Canadian Women Marching in Washington: Feminist Solidarity in Historical Perspective

A friend’s daughter set out yesterday from Montreal for Washington to join American protests timed to coincide with the inauguration of Donald Trump. She may not know that she is marching in a long Canadian tradition of cross-border feminist solidarity going back to a 1913 suffrage demonstration, also timed to coincide with a presidential inauguration. From the time of the suffrage movement to labour organizing in the 1930s and ‘40s to anti-Viet Nam war protests in the 1960s, Canadian women crossed the 49th parallel to support American causes which were also their own. Occasionally, Canadian soil provided a more accommodating meeting place: in 1971, American anti-war activists met with North Vietnamese women (who could not travel to the U.S.) in Vancouver to create an anti-war common front.

Women’s cross border political organizing speaks both to the cultivation of shared feminist aims and international solidarity, though it also reveals much about the contrasting political cultures and feminist movements in different countries. Take the voyage of Canadian suffragists to Washington in March of 1913 to participate in a parade timed to coincide with President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.

The Washington “parade” – really a demonstration in our parlance — drew an estimated 8,000 women to the streets of the capital to make a political point for the new President: women’s suffrage had mass support. At the time, Wilson opposed votes for women: in his view, women had a place and that was tending the home fires, not voting for the House of Representatives. Wilson may appear on the surface to be diametrically different from Donald Trump. He was well educated, urbane, a former President of Princeton, later a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his international diplomacy. However, as recent protests at Princeton suggest, he was a reactionary on the question of racial equality and a supporter of segregation. Although he later acquiesced to women’s suffrage, in 1913, he was opposed.

Unfortunately, the Washington suffrage parade reflected something of Wilson’s ideas. African-American women marched at the back, a reflection of the American suffrage movement’s increasingly racist stance over the 19th century and early 20th centuries. Any hopes that some abolitionists once entertained of votes for both women and African Americans was overwhelmed by white women’s use of racist ideology to forward their own claims, though a few more radical suffragists on the socialist left called for political rights for both women and African-Americans.

Canadian suffragists did not have the same penchant as the Americans for organizing demonstrations, though they sometimes participated in civic or Labour Day parades. Demonstrations, some Canadians worried, were more confrontational, possibly ‘unwomanly,’ and would expose women to hostile comments and actions – the latter a very valid fear. A more popular public event designed to aid the cause in Canada was the Mock Parliament. Were Canadians, early on, attracted to irony and comedy as political statements? Mock parliaments were held across the country in various forms, as straight-up debates on suffrage and as role reversal mock-ups of all male parliaments; the latter, with their satirical spoofs of male legislators and their silly, irrational arguments against the vote, were particularly popular.

When the Washington demonstration was planned, however, Toronto journalist and suffragist Flora McDonald Denison organized a Canadian contingent as part of the international delegations attending. Denison, one of the most important, long-serving Ontario suffrage activists, veered towards the democratic, radical, non-conformist side of the movement, but she drew together a coalition of suffragists of very different political stripes to go to Washington. It was an effort of some integrity since the Toronto movement had recently split into two suffrage groups, one of which contained more affluent women who had treated Denison, a working mother of middling background, with decided class contempt. The Canadian Suffrage Association and the Equal Franchise League joined forces, and on March 2, eighteen Canadian suffrage marchers and two others accompanying them, met for a public send-off with well wishers at Union Station. Three male supporters, including Denison’s ardently pro-suffrage son, Merrill, who was still in school, were part of the delegation. The Globe reporter covering the event though the “quiet” group of “handsome” women might be taken for a holiday group: he was surprised suffragists looked so very ‘normal.’

The Canadian delegation already had an assigned placed in the long march which was organized into sections by nation, state, suffrage organization, profession (doctors, lawyers), reform group (temperance and so on) gender (a men’s contingent) – and of course, race. The Canadian marchers would be placed close to those from Great Britain, a fitting juxtaposition since the Canadians were decked out in costumes featuring the union jack, a reflection of the pro-Empire sentiment of the time in English, middle-class Canada. The Washington organizers allowed pride of place to countries where women had the vote (such as Finland, New Zealand and others), while Canada was situated with countries where there was ‘partial suffrage,’ likely because some limited voting rights had been granted to women property owners in local elections for city councils and school boards.

The Washington parade was also a stylized public performance of some splendor: women “heralds” on horseback, decked out like Joan of Arc, led various sections of the march, and there were elaborate floats and ‘tableau’ (still life pantomimes with women dressed as Justice, Liberty etc) adorning the steps of the Treasury Building along the route. Women were costumed, or wore all white dresses, decked out with suffrage colours, while bands accompanied the marchers with music. The Canadians, dressed in their imperialist garb with red maple leafs added, told reporters that they were generally greeted with positive cheers, “Way to Go Canada,” though some young men, one marcher later recounted, offered jeers, including “we would never have the vote,” and “that it was too cold to vote up at the North Pole.” Indeed, the jostling, jeers and violence directed towards some marchers became a post-parade scandal. An estimated hundred victims were taken to hospital after “drunken men” tried to “climb aboard floats and grabbed the women marchers, shouting insults.” (Star, 4 Mr4 1913) Many suffragists blamed disinterested police for their failure to control the violence.

Joining the U.S. demonstration was, on the one hand, an act of political solidarity, an emotional investment in international “sisterhood” that helped to sustain the spirits of suffragists. Canadian suffragists believed strongly in maintaining a connection to the international suffrage movement, although very few Canadians were active participants in international meetings abroad. Still, writing, propaganda, letters, films, and political reports criss-crossed borders, and Canadians often made their case for the vote by pointing to successes elsewhere, especially in the sister ‘colonies’ of New Zealand and Australia. Denison and long-time Toronto leader Dr. Augusta Stowe-Gullen (daughter of early Toronto suffragist Dr. Emily Stowe) were known in the U.S. for their long-time activism; they spoke at a public meeting at a Washington library the night before the march, offering their insight into the progress of the Canadian movement.

The Washington parade was also an educational lesson for the home audience, meant to show Canadians that wide support for suffrage existed in North America and beyond. At a follow up, public meeting held at the Toronto YWCA on March 27, some of the marchers spoke about their experience in Washington. Mrs. MacIvor said she felt embarrassed that the Americans were so far ahead of the Canadians and that “we women must take hold of the men,” lobbying our politicians as assiduously as the Americans lobbied their Congressmen. Harriet Prenter, an outspoken activist of Irish ancestry, added that there was no such thing as an “ignorant” voter as anti-suffragists claimed, save for one: anti-suffragist Ontario Premier James Whiteny, who, in claiming to vote on her behalf, clearly fit the “ignorant” category. Flora McDonald Denison, Dr. Margaret Gordon, another Toronto stalwart, and Mrs. J.W. Bengough, wife of the satirical Grip editor and cartoonist, all offered their impressions of the Washington event.

