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How Canadian newspaperwomen won the vote
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How Canadian newspaperwomen won the vote

Written by
Megan Cécile Radford
Published by
Toronto Star
on
June 2nd, 2011

Dalton Camp Award finalist Megan Cécile Radford says what was considered a women’s issue was plunged into the general discourse by the women of the media, helping to usher in a new era of democracy when suffrage was won.

*“There was a tradition among women in newspaper work not only to write the news, but to make it.”

— Marjory Lang, Women Who Made the News*

On May 24, 1918, they did it. After decades of petitions, demonstrations and rallies, female citizens over the age of 21 in the Dominion of Canada won the right to vote. The girls of the newspapers put down their pens to celebrate, then sat up straighter at their desks, ready to take on another social issue. The women of the press had fought for the vote in every way available to them. Their women’s pages had provided a forum for people of many social classes across the country to discuss suffrage, in all its complications. Through the press, what was considered a women’s issue was plunged into the general discourse, helping to usher in a new era of democracy. This is how Canadian suffrage was won through the women of the media.

From the start, suffrage was caught up in the newspaper business, because the press was one of the only places where women could voice their opinions. In the late 1890s and into the early 1900s, it was not considered appropriate for a woman of good breeding to stand at a pulpit, pound with her fist and preach social change. A more liberal view of a “woman’s place” began to evolve as the new century wore on, but more often women would take the avenue that was available to them: writing letters or editorials in the women’s pages, or under pseudonyms if they managed to break into the main pages of the paper. According to information from a 1911 census, 25 per cent of female suffrage leaders were journalists or authors, the highest-represented profession among the group.

In an interview, Carleton journalism adjunct professor Barbara Freeman maintained that women working for newspapers in those early days were well-educated, bright, progressive and informed. They meshed well with other professionals, such as doctors, teachers and civil servants who joined them as leaders of the suffrage movement. In 1911, almost 60 per cent of female suffrage leaders were employed outside the home, compared to 14.3 per cent of the general population of females over the age of 10 in 1911. They were privileged, and with that came the responsibility to represent the concerns of the common woman, despite the fact that for many this consideration did not seem to encompass those outside the Anglo-Saxon race.

Freeman argues that for many female journalists, their support of suffrage was a reflection of their concern for women and their families, and later their patriotism. Many suffragettes were teetotallers, including the vivacious Nellie McClung. Their desire to ban alcohol arose from the plight of women whose husbands came home drunk and penniless, leaving their children hungry. Then, when many women took up work on the home front of World War I, women of the media lobbied prime minister Robert Borden for the right to vote for conscription. It was this fight that pushed Borden to grant women the federal vote. Their passion and awareness served them well, both on the women’s pages and in the public sphere.

In the corners of Canadian papers and magazines, women editors, writers and readers alike gave vent to their opinions concerning their right to vote. Early in the game, the globetrotting Sara Jeannette Duncan sparred with readers and politicians with her characteristic wit and satire. Marjory Lang writes that views like Duncan’s were ignored in other sections of the paper. Indeed, it seemed as though women were carrying out a revolution under the very noses of the men who isolated them. But it wasn’t kept secret for long. In the Grain Growers’ Guide and other newspapers, women began to circulate petitions demanding women’s rights and the right to vote. Coverage of women’s club events often discussed the issue of suffrage, and gave rise to lively debate in letters from readers. One example is from a woman named Elizabeth to the Grain Growers’ Guide on March 18, 1914: “I am a farmer’s wife, or rather a homesteader’s wife, 19 miles from a town and certainly know what the farm woman has to contend with. Cheer up, sisters, better days are coming. The men are waking up and so are women. . . . I noticed in The Guide that (Manitoba) premier (Rodmond) Roblin refuses to grant suffrage to women. How can he, having a good wife, and addressed by such a splendid woman, wife and mother as Mrs. McClung, also petitioned by so many other progressive women, deny a woman’s right to have a voice in the affairs of the nation? It is certainly a ‘mother’s’ right. Oh, that we could do something effective to put a stop to this awful traffic of liquor. . . .” The talented women’s pagers were inspiring ordinary women to take a stand with them. And while their peers in England resorted to Molotov cocktails and hunger strikes, all Canadians seemed to need were words.

Their words often earned them undesirable consequences. In 1913, during a presentation at the Alberta Legislature, premier Arthur Sifton was reported to have said to McClung and Emily Murphy: “Did you ladies wash up your luncheon dishes before you came down here . . . ? If you haven’t you’d better go home because you’re not going to get any votes from me.” Even the brave Kit Coleman of the Toronto Daily Mail held back her opinions on suffrage because of the views of her conservative paper. It was not easy or popular to be a “progressive woman.”

