Published in the Montreal Gazette on July 30, and the Ottawa Citizen on July 31, 2014
When on Saturday, November 13, 1909, British Cabinet Minister Winston Churchill stepped off the train at the English city of Bristol, there were more people waiting to welcome him than the usual queue of municipal officials. At the rail station, Theresa Garnett, a militant suffragette, lunged at Churchill with a horsewhip, striking him several times while all along yelling “take that in the name of the insulted women of England.”
Needless to say, Churchill, who had travelled to Bristol to address the Anchor Society, was stunned by the repeated assault, taking a couple of minutes to wrestle the whip from Garnett’s hands. In the end, the President of the Board of Trade, and future British Prime Minister, had been struck several times about the face but was otherwise unhurt. For her desperate act, Garnett was sentenced to a month in Bristol’s Horfield Prison.
It was not Churchill’s first encounter with the militancy of the movement for women’s prerogatives, particularly the right to vote. In January of that same year, he had been continually interrupted while speaking at an official dinner in Birmingham.
Reflecting the general opposition also on this side of the Atlantic to extending the franchise to women, the Montreal Star could not help but chauvinistically editorialize on January 14, 1909: “If a ‘suffragette’ can disconcert Winston Churchill by talking in competition with him, she must be a veteran campaigner. Possibly the point of her offence was that she interrupted an Englishman at his dinner. If the war gets too cruel, the ladies may be met by harsher treatment than compelling their leaders to wear unbecoming clothes while in prison.”
Not surprisingly then, the crusade had also come to Canada around the same time. In November of 1909, English radical (and much later, Tory convert) Emmeline Pankhurst addressed the Canadian Suffrage Association at Massey Hall in Toronto, stirring up feminist emotions across the country.
Only six months earlier, Montreal Mayor Louis Payette was himself assaulted by local suffragette Helen Wright. In April of 1909, while in the mayor’s office with socialist leader Albert St. Martin, Wright lost patience with the chief magistrate’s suspected intractability on the issue, smashing his inkstand with a heavy paperweight before His Worship’s incredulous eyes.
Nevertheless, despite all the resistance to the movement, progress was slowly being made a little bit everywhere. For instance, due to a certain liberalization of voting qualifications, an estimated eight thousand women were permitted to mark a ballot in the Montreal municipal election of February 1, 1910, particularly unmarried property owners. Due to a heavy door-to-door campaign, most of these new voters did enthusiastically exercise their now much cherished franchise.
At the federal level some women – mothers, sisters, daughters of men fighting overseas in the First World War – were granted the right to cast a ballot in the 1917 national election. In the 1921 federal election, this freedom was extended to all women 21 years of age and older; although there were a few restrictions.
While, in 1916, Manitoba became the first Canadian jurisdiction to accord women the right to vote in a provincial election, Quebec was the last. It was not until 1940 that the Liberal Government of Premier Adélard Godbout passed the necessary legislation making the change. Most conservative forces in the province, including the church, opposed the move.
August 8 of next week will mark the 70th anniversary of the first provincial election in which Quebec women voted. Although comparatively tardy, this remarkable event was the result of the enormous sacrifice and gutsy determination made, and shown, by many women (and some men) during the first half of the twentieth century in both Canada and Britain. In Quebec, one of the most prominent of these spirited individuals was the late Thérèse Casgrain who devoted, in so many different ways, nearly 30 years of her life to the noble cause embodied in the suffragette and feminist movements.
Nevertheless, we learned just recently that the Thérèse Casgrain Volunteer Award was stealthily done away with not that long ago, only to be replaced with a shiftily – motivated Prime Minister’s Volunteer Award (“Feminist’s name removed from honour”), Gazette, July 28, 2014, A-6).
Created by Pierre Trudeau in 1982 to commemorate the life of a woman he greatly admired, the decoration should be restored to its former name. An ardent federalist and resolute progressive, Casgrain deserves no less.