Women’s Suffrage Movement

The women’s suffrage movement, symbol of nineteenth and early twentieth

century feminism then and now, is the most visible manifestation of women’s

emancipation, but it is merely the tip of the iceberg. Those who attacked women’s

suffrage were attacking much more than the idea that women as well as men should enter

the polling booth. My thesis statement is as follows:

Unlike the opposition to a wider male suffrage, women’s suffrage was

opposed not so much because people feared the effects of women might have as

voters, but because the idea of the woman voter challenged the ideal of womanhood

which formed an essential part of a social order that many saw slipping away from


More often than not, Canadian feminists gave whole-hearted support to the belief

that women had special duties. However they insisted that these very duties made it

essential that they participate fully in public life: only then could they carry out their

special mission, the protection of the home, the family of women and children.

There were Canadian women who took the equal rights seriously; they firmly

insisted that as human beings they had a right to full citizenship, and they fought for their

rights as individuals and not merely for their duty to expand their maternal role into the

public sphere. Equal rights feminism as well as maternal feminism was a reality in

Canada (Brown and Cook 12).

If the Persons Case marks the symbolic end of the nineteenth century women’s

struggle for equal rights in Canada, where did that struggle begin? It had its origins in

European society out of which the new Canadian society developed. The most important

institutions which formed the attitude of Canadian society toward women were those

which were common to all of North America and were a direct result of the influence of

the parent cultures on their Colonial offspring. European society was patriarchal, and the

patriarchal nature of that society was upheld by those twin institutional pillars, the church

and the law (Brown and Cook 15) .

What was the position of women under English common law at the beginning of

the nineteenth century? A married woman had only a limited control over her own

actions, and could not own property. Any property she brought to the marriage belonged

to her husband; any wealth she acquired or produced was also his. Moreover, a mother

also had no rights whatever concerning her children. No woman could vote in nineteenth

century English Canada and the married woman enjoyed no right to a voice in the law

courts (in some cases women, by virtue of being property owners, could exercise the

suffrage: this was true in Quebec in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries).

In summary then, in Canada, at the time of the settlement, a married woman’s only basic

legal right was to be supported by her husband with the necessities of life, according to

his means (Cleverdon 38) .

Given these institutional constraints on their activities it is not difficult to

understand that nineteenth-century Canadian women had to begin by attacking the legal

structures. They could not begin by attacking the social and psychological barriers to

women’s freedom that the women’s movement sees as central today, even though many

nineteenth-century women were also concerned with these more subtle constraints.

When and where did the Canadian fight for equal rights for women begin? In

Canada, the feminist movement was shaped by regional factors, although there are certain

shared characteristics which manifested themselves in all areas of the country. The

movement began in Ontario, but achieved the symbolic success of equal suffrage in the

prairie provinces. An active movement developed in British Columbia, but at a relatively

late date. In the Maritimes it appears that only small numbers of women were involved

in public activities and few were concerned with the equal rights issue. In Quebec,

French Canadian women were slow to involve themselves in any activities outside the

home, and it appears that in the period before the achievement of the Dominion Suffrage,

the equal rights movement in that province was in the hands of a small number of English

–speaking women in Montreal (Cleverdon 41).

There was considerable women’s activity in Ontario in the last decades of