Nfld. & Labrador

Theatre company launches project to celebrate a century of women's right to vote in St. John's

August marks 100 years since women in St. John's gained the right to vote in municipal elections — an anniversary that the PerSIStence Theatre Company will be celebrating over the next year.

Campaign offers events every month until November

Actress Allison Kelly performs an excerpt from the play What is She Wearing which will be performed as part of the project in November. (Heather Gillis/CBC)

This coming August marks 100 years since women in St. John's gained the right to vote in municipal elections — and the PerSIStence Theatre Company is ready to celebrate.

On Tuesday the company launched Votes for Women 100, a project consisting of a ladies' reading room, with a play, panel and tea each month until November as a tribute to women's debate clubs created during a time when women weren't allowed to speak at debate societies.

There's also a women's march planned for October and a play called The Mirror by Trudy Morgan-Cole about the life of Armine Gosling, a St. John's leader in the suffrage movement. By 2022, PerSIStence hopes to erect a statue of Gosling in Bannerman Park. There are only two statues of named women in all of Newfoundand and Labrador. 

The project has been in the works for two years, said artistic director Jenn Deon, who added many of the suffragettes' rallying cries are still relevant today.

"There are certainly some of the same things we are struggling with to this day," said Deon. The most recent provincial election saw just nine women elected out of 40 MHAs.

"Until we have equity in politics, economics [and] personal life we're not going to achieve the equality women deserve."

St. John's Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O'Leary told reporters on Tuesday that Votes for Women 100 is cause for celebration, but added there's still work to be done.

Armine Gosling, seen here with husband and former St. John's mayor William Gosling, was a leader of the women's suffrage movement in Newfoundland and Labrador. (CBC Archives)

"Our Elections Act at the provincial level needs to be addressed, and that's been long overdue and certainly that's something that's on the table now with the provincial government and I'm very pleased to see that," said O'Leary, who ran in the provincial election and plans to run again in this fall's municipal elections.

"But more importantly we also need to look and strive for diversity."

A long road

Women began lobbying for their right to cast a ballot in Newfoundland and Labrador in 1890, but the right to vote in a municipal election came more than 30 years later, in August 1921.

There was a catch. Women had to own property to exercise their newfound rights. 

Historian Margot Duley said some women of the time quickly found a way over that hurdle. 

"Women were so eager to vote that some bought sheds, and legend has it that some bought chicken coops in order to meet the property qualification," Duley said on Tuesday during the project's kickoff. 

Jenn Deon, artistic director of the PerSIStence Theatre Company, says small changes are one way society moves forward. (Heather Gillis/CBC)

Women in the rest of the province would have to wait another four years for those same rights, while Labradorians waited another 21 years before they were allowed to vote. 

Even then, women had to be 25 years old to cast a ballot while men could vote at age 21.

Deon, who also ran in the last provincial election, said she hopes inspiration is drawn from the Votes for Women 100 project by women and girls in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

"We don't all have to be planning marches, but we can all be changing how we go to work, how we raise our children, how we feel about ourselves, the language that we use," she said. 

"These small changes are going to move us forward as a society."

PerSIStence Theatre kicks off its first events on Tuesday. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Heather Gillis