British Columbia

100 years ago today, (most) women got the right to vote in B.C.

It was 100 years ago today that most women in British Columbia got the right to vote — but a SFU historian thinks the suffragists who brought that cause forward would likely think women still have a long way to go in politics.

Province has one of the highest rates of female participation in politics across Canada

Women were enfranchised on April 5, 1917 in B.C. — the fourth province to allow women to vote after Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. But First Nations people and Asian-Canadians of Japanese, Chinese and South Asian couldn't vote until the late 1940s. (Sunday Edition)

It was 100 years ago today that most women in British Columbia got the right to vote — but a Simon Fraser University historian thinks the suffragists who brought that cause forward would likely think women in politics still have a long way to go. 

Women were enfranchised on April 5, 1917 in B.C. — the fourth province to allow women to vote after Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. 

"It's a great opportunity to think about the progress of women's rights in the province and Canada more broadly," said SFU gender and women's studies professor Lara Campbell, who has been researching the subject for the past two years.

Suffrage didn't extend to all women at the time. First Nations people and Asian-Canadians of Japanese, Chinese and South Asian descent didn't get the right to vote until the late 1940s. 

"I think that connects to the history of anti-Asian racism in British Columbia. There were lot of restrictions already existing," Campbell said. 

Watch this video on B.C. election history

Decades-long battle

The suffrage movement in B.C. was drawn out over several decades, Campbell said, with its roots set in the temperance movement. At the time, groups like the Women's Christian Temperance Union viewed alcohol as a major issue for women. 

"Women bore the brunt of men drinking alcohol, particularly at a time when women didn't have control over their wages and how to spend family income," she said. 

SFU professor Lara Campbell has been researching the women's suffrage movement in B.C. for the past two years. (Lara Campbell)

Those social reform movements then took on enfranchisement as one of their causes. 

Campbell says the first signs of the suffrage movement began in the 1870s, when American suffragist Susan B. Anthony visited Victoria to give a talk. 

But Anthony was shocked by the large number of men who attended her presentation — she had underestimated how skewed the gender ratio was towards men in B.C.'s resource-rich economy at the time.

Only referendum in Canada

Women in B.C. cities were first allowed to vote for school board trustees in 1884, if they owned property.

According to the Encyclopedia of British Columbia, a loophole allowed women in Victoria to vote in municipal elections in 1907, but it was removed, along with the right to vote, shortly afterwards. 

By 1912, the opposition Liberal Party took on women's suffrage as one of its causes. It put enfranchisement to a vote in a referendum during the fall election of 1916 — it was the only Canadian province to do so.

But women weren't permitted to vote in that referendum.

Campbell says women weren't keen on putting the decision to a vote they couldn't participate in. Nonetheless, they campaigned mightily across the province for their cause. 

It passed, and the legislation passed the following spring. Federally, women 21 and older were enfranchised by 1918.

This pressed ivy leaf with "votes for women" stenciled in gold on it is currently on display in the Museum of Vancouver. The leaf belonged to a friend of Florence Roth, born in Toronto c. 1890s. (Museum of Vancouver)

Long way to go

Contemplating how women 100 years ago would view women's political rights today, Campbell isn't convinced they would be entirely pleased. 

"I think that suffragists would have maybe been disappointed that women were still so underrepresented politically," Campbell said. 

In a 2013 newsletter, B.C. Speaker Linda Reid noted that the province had the highest proportion of women parliamentarians in Canada, with 36 per cent MLAs. But Reid noted that more work neeed to be done.

"While we have surpassed some notable milestones in B.C., we must not be complacent in wider efforts to increase women's participation in political life," she wrote at the time.

"Much work remains to increase women's representation, both nationally and abroad."

Reid noted that Canada still trails governments in Europe, parts of Africa, and Australia.