The Election Women Voted

The Election Women Voted

Posted on November 2 by Patrice Dutil And David MacKenzie in Non-fiction
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When the Canadian federal election was called for December 17, 1917, most Canadian women west of Quebec already had the provincial vote and, in most parts of the country, they had earned the right to vote and hold municipal office. It is clear that even without the First World War the right to vote federally would soon be realized. Both major political parties were on record supporting the cause and Canadians were well aware of the international currents promoting women’s rights. But Canada’s divisive wartime election interrupted this process and, for a few months in the Fall of 1917, the suffrage question was reduced to one of cold political calculation.

The Conservative government, led by Sir Robert Borden, had been elected in 1911 and, by 1917, an election was long overdue. For Borden and his team winning that election was seen as absolutely necessary. Without victory at the polls the government would be unable to implement its policy of conscription and without conscription it was believed that Canada’s war effort would collapse and, ultimately, the war could be lost. It became necessary, in their minds, to do whatever was necessary – including manipulating the vote – to ensure victory at the polls. Part of the answer was to give the vote to “patriotic” women.

The Conservatives argued that because Canadians were forced to fight a wartime election it was fair to restrict the vote to a wartime electorate — to those Canadians who were invested in the war. As a result, the Borden government introduced the Wartime Elections Act, which gave, for the first time, the federal vote to some Canadian women, in this case all those women (including widows) who had a direct relative serving in the Canadian military­ – a son, husband, father, brother (living or dead) ­— provided they met the age, nationality, and residency requirements for electors in their respective province.

Women had been part of Canadian election campaigns long before they had the vote, but in 1917 they played a bigger role and were the focus of much more attention, especially these newly enfranchised women. No one knew just how many women would now be able to vote, and the estimates ranged widely, but the vast majority was English-speaking, thanks to the preponderance of English-speaking soldiers in the military. This was crucial for Borden and his cabinet colleagues, for they were convinced that these women would overwhelmingly support the government and the war effort.

Both parties appealed to female voters, but the advantage went to the government candidates. A letter was published, for example, signed by the presidents of the National Council of Women, the Daughters of the Empire, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Equal Suffrage League, accepting, and even justifying, the limited extension of the vote. In Vancouver some 800 women gathered to pledge their support for the government; in Winnipeg there were large rallies of “next-of-kin” women and all-female party debates; in Toronto, women organized several mass rallies to pledge their support for the war and even Lady Eaton assembled the female Eaton’s employees at Massey Hall to hear speeches supporting the government; in Halifax women filled the Masonic Hall to support the war and listen to stirring accounts from France by wounded soldiers.

The female vote was one of the big stories on election day.  Newspapers were filled with stories of women voting and of the long lines before the opening of the polling stations; in other papers it was the mere novelty of women voting. But everyone agreed that they were voting in very large numbers. For the Toronto Daily Star the message was clear: “everywhere the women were giving the lie to the age-long contention that women wouldn’t use the ballot if they had it.” But in the end it is almost impossible to fully assess the impact of the female vote on the election results. Records simply do not indicate how many females voted and they say nothing of how they voted, though it is clear that they boosted the electoral results of the government.

Giving the right to some women and not others was blatantly wrong. But the suffrage question, along with the other issues raised during this acrimonious election campaign, serves as a useful illustration of the extreme lengths that governments will go in times of crisis when they are determined to win at any cost.

Patrice Dutil

Posted by Dundurn Guest on December 6, 2014

Patrice Dutil

Patrice Dutil is professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson University and the president of the Champlain Society. He is the author and editor of many books on Canadian politics. He lives in Toronto.