But women of the press had been standing up to the insults of men since they had first entered the newsroom. Kay Rex writes that in the early 1900s the newspaper business was all but closed to the female sex because men didn’t want women in their “smoke-filled dens.” Women at the turn of the century were “expected to be ‘seen and not heard.’ ” Those women who did manage to become reporters did so by crashing through barriers or by setting up shop as permanent fixtures in the discourse of women’s pages. They fought for their jobs, earning them on the skill of their pens and the strength of their connections in the world of women. As Isabel A.R. MacLean of the Vancouver Province once said, “Why shouldn’t women become first-rate book reviewers and critics of music and drama?”

Still, many female journalists had to content themselves with editorials in the women’s section. There, at least, women were needed for economic reasons, to attract advertisements from companies that sold household and fashion goods. The women’s pages helped to finance the news, and even the stodgiest newsman couldn’t say a thing about that.

Women’s page editors would often use their columns to debate men’s arguments against suffrage, or to argue with other women who were less sympathetic toward the cause. Most suffrage supporters were not shy of public speaking, but expressing their views in print allowed them to reach a wider audience. This was especially true of Camille Lessard-Bissonnette, a columnist for Le Messager of Maine. Lessard-Bissonnette is often overlooked as a suffrage supporter in the annals of both Canadian suffrage and Canadian women of the press, perhaps because she spent part of her life writing for the Quebec diaspora in the United States. But in those days the debate across borders was fluid, and Lessard-Bissonnette engaged with other French-Canadians as well as with Franco-Americans. She offered scathing observations about the hypocritical nature of saying that women should not get involved with politics or voting because it would soil their superior virtue. On February 4, 1910, she wrote in Le Messager:

“You say, sirs, that it is the woman who lights up your home. You compare her to a ray of sunshine. You exclaim that women must not be dragged into the mud of politics. But sirs, when a ray of sunshine falls on the mud, does it dirty itself, or does it dry up and purify the mud?”

It was not only men that suffrage writers had to contend with. To see the deep divisions within Canada on the issue of suffrage you need look no further than the fact that the National Council of Women did not declare its support for the cause until 1910. Even within the Canadian Women’s Press Club, consensus could not be reached. Despite being a founding member of the CWPC, Anne-Marie Gleason-Huguenin (pen name Madeleine) of La Patrie did not support the women’s vote. While Lessard-Bissonnette was less harsh in disagreeing with Madeleine than with men, she stood firm in her conviction that women must support their suffragette “sisters,” even if they did not agree with them. She bitterly rebuked women who, as Janet Shideler writes, “maliciously characterize, generalize, and verbally assault their sisters engaged in the fight on behalf of all women.” Her frustration was warranted: Quebec chose not to give women the vote till April 1940, decades after most other provinces.

Women from all provinces were often recruited to write for newspapers because of their work in women’s clubs. Their connections meant that women would pay attention, and advertisers would want their wares shown alongside prominent female columns. Their social aptitude may have landed them the job, but it also helped them promote their pet cause. Emily Murphy is said to have “dragged the CWPC’s Edmonton branch kicking and screaming into the feminist world of confrontation.” Journalism was a medium for change.

Networking was crucial to spreading the word about the need for women to vote, but the women of the press went further than that. They staged rallies, and hosted prominent British suffragettes to make sure that the public heard their cries loud and clear. Flora MacDonald Denison of the Toronto Sunday World was a key player in bringing controversial British suffrage leader Emmeline Pankhurst to Massey Hall in Toronto in the fall of 1909. Denison, who was at the time the vice-president of the Canadian Suffrage Association, wrote in her column after meeting Pankhurst that “she left us crowned with the admiration of everyone who heard her.”

Of course, no account of the effect Canadian journalists had on suffrage would be complete without mention of the famous Mock Parliament staged in Winnipeg in 1914. Nellie McClung had joined the Canadian Women’s Press Club in 1910. Because of her efforts, those of agricultural reporter Cora Hind and the spirited Beynon sisters, the journalists of Winnipeg became the keepers of “the cradle of the women’s suffrage movement in Canada,” forming the Political Equality League. Women of the press played the key roles in the Mock Parliament held by the Political Equality League, with Nellie McClung starring as premier Roblin. Their efforts to promote equality outside of paper and ink were as fervent as their written words. Even after suffrage had passed, McClung, Murphy and others were not satisfied. Equality would not be achieved till women could not only vote for their representatives, but become them.

In the May 1916 issue of Maclean’s, one month after Alberta became the third Canadian province to allow female citizens to vote, Nellie McClung wrote: “Democracy has its faults; the people may run the country to the dogs, but they will run it back again. People, including women, will make mistakes, but in paying for them they will learn wisdom.” It is because of McClung and her peers that Canadian women now have the opportunity to make those political mistakes. Whether we will “learn wisdom” from those mistakes is now a choice that is solely our own.

Megan Cécile Radford is a 2011 graduate of the Master of Arts in Journalism program at the University of Western Ontario and has a Bachelor in Social Justice and Peace from The King's University College. She grew up in Canada and Senegal and hopes to become a foreign correspondent

© Toronto Star

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