In his new book, Elect Her: Still Struggling to Be Recognized as Equals (Crossfield Publishing), author and journalist Fred Groves tackles gender disparity in Canadian politics. Highlighting women who have climbed the ranks as Federal Opposition leaders and Cabinet Ministers as well as those who are relative newcomers to Canada's political scene, the book questions why, after over 100 years of voting rights, so few women end up in positions of political influence in Canada compared to men. For those interested in the answers, Groves' deep look into the history of women's involvement in Canadian politics may provide what they're looking for.
We're very excited today to share an excerpt from Elect Her, publishing this month.
Excerpt from 'Elect Her: Still Struggling to Be Recognized as Equals
BEGINNINGS – The road to emancipation
“I want for myself what I want for other women, absolute equality,” Agnes Macphail
Beneath the rustle of a Canadian flag at the entrance of a small Ontario park in the appropriately named hamlet of Hopeful stands a testament to one of this country’s most famous women.
On December 6, 1921, Agnes Macphail became the first female to be elected to the House of Commons.
The historic plaque at Hopeful in Grey County reads in part: “A strong and eloquent speaker, she always maintained her independence from party policies, and was concerned mainly with agricultural affairs, prison reform and the welfare of the aged.”
A short distance away, in the house in which she was raised, another plaque says: “Witty and forceful, fearless and uncompromising, Macphail left a lasting mark on Canadian public life.” And yet another tribute at the house she purchased in East York in 1948 decrees that she was a delegate to the League of Nations in 1929 and the first woman named to the Disarmament Committee.”
Agnes Campbell Macphail, born on March 24, 1890, became a rural schoolteacher and a well-read agricultural columnist before turning her talents to politics.
She won her first election in 1921, representing her local Grey Southeast riding’s Progressive Party of Canada, defeating Conservative Robert James Ball 958 to 4,360 votes. Liberal Walter Hastie was a distant third at 2,638.
Macphail would be re-elected in 1925, 1926, 1930, and 1935 before losing the 1940 federal race. That did not discourage her. In an attempt to get back to Ottawa, Macphail lost in a bi-election in Ottawa before winning in the Ontario provincial election with the Co-operative Commonwealth Party in 1943.
One of her famous quotes truly epitomizes what women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had been fighting for: “I want for myself what I want for other women, absolute equality.”
Macphail died on February 13, 1954 at the age of 63, shortly before she was to be appointed to the Canadian Senate. She never married.
Macphail was not the first woman from Grey County who would become a trailblazer. Seventeen years earlier Helen Letitia Mooney was born thirty kilometers down County Road 10 in Chatsworth. At age seven, she and her farming family moved to Manitoba in 1880. She would marry and become one of Canada’s most famous women – Nellie McClung.
So, who were these two women, what significant roles did they play in Canadian history and how did their careers further the cause of equal rights for women in Canada?
The women’s suffrage movement was in its infancy in the western Canadian provinces when the two were born and it wouldn’t be until January 28, 1916 when the women of Manitoba were granted the right to vote.
A schoolteacher, like Macphail, McClung was also a political activist whose success as an author brought her even more notoriety. In 1908, she wrote Sowing Seeds in Danny which sold 100,000 copies and earned her $25,000. It would be her first of many books.
She married Robert McClung, moved to Alberta and they had five children. Nellie McClung joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to help combat escalating social issues associated with alcohol abuse. That activism led, as it did with so many others, to her interest in the suffrage movement. In 1921, she ran for the Liberal Party and was successful in becoming the first woman to serve in the Alberta legislature.
“Nellie is owned by Manitoba. She started her activism here. Although she wasn’t the lone architect, she was one of them,” said Doris Mae Oulton, chair of the Nellie McClung Foundation in Winnipeg.
The Foundation is, without a doubt, the most extensive, historical organization to continue the legacy of Nellie McClung. It began in 2002 when MLA Myrna Driedger, who was a critic for the Status of Women in Manitoba at the time, began looking into various women’s issues. The Foundation formed in 2006 and today it’s a major contributor to the education of students in the province. According to Oulton, their highly-informative website is part of the province’s education curriculum and is used by Grades 4, 8, and 11 for research about the past.
The Foundation offers scholarships and assists itself financially by hosting a well-attended “speaker series” that has included the only female mayor in Winnipeg’s history, Susan Thompson.
“Susan is a big supporter. I don’t know any women who are not. Women want heroes. There aren’t too many visible women heroes,” says Oulton.
McClung’s contributions to equal rights for women came in many forms. On January 28th, 1914, she carved out a piece of history when she participated in a mock parliament at the Walker Theatre in Winnipeg. This theatrical production, which was laden with satirical overtones, snagged the attention of the nation and spotlighted women’s right to vote.
“It was a sold-out crowd. People saw the ridiculousness of it,” said Oulton.
Somewhat amusing is that in 2015-2016 there was a traveling exhibition entitled Nice Women Don’t Want the Vote. That quote is attributed to a Manitoba premier Sir Rodmond Roblin, who once found himself embroiled in a heated debate with McClung. The exhibition included banners, flags and pamphlets. In the famous mock parliament, McClung portrayed Premier Roblin.