Those eighteen Canadian marchers came together a unified group to voice their solidarity with American suffragists, but during the First World War that followed just over a year later, disagreement and disunity emerged. Mrs. MacIvor and Mrs. Hamilton, who both spoke at the YWCA event, were ardently pro-war imperialists who denounced suffragist pacifists; Harriet Prenter wrote for a socialist newspaper deeply critical of the war. Denison was deeply troubled by the jingoism and anti-democratic sentiments behind much wartime rhetoric, and quietly left Canada in 1917 to work for the New York suffrage campaign.

Many Canadian socialist suffragists not only criticized the war, but also spoke out about class and economic inequality between women. Yet few Canadians were concerned with the disunity and discrimination of a suffrage march that relegated African-American women to the ‘back of the bus.’ One of the slogans used at the Washington parade “Women of the world unite” (appropriated of course from Karl Marx) seemed a misnomer. As the Toronto women boarded the train in 1913, Flora McDonald Denison was asked by a reporter if she thought the American women supported votes for “negro women”? She answered answered that the Canadian association “barred no person,” from joining, but she thought her Southern sisters “might not care to have a colored person ruling them.” Was she suggesting Canadians were more tolerant than suffragists to the south? It was a comforting thought, but one that many historians suggest was more wishful thinking than reality.

Quotes from: The Globe; The Toronto Star 

Only the Brave or “Canada’s Daughters Shall be Free” –Respect, Redistribution, and Suffrage in Women’s Struggle for Canadian Democracy



Veronica Strong-Boag
Riley Lecture
University of Winnipeg
Winnipeg Public Library
20 October 2016

As Canada’s recent political history demonstrates, democracy remains an unfinished and contested project championed by the courageous.[1] The long and continuing struggle to gain women what has been termed ‘participatory parity’ is an object lesson in that democratic story.[2] A truly level playing field for women, much as for racialized and otherwise stigmatized groups, goes well beyond the franchise itself to depend ultimately on both cultural respect and economic justice (meaning redistribution of resources) so that no one gender, class or race is privileged in governance. Those two fundamental cultural and economic preconditions stand at the heart of everyone’s capacity to participate as equals in government. Today, however, lack of respect and material inequality thrive, whether we consider the sexist trolling that stalks the internet or the gender wage gap. Such failings do much to explain why the promise of democracy remains unfulfilled in Canada and elsewhere in the 21st century.

Despite a culture often disrespectful of their contributions and an economic order that disproportionately rewards men, women have a long history of demanding a fair deal from governments. Waged from soon after Confederation until well into the 20th century, Canadian suffrage campaigns represent a critical stage in that more extensive effort. Although they are frequently treated as isolated phenomena, the franchise crusades were never that. Women’s early resistance to a political status quo that disadvantaged them included using pitchforks against pre-Confederation PEI landlords, petitioning New Brunswick governments for redress, and demanding the vote in 1830s Quebec.[3] Only as the vast majority of settler men were enfranchised in the second half of the 19th century did the obvious disparity, like the mounting need for the moral legitimation of the emerging liberal state, fuel a significant demand for women suffrage.[4]

The Canadian suffrage campaigns are key points in a continuum of strategies employed by women and male allies to demand a fair deal from patriarchy. Today their heirs are feminist groups like the Canadian Women Voters Congress and Equal Voice. Invoking that ancestry, Equal Voice recently initiated a “Daughters of the Vote” campaign intended to identify 338 young women aged 18 to 23 to “represent their community and communicate their vision for Canada” in its 150th year.[5] Those chosen would do well to recall earlier brave spirits, some of whom are remembered here.

Oppositional politics are not for the weak. Never to be underestimated but too often ignored, patriarchal, often racist and classist, laws and traditions have offered plenty of subtle and brutal inducements to accept the status quo and remain silent. Victorian male intellectuals often grouped women, savages, criminals, idiots together as “outcasts from evolution.”[6] For centuries, anti-feminists and misogynists have actively monitored female behavior and threatened penalties for non-compliance. Legal codes, sermons, the media, institutions, and the ever-present threat of domestic and public violence routinely demanded female deference. In her usual inimitable style, the prairie suffragist Nellie L. McClung (1873-1951) summed up pervasive prejudices:

Women are intended for two things, to bring children into the world and to make men comfortable, and then they must keep quiet and if their hearts break with grief, let them break quietly—that’s all. No woman is so unpopular as the noisy woman who protests …[7]

Ultimately, only the brave resisted pervasive commandments to be mute and complicit with authority.

Women’s nevertheless recurring resistance to intimidation and resolve to have a voice in determining their world supplies the critical context in which suffrage demands emerged in the 19th century. Agitation sprang out of a rich history of dissent. While some were always intimidated, compliant or complicit with male privilege, women developed diverse private strategies to secure respect and financial options. A significant group also contested the public realm. This paper introduces seven such heroines of their day.

Any such story properly begins with the campaign for justice of the Methodist Ojibwa Catherine Sutton/Nahneebahweequa (1824-1865). She reminds us that Indigenous communities have produced their share of the outspoken activists, whom McClung later celebrated as the women ‘who care.’[8] The pioneering Black abolitionist and journalist Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893) stands in the same tradition as does the pathbreaking doctor Anglo-Canadian Emily Howard Jennings Stowe (1831-1903), the Scottish-English Canadian Knights of Labor leader Katie McVicar (1856-1886), the Mohawk-English writer and performer Emily Pauline Johnson/Tekahionwake (1861-1913), the Chinese-English writer Edith Maud Eaton/Sui Sin Far (1865-1914), and finally the British-Canadian suffragist and writer Nellie L. McClung herself. Each exemplify the long tradition of women demanding what should be understood as respect and some form of economic redistribution, the mainstay in effect of participatory parity.

Catherine Sutton/Nahneebahweequa (1824-1865)

In colonial, pre-Confederation Canada Indigenous women joined other critics of settler government. Because she employed strategies that appear in the official record, the Ojibwa activist Catherine Sutton, well-named ‘upright woman’ in her language, is, however, one of the few to survive for posterity.[9] In the course of demands that the Crown recognize her right to hold land on Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula, she demanded respect for both Indigenous peoples and her sex. Like later settler women in the west who crusaded for equal homestead rights,[10] Sutton insisted that her claim to land matched that of men. Unlike those campaigners, however, she was equally adamant that Indigenous claims to territory and resources be similarly honoured.

