphail ran as a candidate for the farmer-based Progressive Party in the 1921 federal election. She was the first woman elected to the House of Commons. (National Archives of Canada, C006908)
Agnes Macphail ran as a candidate for the farmer-based Progressive Party in the 1921 federal election. She was the first woman elected to the House of Commons. (National Archives of Canada, C006908)

On September 20, 1917, Parliament passed the Wartime Elections Act, which removed the right to vote from Canadians born in enemy countries. But it also granted the vote to the wives, mothers and sisters of serving soldiers, as well as women serving in the armed forces.

The bill met with indignation among suffragists; some saw its discriminatory half-measures as an overt attempt to serve the wartime cause rather than the cause of women.

In spite of the general outcry, the measure became law in September 1917 On December 17th of the same year, some 500,000 Canadian women voted for the first time in the federal elections. Borden's coalition government swept to victory.

In the spring of 1918, the government decided to extend the right to vote to all Canadian women 21 years old and over. Borden declared that women would exert a good influence on public life, to which the humourist Stephen Leacock responded sarcastically:

"Now that women have the right to vote, what are they going to do? Nothing at all, unless it is to elect men to the government."

Leacock was wrong. In 1921, in the first federal election in which women had the vote, ( native and Asian women could not vote) Agnes Macphail of Grey County, Ontario ran for the Progressives - a farmer based party.

On December 6, 1921, at the age of 31, Agnes Macphail became the first woman to sit in the House of Commons.

"On my desk the first day I found a bouquet bearing on the card an unfamiliar name. I was much interested until I found that it was the loser of a wager who bought the flowers. Poor chap! Well I enjoyed them anyway."

Macphail would be the only woman in Parliament until 1929, when Cairine Wilson became the first woman senator. Macphail served until defeated in 1940.

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