In her book, The Stream Runs Fast: My Own Story, McClung writes about Sir Roblin and quotes him more precisely, “What in the world do women want to vote for? Why do women want to mix in the hurly-burly of politics? My mother was the best woman in the world, and she certainly never wanted to vote.”
According to Oulton, McClung and her fellow activists had a lot of support from their male counterparts, especially farmers who realized the importance of women when it came to the agriculture sector.
“She galvanized women into action. The mock parliament was a turning point in Manitoba.”
In 1927, McClung, along with Judge Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Irene Parlby and Louise McKinney presented a petition that would finally grant women the right to hold political office. The “Persons Case” would lead to the changing of Section 24 of the 1867 British North American Act that specifically excluded women from holding office. They became known as the “Famous Five” and, in 2009, the Canadian government made them honourary senators.
“They were very smart in how they used their skills. Nellie was a rock star,” says Oulton.
The “Famous Five” were all members of the National Council of Women of Canada, which, in 2018, proudly celebrated its 125th Anniversary.
“We are an advocacy group and we challenge the government,” says 2019 NCWC president Sandra Cohen-Rose. “We have a lot of staying power and we’ve been around for such a long time.”
Throughout its history, the mission of the National Council to improve the welfare and conditions of life for women, family and community, hasn’t changed.
Every year, the organization sends a brief to the Prime Minister and Cabinet as well as regular reports to parliamentary committees.
“Politics is very much on our minds,” Cohen-Rose explains. “A lot of our members were politicians and they know the issues that are important.”
The brief sent to the federal government in 2019 “strongly urges” improvements to the status quo for women, precarious employment and non-standard work, citizenship for immigrants and refugees, as well as doing more to reconcile with Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.
Asked why women continue to make up less than 25% of government in Canada, Cohen-Rose responded with her own queries.
“Why are women paid less? One thing that holds us back is we have more family responsibilities. We think men should share in these duties.”
Noting that women are more educated today than men, make for great managers and bring many positive perspectives to the decision-making tables, Cohen-Rose said there are far too many decisions made to the detriment of women.
One example she gives is how major cities plan subways in,which don’t do enough to accommodate women with infants in strollers. When it comes to leveling the political playing field, there are several identified areas in which women struggle to get parity. Being paid less, managing households and taking care of elderly parents are just a few.
Once women are nominated by political parties a different sort of gender-bias issue starts to emerge and that’s the simple matter of numbers, percentages and actual quotas.
“The only reason a woman should be voted in is because of her qualifications and not her sex. It shouldn’t be just to fill a quota,” said Cohen - Rose.
Along with Roberta MacAdams, Louise McKinney was the first woman to be elected in Canada, winning in Alberta in 1917. McKinney was sworn in first. The same year that McClung was elected, 1921, is the same year that Edith MacTavish Rogers became the first woman elected in Manitoba.
Even though the suffrage movement gained most of its early steam in Manitoba, the province is yet to have a female premier.
If McClung was still with us today, one of her famous quotes would ring out as particularly relevant:
“I am a believer in women, in their ability to do things and in their influence and power. Women set the standards for the world, and it is for us, women in Canada, to set the standards high.”
“In terms of actually getting the vote, she was one of the movers and shakers,” said Oulton.
More mock parliaments were held in other Canadian cities, driving home the fact that, yes, women could sit in the big chairs and govern just as well as men.
In Ontario, Member of Provincial Parliament John Waters introduced a bill into the legislature in 1893 that would have given women the right to vote in provincial elections. Margaret Haile, a journalist whose character was dramatized in the popular television series Murdoch Mysteries, ran as a candidate in the 1902 Toronto city election. And, even though women were not allowed to vote, 74 people marked her on their ballot.
On October 27, 1893, 1,500 women came together at Toronto’s Allan Gardens Horticultural Pavilion to fight back against political polarization and partisanship. Organizing the event was the President of the International Council of Women, Lady Aberdeen, Ishbel Maria Hamilton-Gordon, the wife of Canada’s Governor General, John Hamilton-Gordon.
As readers in the 21st century, it’s hard to conceive that women in Canada were once not allowed to vote. In a particularly insulting distinction, the pre-1917 Elections Act read: “No woman, idiot, lunatic, or criminal shall vote.”
On October 23, 1915 the Winnipeg Tribune featured the following larger-than-life headline on its front page:
“Women Who Are Blazing the Trail for Suffrage in Manitoba”
Beneath this statement were pictures of several prominent Manitoba women who protested, organized petitions and fought for decades to ensure equal rights for women.
Among them was the famous McClung, who, like her mother-in-law Annie McClung and many other women, were instrumental in securing the right for women to vote, which finally came on January 28, 1916. Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan saw women vote for the first time provincially in 1916, but it would take two more years for women to earn the right to vote across the nation.
However, not all provinces were given the same opportunity at the same time. Nova Scotia’s women started voting federally in 1918, New Brunswick in 1919, Prince Edward Island in 1922, Newfoundland 1925 and Quebec not until 1940.
