Fighting for the vote: Women’s suffrage, women’s work and the First World War

Female worker in a munitions factory, c1914-1918. Women working in muntions factories were exposed to many dangerous chemicals, which sometimes turned their skin yellow, giving them the colloquial name "canaries". Image courtesy the Daily Mail.
Female worker in a munitions factory, c1914-1918. Women working in muntions factories were exposed to many dangerous chemicals, which sometimes turned their skin yellow, giving them the colloquial name “canaries”. Image courtesy the Daily Mail.

By the outbreak of the war in 1914, the women’s suffrage movement, particularly in Britain had become one of the burning political questions of the day. Should suffrage be extended to include women? New Zealand was well ahead of others within the British Empire in establishing universal suffrage in 1898 for all men and women residing in the colony; however, in Britain and Canada, the fight for votes for women continued unabated.

Initially, like most other domestic questions at the time, the suffragist movement lost momentum as governments and individuals concerned themselves with the massive mobilisation necessary to raise armies, supply them and feed them. One of the contributors to Daphne Read’s oral history, The Great War and Canadian Society, notes that “until the middle of the war, no one worked in factories” (152), meaning that women largely occupied themselves with the volunteer work offered by the Red Cross, the YMCA and other aid societies who encouraged women to contribute sewing, knitting and bandages to the effort at the front; however, by 1916 as the war shifted into new industrial territories and the need for men in the CEF grew greater and greater, women became part of the regular work force.

Suddenly, women were earning an independent wage and able to work outside of their homes; they could even in some cases, if young and single, live away from their families and from parental supervision. At this point, it became increasingly difficult to justify the rules surrounding women by simply stating that they were not physically or mentally capable of independently managing their lives.

One of the women to recognize the power of this massive social shift was Nellie McClung, the author and suffragette. McClung was living in Winnipeg at the time with her family and after a visit from the famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, began once again to agitate for votes for women. She had organized a mock women’s parliament in the city in 1914 that discussed whether men should be allowed to vote and public support was so great that by 1916, Manitoba had granted full voting privileges to women; the first of the provinces to do so.

In 1917, with the post-conscription election looming, the Borden government decided to give the vote to soldiers’ close female relatives if, as our commentor below points out, they were British subjects. The idea was to bolster support for the current government by those who were thought to support conscription; in addition to soldiers’ female relatives, soldiers overseas were also called to vote. The War Time Election Act also disenfranchised many Canadians, including naturalised citizens of “enemy countries” unless they had a male family member in the army,  and conscientious objectors. In all, roughly 500 000 women voted in the December 1917 federal elections.

 

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2 thoughts on “Fighting for the vote: Women’s suffrage, women’s work and the First World War

  1. Examining how women gained the vote in Canada is an interesting look at government motives. The 1917 Wartime Elections Act gave the vote in federal elections to wives, widows, mothers, daughters and sisters of soldiers serving overseas, if they were British subjects. At the same time, it disenfranchised conscientious objectors, members of pacifist religious groups like the Mennonites and Doukobors, and Canadians born in enemy countries who had been naturalized after 1902. The Act was a political manoeuvre to gain support for conscription. Luckily, this thinking evolved after the war.

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