A respected orator, Catherine Sutton represented early “Christians of Aboriginal and European ancestry working together to address the injustices of colonization.”[11] The niece and adopted daughter of distinguished Anishnabe Methodist minister Peter Jones (Kahkewayquonabee), she married an English immigrant shoemaker and preacher in anticipation of contributing to a mixed-race nation. Like many other women in such marriages, however, she discovered that she lost valuable Indigenous rights even as the era’s mounting racism defined her as inferior. As the wife of a white man, she was refused band annuities while as an Indian she was denied the right to purchase land. Sutton’s obvious capacity, together with her fierce personal grievance, prompted the General Indian Council of the Bruce Peninsula to nominate her as its representative in dealing with settler encroachment.[12] The well-educated Sutton insisted upon respect and rejected subordination: “I am an Indian; the blood of my forefathers runs in my veins, and I am not ashamed to own it; for my people were a noble race before the pale-faces came to possess their lands and home”.[13]

Although Ontario chiefs ultimately walked away from Sutton’s claims,[14] she won critical financial support from Quakers and white humanitarians in explaining

When I wanted to buy my home, they took me for an Indian, and said I was an Indian: I could not buy. And when I applied as an Indian for my payment, they said I was a white woman, because I was married to a white man: and so you see they can turn the thing whichever way they have a mind to just suit their cause.[15]

In June 1860, well-advanced in pregnancy, Sutton put her case to Queen Victoria:

my forefathers fought and bled for the British Crown, and the Representatives of Briton [sic] have repeatedly told our Fathers that they were the Friends of the Red Man and would continue to be, as long as the grass grew and waters continued to flow. [B]ut for the last Quarter of a Century their [sic] ]h]as been a strange way of showing it.[16]

An investigation was promised but in fact London had already transferred the Indian Department to Canada and assurance of redress evaporated. Sutton expressed her anger in terms European feminists would understand:

I have always heard that Canada was a free country; but it is only for some, but not for the Aborigines of America. … I am charged with the unpardonable sin of marrying a White Man, I would like to know if you have a law in England, that would deprive a woman of property left her, by her Fathers [sic] will or if you please inherited property—I ask have you a Law that would deprive that woman of her property because she got married to a Frenchman?[17]

Returning to Ontario, she condemned as “‘wholesale robbery and treachery’” Ottawa’s efforts to acquire Manitoulin Island, promised “in perpetuity” to the First Nations.[18] After her death in 1865 at age 41, her husband received her land but the others on whose behalf she had also spoke were not so lucky.

In petitioning the Crown, Catherine Sutton employed a strategy familiar to politically conscious residents of the British Empire. Non-enfranchised Indigenous people and women attempting to influence governments regularly used both individual and collective petitions as a time-honoured means of bringing injustice to the attention of rulers. In fact, while hailed as modernizing government, the 2015 provision for electronic petitions to be tabled in Parliament and to receive an official written response resurrected a traditional political strategy to address Canada’s modern democratic deficit.[19] Respect and redistribution are once again intended just as Sutton hoped more than a century and a half ago.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893)

As literacy became increasingly wide-spread in the 19th century, journalism emerged as another powerful outlet for dissent. Born in the United States within months of Sutton, Mary Ann Shadd Cary represented another critical stream within women’s traditions of resistance. Today she is recognized as Canada’s pioneering suffragist.[20] In 1851, this well-educated daughter of middle-class Black American abolitionists, active in the Underground Railroad, moved north to Ontario at age 27 as part of the battle against slavery. A product of Quaker schools, she challenged both racism and sexism as a teacher, a journalist, and the publisher of Ontario’s anti-slavery newspaper The Provincial Freeman (1853-1860). Like Sutton who drew on the benefits of her Methodist training, Shadd Cary utilized western schooling and knowledge to persuade.[21] Her espousal, again like Sutton, of a non-traditional union, in her case what we might today term a commuter marriage, including children, with a Black Toronto businessman and activist, tested prevailing gender roles. In face of suspicions in the African community about her outspokenness, Shadd Cary had to pretend that a respectable Black male minister based in New York was editing the Freeman.[22] Her insistence on women’s rights nevertheless kept her Canadian newspaper regularly transgressing “the boundaries of respectability.”[23] Incensed by her refusal to accept gendered expectations, many male abolitionists, in a revelation of how patriarchy could trump race, condemned her as “deviant and wicked,” terms that Donald Trump effectively favours in assaults on Hilary Clinton, whose class and colour does not spare her from white would-be alpha males.[24]

Even as Sutton drew on Indigenous and Methodist traditions of female agency, Shadd Cary emerged against a backdrop of Black Canadian women’s political engagement. In the 1850s their Windsor Ladies Club and Chatham’s Ladies Literary Society became the dominion’s earliest women’s clubs. Such groups, like later better-known initiatives by white women, assumed that “intellect-raising and mutual instruction” were “a necessary preparation for public life and political work.”[25] With the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War in 1860, Shadd Cary returned to the southern battle for equality, eventually to obtain a law degree and join the U.S. suffrage movement.[26] Bolstered by both organized abolitionism and feminism, the border-crossing Shadd Cary’s demand for respect and economic justice went significantly beyond Sutton’s reliance on the Crown and religious progressives for redress but her cause demanded the same courage.

Emily Howard Jennings Stowe (1831-1903)

Similar border-crossing linkages emboldened the founder of Canada’s first suffrage society. Emily Howard Jennings Stowe shared the connections with Quakers that had empowered both Sutton and Shadd Cary and like the latter drew on American feminist influences. Indeed her home, Toronto, English Canada’s major city, was a hotbed of North American radicalism, producing “a curious and colourful group of dissenters and radicals” who defied convention and advocated “fundamental modifications” to property holding and government.[27] As a Quaker teacher, school principal, and then medical doctor, Emily Howard Stowe was an outspoken member of their number.

The first of six daughters of a Methodist father and Quaker mother, Howard Jenning drew on an inspirational family. Like Shadd Cary’s, her relatives counted a distinguished record of progressive causes, including support for the 1837-38 Upper Canadian Rebellion.[28] When male-only Victoria College refused her admission in 1852, it initiated a lifetime of protest. Soon a graduate of the new Toronto Normal School for teachers, Emily won first class honours and moved quickly to become Canada’s first female principal. In 1856, however, marriage forced her to leave her profession. By 1863, now the mother of three children and the supporter of an ill husband, Stowe once again needed income. Bolstered by her family’s enthusiasm for medicine, she applied to the Toronto School of Medicine but it maintained its refusal of women applicants who might contest male professional monopoly. In 1867, she graduated from the New York Medical School for Women. In the United States, Stowe became a close friend of leading suffragists, including Susan B. Anthony, a frequent visitor to Canada.[29]

