Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
January 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


History of Women Suffrage in Canada



The woman suffrage movement in Canada had its beginning in 1878 under the leadership of Dr. Emily Howard Stowe, who was one of the founders and the first president of the Dominion Women's Enfranchisement Association, incorporated in 1889. The Canadian Women's Suffrage Association was the outcome of a meeting of the Toronto Women's Literary and Social Progress Club in the city council chamber in 1883, to discuss the question of woman suffrage. Closely following the organization of this association, Sir John A. Macdonald introduced a bill into parliament, which included the granting of Dominion franchise to unmarried women possessing the required qualifications. The bill was reintroduced in 1884, and was defeated. Petitions for the enfranchisement of women, from the Canadian Women's Suffrage Association, together with the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, were presented to parliament in 1894 and 1896. A change in the Electoral Act, which made the Dominion and provincial voters' lists coincide, rendered further effort useless in the Dominion legislature, and made of woman suffrage a provincial issue.


The first municipal franchise was granted to widows and spinsters in Ontario in 1884. During the nineties, the other provinces granted municipal franchise to women. New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, and the North West Territories, confined this right to widows and spinsters; Nova Scotia included widows and spinsters and any married woman owning property, provided her husband was disqualified; British Columbia and Manitoba extended the municipal franchise to all women rate-payers. In all the provinces women rate-payers were given the school vote; and in Ontario, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, British Columbia, Manitoba, and the North West Territories, women were eligible as school trustees. During the decade 1890-1900, bills for the provincial enfranchisement of women were introduced into the legislatures of Ontario, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and Quebec, and were all defeated.


Manitoba was the first province to succeed in the enfranchisement of women, on January 27, 1916. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union began their work towards this end in 1902. The Labour party in the same year gave its support. In 1906 the municipal franchise of married women rate-payers became a party issue. It was abolished by the Conservative legislature, but restored the next year. In 1914 a plank in the Liberal platform was provincial franchise for women. A large petition was submitted to the new government; and a bill in 1916, supported by Premier Norris and the cabinet, passed its third reading unanimously.


In 1910 Alberta granted municipal franchise to widows and spinsters, but not to married women. A movement was started to extend this privilege, and it grew to include complete suffrage for women. In 1916 Premier Sifton introduced a woman suffrage bill, and this was passed with great ease. Mrs. Jamieson, the first woman judge in Canada, was appointed in 1914 by the attorney-general as commissioner of the Juvenile Court. In 1918 Mrs. L. M. McKinney and Miss Roberta McAdams were the first women in the British Empire to be elected to the legislature.


Saskatchewan began its efforts to extend the municipal franchise to married women at the same time as Alberta. Their first petition was refused. In 1916 a petition was presented to Premier Scott for the full suffrage of women, and a bill was passed in the legislature without much opposition.


Repeated efforts for female suffrage were made in British Columbia in 1902, 1903, and 1906, but they were defeated. In 1908 women householders were deprived of municipal franchise. A protest was raised, and a bill introduced to restore it was defeated. During the years 1910 and 1911 extensive work was done to amend the property laws for women and the guardianship of children. In 1913 a large petition for woman suffrage was submitted to the government, but this was refused. The full enfranchisement of women in the Prairie provinces increased the agitation. The question was put to a referendum of the electors in 1916, and female suffrage was passed by a large majority and came into effect in 1917. In 1921 Mrs. Ralph Smith, who had been elected to the legislature in 1919, became speaker of the House.


The struggle for female suffrage in Canada had started in Ontario, and was instigated for the most part by the Dominion Women's Enfranchisement Association. At first it aimed at Dominion franchise for women, then with the change in the Electoral Act it turned its efforts to provincial suffrage in Ontario. Dr. Augusta Stowe Gullen, daughter of one of its founders, Dr. Emily Howard Stowe, was its president from 1903 to 1911. In 1905 a combined deputation from this organization and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union waited upon the premier, to request that the municipal vote be extended to married women. This was refused. A resolution passed by the mayor and council of Toronto accompanied the next deputation to the legislature in 1906, and the ensuing bill was overwhelmingly defeated. Greater organization was undertaken, and the Dominion Women's Enfranchisement Association became the Canadian Suffrage Association. In 1909 a deputation of 1,000 members, requesting full franchise for women, was sent to the legislature of Ontario. A bill introduced by a Labour member was defeated. Many influential women's organizations were drawn into the movement, including the National Council of Women. Capacity audiences turned out to hear Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst and Mrs. Philip Snowden of England. In 1911 another bill introduced by the Labour member, Allan Studholme, was lost after three days' discussion. Three more bills were defeated in 1912. During the years 1914-6, upon the instigation of Dr. Margaret Gordon, president of the Toronto Suffrage Society, referenda were held in municipalities of Ontario upon the question of municipal franchise for women. Resolutions were sent to the government from many municipalities favouring this extension, but without effect. In 1915 another petition for municipal franchise met with the same success, and a bill in 1916, introduced by Studholme, was again defeated. In 1917 woman's suffrage became a plank in the Liberal platform. In February, a bill introduced by J. W. Johnson was endorsed by Premier Hearst, and was passed by the Liberals and Conservatives. Miss Agnes McPhail was elected to the Dominion House in 1921, and has held office during three terms.


In 1917, due to the question of conscription, a War Time Election Act was passed by the Dominion parliament. This gave the franchise to certain women in all the provinces, who were closely related to those in active service during the war, and excluded many women on the provincial lists. A storm of protest was raised, but Sir Robert Borden pledged himself during the campaign to equal suffrage for women. With his return to power, he introduced a bill in 1918 for extending the franchise to women. This passed without division.


In 1908, a bill in New Brunswick to grant full suffrage to women was defeated. In 1915 municipal franchise was given to married women. After the Dominion franchise complete universal suffrage was granted to women.


In Nova Scotia bills for full enfranchisement of women had many times been defeated. The Lower House of the legislature passed a bill for it in 1916, but rescinded it. In 1918 the provincial franchise for women was added to the federal.


An effort was made in Montreal in 1903 to take away the municipal franchise of widows and spinsters. Great protest was raised, and this was voted down. In 1914 a deputation to the government requested the right for women to sit on school boards and the extension of municipal franchise to married women. Nothing resulted from this. A bill was introduced in 1918 for provincial franchise, the federal franchise having already been granted. This was defeated, as was also a similar bill in 1920. The agitation still continues, and the women's organizations are working for full woman suffrage [This article repeated the one that appeared in the 1935 edition of the same encyclopedia. In reality, the suffrage was granted to Quebec women in 1940 by the Godbout government.].


In 1928 arose the question of the eligibility of women for the Senate. It was ruled out by the Supreme Court of Canada, and five women from Alberta, Judge Emily Murphy, Mrs. Nellie McClung, Mrs. Louise C. McKinney, Henrietta Muir Edwards, and Irene Parlby appealed to the Privy Council with success. Thus was established in 1929 woman's right to sit in the Canadian Senate. In 1930 Mrs. Cairine Reay MacKay Wilson was appointed the first woman senator.

[The documentary section of the site has a very extensive collection of documents on the struggle for women to gain the right to vote in Quebec. As well, you should consult the entry under Women's Suffrage at the Canadian Encyclopedia.]


Source : Irene HILL, "Female Suffrage", in W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada,   Vol. II, Toronto, University Associates in Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 325-327.





© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College