The right to vote was a well-talked-about subject in the late 1890’s. This was spearheaded by Manitoba’s Dr.. Amelia Yeomans and the organization she was a leader of: The Women’s Christian Temperance Union. As far back as 1893, Yeomans presented a 5,000-signature petition to the provincial government in the hope of earning women the right to vote in Manitoba. More petitions and pressure ensued over the next several years.
The WCTU was closely allied with another preeminent movement of the day: The Icelandic Women’s Suffrage Society, also known as Tilraum, which translates to “endeavor.” Its president was journalist and social activist Margret Benedictsson, who was born in Hrappsstadir, Iceland, where women over the age of forty had received the right to vote in 1915.
After immigrating to Manitoba with her husband, she started up a monthly publication called Freyja, which was geared towards women. Benedictsson often wrote for the magazine under pseudonyms like ‘Harold,’ hoping to disguise her gender and, in turn, add credence to her writings for both male and female readers.
It was Yeomans who said: “(A woman is) a rational, independent organism, endowed by the Creator with certain natural rights, which no-one may infringe without wrong-doing.”
Newspapers played a prominent role in promoting the suffrage movement and equal rights and both McClung and Macphail were writers. As far back as 1853 a black abolitionist named Mary Ann Shadd Cary in Windsor, Ontario edited the publication Provincial Freeman, where she wrote about gender and racial equality being fundamental human rights.
Following the right to vote in 1916, it took just four years for Manitoba to elect its first female to the legislature: Edith Rogers. In 1921, out of the 235 seats in the House of Commons, Agnes MacPhail was the lone female. And even though the number of elected persons had expanded to 265 by 1957, there were still only two women and then in 1968, it was back down to one again, in this case it was Grace MacInnis.
In her 2011 book Canadian Women and the Struggle for Equality, Lorna R. Marsden wrote: “These days, the equality of women and men is not an uncommon subject of discussion.”
The numbers don’t lie. In all three levels of Canadian government, municipal, provincial / territorial and federal, there are far more men calling the shots.
Marsden has been, and continues to be, a strong proponent for equality. Perhaps her biggest contribution to this task came when she attended the founding meeting of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women in 1972. This lobby group formed to pressure the government to implement the 167 recommendations made in the 1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada report.
“It was quite a struggle,” recalls Marsden.
By 1984, women held 27 of the 264 seats, or 9.6%. In 2015, women held 88 of the available 358 seats, which translates to 26%. And while the numbers have risen over the decades, it’s still a far cry from the 63% in Rwanda and 53% in Bolivia.
So why are these numbers in Canada lower than as many as 60 other countries around the globe?
Marsden, a Liberal Senator appointed by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1984 who served until 1992, says there are two main reasons why women are not equally represented in Ottawa. First off, Canada is a huge country geographically and travel distance to the capital alone is a deterrent. Secondly, Marsden notes that women are the primary care givers, not only for their own children, but for aging parents as well.
“If women have to look after small children, they can’t be in Parliament unless they have great home care,” Marsden observes from her office at York University in Toronto.
“Over the years, you found a lot of widows, single women, and childless women who ran. Raising children has been seen as the responsibility of women,” she added.
In 2018, both the Quebec and Ontario legislatures set record numbers for women winning seats. Of the 125 seats in Quebec, 52, or 42.4% are women and in Ontario, 49 of the 124 seats are held by women, which is 39.5%.
“Many women are interested in politics but when you get to the Legislature and Parliament, there are fewer,” said Marsden.
Statistics provided by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities noted that in 2015, the number of women involved in their local governments was heavily outweighed by their male counterparts.
In that year, there were 5,514 female councillors, or 28% compared to 14,020 men. There were just 626 female mayors, or 18%, compared to 2,923 male mayors. The Federation is hoping to have at least 30% female representation by 2026.
After leaving the Senate in 1992, Marsden became the President of Wilfred Laurier University. Five years later, she transitioned to the same position at York University. She’s been awarded the Order of Canada (2006), the Order of Merit (First Class) of the Federal Republic of Germany (2007), and the Order of Ontario (2009).
Asked whether or not young women are being educated enough to make the decision on whether or not to choose politics, Marsden says, “I think we are advocating for it. I’ve met a lot of students who want to go into politics.”
Politics, campaigning and the electorate are all unpredictable. For example, who would have thought that the NDP’s ‘orange wave’ in the Federal election of 2011 would see them jump from one to 59 seats in Quebec? Or that Ruth Ellen Brosseau,the 27-year-old assistant manager of a bar with no political experience who scarcely campaigned, would not only win a seat but get re-elected in 2015.
“I give women the same advice I give to men: if you go into politics and you don’t have a profession to fall back on, you’re setting yourself up for disaster,” said Marsden.
“Politics is kind of a rough sport,” she concludes.
Fred Groves has worked as a journalist at several newspapers in Southwestern Ontario including his hometown, Essex Free Press.
Author of Rising From the Rubble: the 1980 Essex Explosion, he has a passion for history, is involved as a volunteer in his community, and believes in the phrase, “if we don’t know where we came from, how do we know where we are going”.
Fred lives with his son Ryan and their four-legged supervisor, Fluffy the cat.