Returning to Toronto, the newly minted doctor welcomed women and children to her practice but as she later remembered “my career has been one of struggle, attended by that sort of persecution which falls to the lot of everyone who pioneers a new movement or steps out of line with established custom.” Her solution was organization. By 1876, she had founded the Toronto Women’s Literary Club, whose deceptive title camouflaged a more contested mandate since as she said, “”a woman ‘ought to understand the laws governing her own being.’”[30] The club was soon investigating shops and factories, recovering past heroines as models, and campaigning for women’s entry to the University of Toronto and the municipal franchise.[31] In 1883 it came out as the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association, with Stowe as a vice-president. A year later, she helped win Ontario’s passage of the Married Women’s Property Act and the creation of the Ontario Medical College for Women.[32] A frequent lecturer for the popular Mechanics’ Institutes, she was well-known for condemning “the position to which woman has been reduced, by the conventionalities of society, and vindicated her right to explore whatever fields of nature and science her God-given faculties qualify her for.’”[33] In 1884, Stowe served as a Canadian representative at Washington’s international suffrage conference. A year later, Ottawa reiterated opposition to equality by rejecting female voters when it broadened the franchise to embrace almost all white men.[34] In 1889 the irrepressible Stowe initiated the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association and joined a Woman’s Christian Temperance Union delegation to petition the Ontario legislature for the franchise: “as educated citizens, as moral and loving women, [we] desire to be placed in a position to impress directly our thought upon our time and time.”[35] In the 1890s, as the Toronto Globe reported of one assembly, she continued to preside over a rhetorically rich suffrage effort:

Over the middle of the platform was a portrait of Miss Susan B. Anthony, the eminent anti-slavery and women’s rights champion, draped with the mottoes, Women are One-half the People, and Women, Man’s Equal, the whole draped with yellow, the chosen color of the movement. On the other side were the mottoes, Honor to Waters and the Brave 22 (a recognition of the vote in favor of partial women’s enfranchisement in the last Legislature), and Equal Pay for Equal Labor.

The meeting’s other posters were equally provocative: “Canada’s Daughters Shall be Free” and “No Sex in Citizenship”.[36]

At the end of her life, Stowe became still more militant, holding that “there were two sets of laws; those made by ‘male men’ and those made by God; since women had had no part in the preparation of the first set they were under no obligation to obey them.”[37] While she initially left Quakerism for Unitarianism and Theosophy with their faith in humanity and brotherhood,[38] she eventually confessed to having “’out grown all religious creeds’ and that she was ‘a Truth Seeker … a Mental Scientist looking upon Jesus Christ as our great exemplar & at the same time regarding him as pre-eminently a socialist – I am bold to say, I am a Scientific Socialist & would like to see the unity of humanity & nations fully recognized –until which the Kingdom of Heaven is afar off.’”[39] Ultimately, “’truth … alone makes one free.’”[40] Her critique of capitalism and religious orthodoxy put Stowe on the left of the women’s movement (although she stayed with convention in not countenancing abortion) but ultimately she relied on coalitions, typically joining Canada’s National Council of Women in 1893. Three years later, she participated in the dominion’s first ‘mock parliament’ in Toronto. By her death in 1903, Stowe had spent some half a century in defending women’s right to respect and economic independence.

Katie McVicar (1856-1886)

Even as the middle-class Stowe condemned the abuses of industrial capitalism, the radical labour group, the Knights of Labor was moving north from the United States to mobilize workers in Ontario and Quebec in the 1880s. The 1885 Report of the federal Royal Commission on the Relations of Capital and Labour had exposed oppressive working conditions, especially for women and children, in the dominion’s emerging industries. Widespread abuse and a growing gap between rich and poor put class conflict near the centre of Canadian politics in these decades.[41]

The Knights, which have been estimated as representing “the most important moment in the history of Ontario labour until the coming of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the late 1930s,” set out to enroll women and men of all races and to forge “a movement culture of opposition and alternative.” Their democratic assemblies defied governments elected on limited franchises. Rejecting any view that manual labour suggested inferiority, the Knights insisted that it was “noble and holy.” [42] Its rituals included the pledge that “wherever women were employed, they would demand equal pay for equal work without regard to sex whatsoever.” That commitment drew women to assemblies defiantly named ‘Advance’ and ‘Hope’ and to “musical and literary entertainments” where they could be proclaimed “Goddesses of Liberty.”[43] In strikes and political campaigns, the Knights offered a vision of Canada that did not rely on women’s subordination.

A young Katie McVicar placed her trust in that vision. This working-class resident of Hamilton, Ontario, who had as teenager joined two older sisters toiling in shoe factories, broke the public silence to which most working women were consigned. In writing to the Knights’ Ontario newspaper, the Palladium of Labor, in 1883 to ask for help, the unmarried factory operative proudly claimed the title, ‘A Canadian Girl.’ She dismissed politicians as without remedy for crippling conditions and wages and held that “‘Organization is our only hope.’” Condemning bosses who sold at the highest price and paid wages at the lowest as possessing “no consciences,” this shoemaker advocated as well for “dry good clerks.” Those women were, McVicar suggested, “if anything worse off than we are,” with employers whose “pretensions to Christianity” constituted a “blasphemy.” She dismissed commonplace recommendation of domestic service as an option productive only of “underpaid” and “underfed” “drudges.” [44] McVicar’s appeal was answered by a male Knight who counseled secret meetings to avoid dismissal by bosses. She was to contact him directly once she had ten prospective members. She did.

By January 1884, the Hamilton Knights had organized an Assembly of female and male shoe and textile workers. Shortly later, the Excelsior Assembly of shoe workers became Canada’s first all women local with McVicar as directoress. During Hamilton’s second Labour Day march in 1884, she drew cheers at the front of women Knights. McVicar’s bravery was recognized by noted American radical Henry George who hailed “women” as “the best men we have.”[45] During the 1880s at least another eight female locals appeared in Ontario. After 1886 the first female representatives attending the Canadian Trades and Labor Congress were all Knights.[46] Kate McVicar’s premature death meant that she did not survive to assume that role. Her efforts nevertheless offered a powerful reminder that unions were critical to respect, redistribution, and democracy in general.

  1. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake; 1861-1913)

1880s Canada also introduced another courageous woman to the public stage. Born a few years after McVicar on Six Nations Territory just outside of Brantford, Ontario, in 1861, Emily Pauline Johnson, however, was raised in comfort, the daughter of a prosperous Mohawk chief and an English Anglican immigrant. In her twenties, she began publishing poems celebrating Indigenous heroes such as Joseph Brant, Britain’s ally during the War of 1812. Assuming the name of her great grandfather, Tekahionwake (Jacob Johnson), she emerged as the sole Indigenous representative among the ‘Confederation Poets,’ who would later be canonized as voicing the spirit of the new nation.[47] Unlike the others, including Duncan Campbell Scott, whose literary fame would later be overshadowed by his disrepute as Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Johnson wrote verse, such as “As Red Men Die” (1890) and “A Cry from an Indian Wife” (1892) that condemned Indigenous dispossession and claimed full humanity, notably but not only in the 1885 Northwest Rebellion, for First Peoples. Her 1894 poem “The Cattle Thief” stressed women’s role in resistance to imperial Canada’s dispossessions. Effectively evoking Boadicea, the Celtic queen who rose up against Roman conquerors, her heroine dispels aspersions of inferiority. She might be starving but she merited respect: “you must cut your way through me.” That challenge is accompanied by insistence on restitution “for the land you live in,” for “our herds of game,” and for “the furs and the forests that were ours before you came; Give back the peace and the plenty.”

