Sisters United

Different opinions and beliefs caused the struggle for women’s suffrage to take root differently in each of Canada’s provinces. As a result, political responses were varied. Sometimes, as with Québec and New Brunswick, there was much debate and opposition, while in Saskatchewan, there was much less government resistance.

On the prairies, campaigns were co-ordinated by leaders from Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta. United, constant, lobbying from suffragists finally pressured these three provincial governments to grant women the franchise within three months of each other. 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of women winning the vote in Saskatchewan.

Other Canadian provinces followed suit. By 1920, seven out of ten provinces had extended suffrage to women.

Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, A1. McNaughton Papers. E18. Equal Franchise Board 1914-1918 

Colours of the Movement

Suffragists used specific colours to identify themselves and symbolize the movement. British “suffragettes” wore purple, white, and green. In the U.S. many suffragists used gold and black, while others adapted the British colours to a green, white, and gold variant.

The movement was less publicly visible in Canada, and during our research with experts we were unable to find definite proof of what specific colours were used. However, both British and American activists, some of whom — like British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst — visited Canada regularly, would likely have provided inspiration.

In all probability, various colour schemes like those used in this exhibit would have made appearances in Canada.

Emmeline Pankhurst, British suffragette (center in white dress and black hat) visiting Calgary.

A Common Goal

The Canadian women’s suffrage movement began in earnest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Motivated by the larger British and American movements, supporters of Canadian suffrage, called “suffragists,” campaigned on a number of issues, including prohibition, gender equality, property rights, safe working conditions, medical care and social justice.

Suffragists in Canada, Britain and the U.S. shared the common goal of wanting women to attain the vote, but the approaches taken in each country were distinct.

Canadian suffragists march in Washington Stuffrage Parade, 1913. License: Public domain. 

Deeds, Not Words

Suffragists in Britain initially agitated for the franchise peaceably. However, failing significant Parliamentary action, some women, led by activist Emmeline Pankhurst, formed a breakaway faction — the Women’s Social and Political Union. Calling themselves “suffragettes” to distance themselves from their suffragist sisters, they adopted militant tactics. They destroyed, burned and bombed property, initiated riots, chained themselves to structures, and tried to force their way into the House of Commons. The British government retaliated with brutal force, beating and arresting protesters, and force-feeding those who went on hunger strikes.

Inspired by their suffragette sisters across the Atlantic, more radical Americans formed their own organisation: the National Women’s Party. Though not as belligerent as their British counterparts, National Women’s Party members held their own public demonstrations, sit-ins, and hunger strikes.

British suffragists in prison. Shutterstock 94679275
Suffragist being arrested at a demonstration at the White House in 1918. Shutterstock 242816698
 License: Public Domain / Autorisation : Domaine public

Sisters in the Cause

Though tamer, the Canadian drive for suffrage was just as determined, and support for the cause spread quickly.

In Saskatchewan, a province heavily dependent on agriculture, co-operative organisations provided women significant opportunities to engage in agrarian politics. Rural farmwomen also provided essential leadership and joined with urban organisations. Together, these “sisters in the cause” united and became powerful advocates for provincial suffrage. 

Violet McNaughton was especially important within the Saskatchewan movement.  As a director in both the co-operative and suffrage movements, McNaughton was instrumental in bringing together women throughout the province. With other suffragist leaders, she raised public awareness and support by collecting petitions, giving lectures, and organizing rallies and other public events. McNaughton’s persistence was critical in helping Saskatchewan women win the vote.

Violet McNaughton, Zoa Haight and Erma Stocking of the Women Grain Growers’ Association. Photograph LH-2145 courtesy Saskatoon Public Library — Local History Room
The Women Grain Growers’ Association Executive members. Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, R-B4482 


Knowledge is Power

Education played a major role in the suffragist movement. Until the 1900s, formal schooling beyond elementary school was limited for women, especially in rural Saskatchewan. The remoteness of farms and the demands of seasonal labour made attending school difficult. By the early part of the century, however, one-room schoolhouses were becoming common. Still, the usual expectation was that girls would become wives and homemakers, so education seemed less important for them than for boys.

In urban communities, private tutors were available from the mid-1800s for the middle and upper classes. Colleges or universities were also accessible and fairly progressive. At the University of Saskatchewan, for example, sexual equality was written directly into the University Act of 1907. 

Graduates from the University of Saskatchewan. University of Saskatchewan Archives and Special Collections, A-2628
Violet McNaughton with her class. Photograph LH-2152 courtesy Saskatoon Public Library — Local History Room

Into a Man's World

Though women began taking advantage of educational opportunities, they were discouraged from pursuing professional careers. Most of them enrolled in liberal arts classes, completing degrees related to home economics.

Regardless, higher education provided women with chances to explore political theories and interact with like-minded women. They began to question long-established gender roles. Graduates formed alumni societies, where discussions about social issues, such as suffrage, took place.

A few women ventured into male-dominated disciplines such as medicine. Elizabeth Scott Matheson was one of these women. Securing a degree from the Women’s Medical College in Kingston, she practiced in Onion Lake, Saskatchewan. The Department of Indian Affairs appointed her as the Government Doctor for the Indigenous peoples of the area. 

Georgina King was the lone female executive member of the original Arts and Science Literary Society. University of Saskatchewan Archives and Special Collections, ASM-96
Elizabeth Scott Matheson. Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan R-A17686-1