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  • Women's Suffrage and Confederation
  • Heidi Macdonald (bio)

WOMEN'S RIGHTS' CAMPAIGNS IN ATLANTIC CANADA were already underway by the time of Confederation. Belying some earlier historians' conclusions to the contrary, the three Maritime provinces and Newfoundland all had steady campaigns for women's rights, beginning in the mid-19th century with dower laws and married women's property acts and culminating with suffrage legislation between 1918 and 1925.1 By exploring the question of whether Atlantic Canada, like the Prairies and Quebec, had a regional suffrage movement, examining the nature of the connections between local, national, and international movements, and situating this analysis within a broader historiographical context, this article considers how and to what extent Confederation affected these suffrage campaigns.

A year after marking the 150th anniversary of Confederation, we will mark the 100th anniversary of the federal enfranchisement of women in 2018. Just as an earlier generation of women historians had to remind us that the "universal suffrage" of the 19th century, which excluded women, should be defined more precisely as "universal male suffrage," so, too, in celebrating this anniversary, we must recognize that the suffrage remained a privilege that was not accorded federally or provincially to all women and men of voting age. Shifting understandings of who had a "stake in society," as Gail Campbell has explained, led to much defining and redefining of voter eligibility in the last two centuries, initially favouring rate-paying landowners and later embracing those who made other contributions.2 Arguments supporting women's suffrage invariably spoke to women's stake in society. Not surprisingly, apart from the late 18th- and early 19th-century legislation that ignored gender as a qualification and therefore allowed women who dared to vote to do so in New Brunswick until 1843, PEI until 1836, and Nova Scotia until 1851, unmarried, property-holding women were the first women to garner the vote in Atlantic Canada because of their stake in their municipalities as taxpayers and their not being politically represented by husbands.3 Similarly, the argument that middle-class [End Page 163] women's contributions were equivalent to if not greater than the contributions of working-class and immigrant men was used to rationalize more women voters' eligibility. As Liberal New Brunswick MLA William Roberts argued in the legislature in 1917: "A male foreigner, ignorant of our language, laws, customs, and national life, gets the vote after three years' residence because he is a 'man.' Would hon. Gentlemen class their mothers, wives and sisters with such men as these? Would they say that college graduates, school teachers, nurses, business and professional women were more ignorant than foreigners?"4

The 1918 federal Act to Confer the Electoral Franchise Upon Women stated: "Women who are British subjects, 21 years of age, and otherwise meet the qualifications entitling a man to vote, are entitled to vote in a Dominion election." 5 Because provincial, racial and other qualifications were carried into the federal legislation, British Columbian women and men of Japanese, Chinese, and Hindu heritage, and Saskatchewan women and men of Chinese ethnicity could not vote until 1948, while First Nations women and men living on-reserve in any province were not eligible to vote until 1960.6 And when the Dominion of Newfoundland enacted suffrage in 1925, women voters had to be 25 or older, while men had to be just 21, promulgating an assumption that an older woman held a greater stake in society than a younger one perhaps because of motherhood.

This essay focuses specifically on provincial (and, in the case of Newfoundland, dominion) suffrage campaigns while recognizing their contexts in a series of women's rights campaigns, including calls for improvements in married women's property laws and for women's eligibility for school trusteeships along with broader social and moral reforms ranging from the establishment of urban playgrounds, through prohibition, to training for domestic servants. While these gender and social reforms did not pave a straight road to suffrage, there is no doubt of the cumulative impact of women's rights activism and the overlap of many reforms, including, for example, prohibition and suffrage.7

The historiography on suffrage in Atlantic Canada has had two...