Unmarried and self-supporting, Johnson embodied an Indigenous version of the ‘New Woman’ of her age. Publications such as “A Strong Race Opinion on the Indian Girl in Modern Fiction” (1892) rejected demeaning stereotypes of the ‘squaw’ and embraced female bravery and strength. Championing a maternalist perspective, which many Indigenous advocates shared with mainstream suffragists, Johnson hailed Native women as “ideal mothers of our day” (“Mothers of a Great Race”[1908]). In a pointed condemnation of settler practices, she insisted that such women’s offspring never went to “orphanages.” Nor was superior parenting Indigenous women’s only strength. Iroquois matrons were “openly acknowledged by every man of [their] … tribe, be he chief, brave or warrior.” They stood “a living, breathing contradiction to the common idea that Indian men look down upon women and treat the mothers of their children as mere property.” As Johnson’s article “The Lodge of the Law-Makers” (1906) noted, such women, unlike suffragists who had to “cry out for a voice in the Parliament,” had “no need … to clamour for recognition in our councils.”[48] It was European, not Indigenous culture, that was ultimately deficient.

As she judged ascendant colonialism, racism, and sexism, what she termed “might’s injustice,”[49] Johnson looked elsewhere than the inclusion, assimilation, and opportunity supposedly embodied in the parliamentary franchise. Her vision was, nevertheless, a compelling call for equality. By the time she died in Vancouver in 1913, Johnson had forged a national reputation that was unique in affirming the need for respect and fair treatment for women and Indigenous peoples.

Edith Maud Eaton (1865-1914)

Four years after Johnson’s birth to an elite mixed race family, Edith Maud Eaton was born in Britain, the second of fourteen children, to a hard up English father and Chinese mother. In the early 1870s, she was transplanted to Montreal where her family struggled even as her artist father broke the law in moving illegal Chinese migrants across the Canada-U.S. border. Their biracial heritage made respectability uncertain for his offspring. While entering the labour market as a stenographer, Edith Eaton eventually flourished as a journalist. From the 1880s on, she published widely in the U.S., Jamaica, and Canada, a tribute to both the era’s appetite for the exotic and to the possibility of future that did not require conformity and silence from women and racialized communities.[50]

Relocating from Canada to the United States in the 1890s, Eaton never emerged, unlike Johnson, as a Canadian icon. After her premature death in 1914, she was largely forgotten until later feminist scholars recovered her as a border-crossing New Woman. And unlike Johnson, who took pride in her United Empire Loyalist heritage, Eaton never espoused any sentimental loyalty to the British Empire. Her writing instead foregrounded the rising racism and related sexism of the multiple ‘contact zones’ of North America and the Caribbean.[51] Both Johnson and Eaton nevertheless shared an enthusiasm for ‘flexible citizenship’ in which their key characters, like their mixed-race authors, were not narrowly defined by national boundaries or racial stereotypes.[52]

Eaton’s 1890 autobiographical essay “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian” introduces her earliest encounter with racism. She did not back away from prejudice but deliberately embraced the reviled status: “I’d rather be Chinese than anything else in the world.” In a quest for effective retort, she retreated to the library to read every book I can find on China and the Chinese. I learn that China is the oldest civilized nation on the face of the earth.

Even as she documented “Chinese women’s struggles against arranged marriages, sex slavery, and patriarchal Confucianism,” Eaton insisted on the historic merit of an ancient people.[53]

As Eaton’s most recent interpreter has stressed, Sui Sin Far was never a public advocate of collective action. She preferred independence, insisting, “After all I have no nationality and am not anxious to claim any. Individuality is more than nationality.”[54] When she defended migrants forced to pay the Canadian head tax, she insisted that the Chinese were not unique: “They have faults, but they also have virtues. Nations are made up of all sorts.”[55] Nor was Eaton inclined to socialism or belief in the “’brotherhood of man.’” She preferred a liberal creed “that every man should respect the manhood of his fellows and that every man should try to live up to the best that is in him, and should not be debarred from the opportunity of doing so.”[56]

Eaton’s principles were much the same when she demanded respect for women. Like mainstream feminists, she rummaged the past to claim inspirational histories.[57] Contemporary Chinese critics of sex slavery, foot binding, and arranged marriage similarly won her approval. Ultimately, Eaton celebrated women’s essential maternalism rather than their similarity to men. Much like Johnson, she insisted that her sex need not become New Women to deserve fair treatment. In the process, she criticized both the “antidomestic ideals and racist heartlessness” of some suffragists.[58] Respect and reward for women would come through the efforts of the Chinese themselves. Rescue by Europeans, feminist or otherwise, was not required. What was required was respect and a fair share of resources.

Nellie L. Mooney McClung (1873-1951)

When it comes to placing a woman on Canadian currency, she is an unlikely candidate in the 21st century but Nellie Letitia Mooney McClung was Canada’s most prominent suffragist. Her reputation has been assured by the continuing power of her best-selling, In Times Like These (1915), probably North America’s most engaging book-length defense of the suffrage cause. Less positively, she is also remembered because modern scholars discovered her support of eugenics in the interwar years.[59] Far less acknowledged is McClung’s backing for Asian enfranchisement and Jewish refugees in the 1930s.[60] Her response to such challenges to conscience made her a representative progressive liberal of her age.

Like many in the first wave mainstream women’s movement, McClung was Scottish and Irish in origin, employed both maternalist and social justice arguments, and contested traditions that denied women respect and fair rewards. She knew of Emily Stowe and she was a good friend of Pauline Johnson but McClung may well not heard of the other women mentioned here. She nevertheless drew strength from the pervasive traditions of outspokenness and courage of which they were all a part. She relied heavily on the social gospel of her day with its many female disciples. This held that Christianity had a social mission to make a better world.[61] Even as she largely assumed the superiority of western civilization, she regularly condemned its failure to match its ideals in dealing with Asian, Black, and Indigenous peoples. Such groups were, however, marginal in the Canada of her imagination, and indeed of the nation of her day where they numbered less than 5% of the overall population.

Like Johnson, Nellie Mooney was the youngest in her family, in her case of six children, but her beginnings were more modest than the performer poet’s. Moving to Manitoba as part of the land rush from Ontario in the 1880s, her farm family helped displace Native communities, which she assumed would disappear. A stint as a teacher in Manitoba public schools was followed by marriage, five children, and fame as a writer, public speaker, and activist.

Just as educational and employment barriers had enraged the youthful Stowe, McClung’s earliest views were fundamentally shaped by alcohol’s contribution to the abuse and impoverishment of women and children and the campaigns of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Condemnation of violence was followed by the associated recognition that women’s work at home and in paid employment went too often unrecognized and undervalued. McClung emphasized the respect due women’s maternal qualities. Like claims for the ‘brotherhood of man’ or the equal justice due humanity in general that similarly informed many activists, maternalism offered a basis for a sisterhood that went beyond any single community. McClung ridiculed the “beautiful fiction” that “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.”[62] Such sentimentality only camouflaged male power. Her support for equal pay for equal work, equal homestead rights, and fair distribution of marital property demanded instead a meaningful shift of resources, notably from men to women and but also from rich to poor. This was the basis for the parity she sought for herself and others, most notably but not only women of European descent.

During World War One, McClung helped defeat Manitoba’s anti-suffragist Conservative Premier Rodmund Roblin. In January 1915, Vancouver newspapers organized a mock election among readers. The result put Conservative Prime Minister Robert Laird Borden and Liberal Leader Wilfrid Laurier at the top, but McClung placed a good third.[63] Although she never escaped the abuse that targeted all outspoken women, she seemed to promise a political future for suffragists.

McClung’s immediate political ambitions were curtailed by a move from Winnipeg to Edmonton. In 1917, she supported as a stop-gap Ottawa’s restricted enfranchisement of women likely to support the pro-war government. Widespread outrage from other suffragists forced a quick retraction but she recovered to assume a prominent role in the 1918 Women’s War Conference. She anticipated that the world now ‘fit for heroes’ would offer enfranchised women respect and economic opportunity. From 1921-26, she represented Edmonton as a Liberal MLA but one who insisted on her right to nonpartisanship, voting in 1926, for example, with Labour members for a municipal franchise for renters.[64] In 1929, she was one of the Alberta Five who secured women’s constitutional recognition as persons. From the 1930s on, she lived in Victoria where she championed active government and a better deal for women and racial minorities.

McClung was never a socialist but she ultimately credited all communities with “the right of law making” essential to democracy and believed every individual “knows what [s]he wants better than the capitalist.”[65] When non-Anglo-Celts accepted western liberal values, they were equals. While initially confident that enfranchisement would energize women in favour of more progressive governments, McClung failed to foresee the power of continuing systemic disadvantage and prejudice. The battle for respect and redistribution would have to be waged again by another feminist generation.


Suffrage activists like Nellie L. McClung did not stand alone in Canada’s continuing struggle to expand democracy. Their efforts form part of a long line of demands for a fair deal from women in many communities. That dissenting thread with its critique of the political status quo links women as diverse as Catherine Sutton/Nahneebahweequa, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Emily Howard Jennings Stowe, Katie McVicar, Emily Pauline Johnson/Tekahionwake, and Edith Maud Eaton/Sui Sin Far, with McClung. Although their lives and their struggles took diverse forms, these brave spirits defied conventions that restricted women to subordination and embraced a more generous vision of who counted when it came to government. Not everyone favoured the vote as the best remedy for inequality or developed a fully inclusive program but all engaged with a broader vision of democracy.

In the early decades of the 21st century, as today’s consideration once again of petitions and electoral reform reminds us, ‘participatory parity’ is far from complete. An equal playing field requires the multiple points of views and the individual courage that indomitable women displayed in long march to suffrage. Only then will Stowe’s hope that “Canada’s Daughters Shall be Free” be realized.

[1] The right to vote of expatriate Canadians[1] and the right to citizenship by birth in Canada have both come under recent assault and a report from a special House of Commons Committee is soon to recommend a replacement for the ‘first past the post system’ characterizing most provincial and federal elections since Confederation. See Mark Kersten “Are you Canadian enough to vote?” Globe and Mail (27 July 2015) and “Born Equal: Citizenship by Birth is Canada’s Valuable Legacy,” British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, accessed 28 August 2016.

[2] On this concept see Nancy Fraser, Fortunes of Feminism: From State-managed Capitalism to neoliberal Crisis (London: Verso, 2013), particularly “Gender Justice as Participatory Parity” in chapter 6. ‘Respect’ and ‘economic justice’ are key to participatory parity as she outlines it.

[3] See Alan Greer, Ch. 7. “The Queen is a Whore” in The Patriots and the People: the Rebellion of 1837 in Rural Lower Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), Gail Campbell, “Disinfranchised but Not Quiescent: Women Petitioners in New Brunswick” and   Rusty Bitterman, “Women and the Escheat Movement: The Politics of Everyday Life on Prince Edward Island” in Janet Guildford and Suzanne Morton, eds. Sphere Spheres: Women’s Worlds in the 19th-Century Maritimes (Fredericton, NB: Acadiensis Press, 1994) and Rural Protest on Prince Edward Island: From British Colonization to the Escheat Movement (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006).

[4] On the demands of the liberal state project see Ian McKay whose Rebels, Reds, and Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2005). This also notes the costs of dissent.

[5] See Equal Voice,, accessed 6 September 2016.

[6] See John S. Haller, Outcasts from Evolution: Scientific Attitudes of Racial Infeirority, 1859-1900 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995).

[7] Nellie L. McClung, In Times Like These (1915),

[8] See ibid.

[9] See Donald B. Smith, “NAHNEBAHWEQUAY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography , v. 9 University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003, accessed August 31, 2016,

[10] For a brilliant interpretation of the homestead for women campaigns that situates them fully within the imperial project of British displacement of Indigeneous peoples and assertion of patriarchal governance see Sarah Carter, Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2016).

[11] Celia Haig-Brown, “Seeking Honest Justice in a Land of Strangers: Nahnebahwequa’s Struggle for Land,” Journal of Canadian Studies, 36: 4 (Winter 2001- 2002)

[12] On this dispossession see Stephanie McMullen, “Disunity and Dispossession: Nawash Ojibwa and Potawatomi in the Saugeen Territory, 1836-1861,” MA, History, University of Calgary, 1997.

[13] Quoted in Donald B. Smith, Mississauga Portraits: Ojibwe Voices from Nineteenth Century Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 91.

[14] On this lack of support see Smith, Mississauga Portraits, 93-4.

[15] Quoted in Haig-Brown, “Seeking Honest Justice in a Land of Strangers.”

[16] Quoted in J. Miller, Reflections on Native-Newcomer Relations: Selected Essays (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004).

[17] Quoted in Nancy Forestell and Maureen Moynagh, eds., Documenting First Wave Feminism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 21.

[18] Quoted in Miller, Reflections.

[19] See Kennedy Stewart, Andrew Cuddy, Michelle Silongan, “Electronic Petitions: A Proposal to Enhance Democratic Participation,” Canadian Parliamentary Review (Autumn 2013): 9-13.

[20] See Joan Sangster, The Question of the Vote: Women and Suffrage in Canada (working title; forthcoming UBC Press, 2018).

[21] Jane Rhodes, “At the Boundaries of Abolitionism, Feminism and Black Nationalism: The Activism of Mary Ann Shadd Cary” in Kathryn Kish Sklar and James Stewart, Women’s Rights and Transatlantic Anti-Slavery in the Era of Emancipation, Yale UP, 2007), 349. See also Jason H. Silverman, “SHADD, MARY ANN CAMBERTON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 31, 2016,

[22] See Jane Rhodes, Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).

[23] Carol B. Conaway, “Rhetorically Constructed Africana Mothering in the Antebellum: The Racial Uplift Tradition of Mary Ann Shadd Cary,” Journal of Pan African Studies, (15 Nov. 2007).

[24] Jane Rhodes, “At the Boundaries of Abolitionism, Feminism and Black Nationalism: The Activism of Mary Ann Shadd Cary” in Kathryn Kish Sklar and James Stewart, Women’s Rights and Transatlantic Anti-Slavery in the Era of Emancipation, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

[25] Heather Murray, “Great Works and Good Works: The Toronto Women’s Literary Club, 1877-83” Historical Studies in Education, 11:1 (1999), 82.

[26] Conaway, “Rhetorically Constructed Africana Mothering in the Antebellum.”

[27] Gene Homel, “’Fading Beams of the Nineteenth Century’: Radicalism and Early Socialism in Canada’s 1890s,” Labour/Le Travailleur 5 (Spring 1980), 7 and 10.

[28] See Cecilia Morgan “Gender, Religion, and Rural Society: Quaker Women in Norwich Ontario, 1820-1880,” Ontario History 82: 4 (Dec. 1990): 273-87.

[29] Sarah M. McMullen, “Emily Howard Jennings Stowe: A Battle Half Won,” History of Medicine 1:1 (2003), 34.

[30] “Emily Stowe,” Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography

[31] Murray, “Great Works and Good Works”.

[32] Morgan, “Gender, Religion, and Rural Society.”

[33] Quoted in Heather Murray, “Great Works and Good Works: The Toronto Women’s Literary Club, 1877-83,” Historical Studies in Education, 11:1 (1999), 86.

[34] See Veronica Strong-Boag, “The Citizenship Debates: the 1885 Franchise Act,” in R. Adamoski, D. Chunn and R. Menzies, eds., Contesting Canadian Citizenship: Historical Readings (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2002), 69-94.

[35] “Emily Stowe,” Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography, , accessed 10 Sept. 2016.

[36] “Shall they Vote” The Globe (13 June 1890)

[37] Jacalyn Duffin, “The death of Sarah Lovell and the constrained feminism of Emily Stowe,” Canadian Medical Association Journal 146:6 (15 March 1992), 834. Her apparent opposition to abortion may suggest that she viewed it as contrary to divine law.

[38] See Homel, “’Fading Beams of the Nineteenth Century,’” 20.

[39] Morgan, “Gender, Religion, and Rural Society.”

[40] “Emily Stowe,” Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography

[41] See Gregory S. Kealey and Bryan D. Palmer, “The Bonds of Unity: The Knights of Labor of Ontario, 1880-1900,” Histoire sociale/Social History XIV: 28 (Nov. 1981): 382.

[42] Quoted in Ibid., 390-2.

[43] Quoted in Ibid., 396.

[44] Quoted in letters, “Organization Our Only Hope (Palladium of Labor 29 Sept. 1883)” in Forestell and Moynagh, Documenting First Wave, 243-5.

[45] Quoted in Craig Heron and Steven Penfold, The Workers’ Festival: A History of Labour Day in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 74.

[46]“McVICAR, KATE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 1, 2016,

[47] See Carole Gerson, “’The Most Canadian of all Canadian Poets,’” Canadian Literature 158 (Autumn 1998): 90-107.

[48] All citations come from the works republished in Carole Gerson and Veronica Strong-Boag, eds., E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake: Collected Poems and Selected Prose (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002). See also Strong-Boag and Carole Gerson, Paddling Her Own Canoe: The Times and Texts of E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake) (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000),

[49] Johnson, “The Corn Husker,” (1896).

[50] Lorraine McMullen, “EATON, EDITH MAUD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 2, 2016,

[51] See Mary Chapman, ed., Becoming Sui Sin Far: Early Fiction, Journalism, and Travel Writing by Edith Maude Eaton (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016) and Eaton’s texts now on the www. My thanks to Mary for her generosity in sending a pre-publication pdf of her manuscript. See also her Making Noise Making News: Suffrage Print Culture and U.S. Modernism (Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2014).

[52] Chapman, “Introduction,” Becoming Sui Sin Far, lix. Chapman draws on the concept of ‘flexible citizenship’ described by Aihwa Ong, Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999).

[53] Chapman, Making Noise, 177.

[54] Quoted in Chapman, “Introduction,” xvi.

[55] E.E. “A Plea for the Chinaman. A Correspondent’s Argument in His Favour.” Montreal Daily Star 21 Sept. 1896, in Chapman, Becoming Sui Sin Far.

[56] A Canadian Fire Fly. ‘The Girl of the Period: A Veracious Chronicle of Opinion.” Gall’s Daily news Letter 8 Feb. 1897, in Chapman, Becoming Sui Sin Far, 127.

[57] See, for example, “The Chinese Woman in America” (1897) in Chapman, Becoming Sui Sin Far.

[58] Ibid., 195.

[59] See the provocative discussion of suffragists’ relationship to ideas about disability and political rights in Yvonne Pitts, “Disability, Scientific Authority, and Women’s Political Participation at the Turn of the Twentieth-Century United States,” Journal of Women’s History 24: 2 (Summer 2012). See also the important discussion by Erika Dyck, Facing Eugenics: Reproduction, Sterilization, and the Politics of Choice (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013).

[60] See Candace Savage, Our Nell: A Scrapbook Biography of Nellie L. McClung (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1979), 188.

[61] See Randi R. Warne Literature as Pulpit: The Christian Social Activism of Nellie l. McClung (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1993).

[62] Quoted in Savage, Our Nell, 97.

[63] See “Reading Referendums: From Brexit in the U.K. to Women Suffrage in B.C., Part 1,” BC Studies Blog, (20 July 2016),

[64] “Labor Members Crushed by Group System in Fight to Save Franchise for Renters,” Edmonton Bulletin (9 April 1926), Alberta Legislature Library, Scrapbook Hansard Digital Collection, accessed 11 Sept. 2016.

[65] Quoted in Savage, Our Nell, p. 83.

The Democratic Project: 20 Chinese Women’s Attitudes towards Suffrage and Referendum


By Huai Bao, Ph.D.

There is insufficient credible scholarship on women and politics in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Chinese scholarship suffers from unsympathetic scrutiny and editing by state authorities, while language, cultural, and institutional barriers limit access by most Western scholars of women’s politics to Chinese first-person accounts.

As a side-product of my current postdoctoral research and thanks to social networking applications, I have recently interviewed 20 urban Chinese women regarding their political experiences and observations. Their observations offer a revealing introduction to women’s politics.

The women who share their experiences are college educated, with a Bachelor’s or Associate College degree or above. All reside and work in metropolitan cities—Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and cities in Eastern Chinese provinces with standards of living and economic development higher than other parts of the PRC.

They answered ten questions:

1. In which city are you currently residing?
2. What’s your occupation?
3. What’s your highest academic degree?
4. What’s your age?
5. During the past two years, have you participated in any level of elections, national or local?
6. During the past two years, have you been asked by your community and/or sub-district office to participate in any form of voting to approve or disapprove of a city planning project?
7. Do you feel that there is a fair
system in your workplace regarding recruitment, reassignment, promotion, and layoff? Please explain why.
8. Are you for the Brexit referendum held in UK? Explain why.
9. Do you think that China should also hold referendum on a proposal of national significance (e.g. two-child policy)? Explain why.
10. Would you let residents in Hong Kong or Tibet hold their referendum to decide if they should leave or remain in the PRC? Explain why.

The questions were designed to reveal participation in and perception of democratic politics, attitudes towards the use of referendums—a form of direct and sometimes controversial democracy. Women’s answers proved suggestive.

Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 8.15.40 PM


“Voting for Show” and “Never Seen a Ballot”

What conclusions can be drawn from these results? First, only four women claim to have participated in voting for public office; the others have “never seen a ballot” in their life. Of the former, one is a retired nurse who had served at a military hospital. Born into a high-ranking military officer’s family, the 60-year old says, “Yes, we do have suffrage. I was asked to vote to elect a member of the National People’s Congress (NPC) at the hospital where I retired during the past two or three years. We were asked to elect two or one out of three candidates provided. If you don’t want to elect anyone of the three candidates, you can put someone else’s name in the election form, or you can leave it blank and decline the right to vote.”

Another 35-year old kindergarten teacher remembers, “I was asked to vote to elect an NPC member, but I had no idea of the candidates. I didn’t know who chose those candidates, nor did I know who they were. So, I elected one that one of my colleagues selected.”

Like the first two women, the third and the fourth worked at a state-owned company before retirement. One says, “Suffrage in China is basically for show. The authorities give you the names of five people that they like, and ask you to elect four. You don’t know how these people got the candidacy. They have to be Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members, and have to be really good at pleasing the authorities.” The other says, “We may be asked to elect NPC members, but mayors, district chiefs, county magistrates, ministers, and even the head of our company are all appointed by the authorities above them.”

The remaining 16 women claim never to have participated in any form of suffrage. Many tell me that they have never seen a ballot in their life. Others express disinterest in any voting whatsoever, as they doubt that it is “real enough” to be worth participating in.

Vote on City Planning

Regarding city planning, only one woman answers “yes,” but by this she does not mean voting on government proposals. She says, “There was a slum area in my neighborhood that was demolished. I received a questionnaire afterwards to collect my feedback on it.” Another woman concluded, “Basically [Chinese] civilians have no rights to decide how the city should be built. I have seen on the Internet a new proposal for city planning, but it’s for the government authorities to approve. If the government wants to erect a high-rise building in front of my balcony blocking our sights, then they will without having to ask for my approval or the approval of any residents in my condominium.”

One native of Beijing puts her dissatisfaction in a comparative framework, “I have been to Paris several times. They protect their historical architecture very well. Beijing has a longer history, but now looks like another Los Angeles.”

Small Group Democracy

All interviewees were particularly interested in the seventh question, because they feel that they relate more to “small group democracy” in their workplace. Two women claim some democracy in that space. One works at a foreign company in Beijing. The other owns a Beijing-based public relations consulting service of over ten employees. Perhaps self-servingly, she describes her company’s brainstorming meetings as highly “democratic.”

Fifteen interviewees fail to identify any democracy or fair play in their workplace. One, who worked at a prestigious Beijing university before retirement, complains, “Everything is up to the leader.” Another says, “Chinese people are used to having decisions made by others for them. Whoever pays you is your master. Whoever gives you a job will make decisions for you. You work for them, so you have no right to speak up; you just listen and obey.”

A woman who now teaches at a prestigious university as an assistant professor says, “There is no fair play in the Department where I work. There certainly are specific rules for hiring or promoting professors, but solid connections or money can always get over the rules. And it doesn’t mean that if you have a lot of money to bribe, you can get hired without required qualifications. It’s just because you have the required qualifications that they will give you the opportunity to bribe them!” She also emphasizes that although gender equality is promised, the university leadership is dominated by men, and to be a female professor sometimes means you have to use “woman’s stuff” to secure your position. By “woman’s stuff,” she means flirtation or catering to sexual advances.

Another woman employed as an editor with a senior university journal before retirement informs me that although the process requires blind peer-review, there are many unwritten rules that do not address the quality of the paper. In particular, the managing editor has the right to interpret and modify the rules. “This is a one-party ruled nation. No one is watching you,” she observes, “The one that is watching you is your supervisor, and to protect you is to protect himself.”

Doubt About Referendums

When asked to comment on the recent Brexit referendum in UK, interviewees express mixed views. While about half are theoretically supportive of such initiatives since they may reflect civilians’ opinion rather than those of interest groups’ and political elites’, others are indifferent, or express uncertainty. One successful businesswoman explains, “These days everyone around me in Beijing is talking about the referendum in UK to decide if UK should leave or remain in the EU. I’m also watching the TV news. I think that we keep an eye on the results of the referendum because we care about how their decision will affect economy in China and the stock market. I have some investment [in the stock market] that will be affected by UK’s withdrawal from EU. Although referendums sound like a perfect form of direct democracy where every voting-age citizen can voice their concern and make a decision, I have to reserve my opinion [on referendums] because I doubt that all voters in UK truly understand the pros and cons of UK’s withdrawal from the EU. You know, not everyone has the depth of knowledge and the complete knowledge structure to fully understand what they are voting for and to foresee the outcome of their decision in the long run. I think that they should hold referendums selectively and leave such major decisions to elites, to those who have the knowledge, to elected legislature.”

When asked if China should use referendums to help the government make major decisions, most women answer, “impossible,” “not suitable for China,” or “not doable in China.” One responds that China “should” hold referendums, but the results will be distorted by the government. Another believes that China “should” use referendums, but the government “dares not.”

When asked why they think referendums are not “suitable” for China, their common response is that average Chinese civilians do not have the right “qualities.” In other words, citizens are “insufficiently educated,” by top PRC politicians, to adopt Western style democracy. One interviewee answers that, given the long history of feudal dictatorship, the Chinese need a powerful dictator to control them. One interviewee suggests that this viewpoint is pervasive.


Much contemporary scholarship on Chinese women and democratic politics is preoccupied with Mao’s feminist policy to “liberate” women and to enforce gender equality, or it criticizes the “continuing victimization” of women under Confucian hierarchy. Too often it largely ignores the institutional sexism that contributes to the social reality where the majority of women remain divorced from ideas and activities of democracy. The results of my interviews suggest that even highly educated women have limited consciousness of and participation in democratic politics. Most express pessimism about fairness in everyday life and opportunities to vote, and fail to identify democracy as a universal value, at least not to the PRC. The prospect of referendums seems to have limited appeal. This portrait suggests that democracy remains a far-from-finished project for women in the PRC.




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