“An Early Nova Scotian Voice for Suffrage and Peace”
The example of outspoken suffragist and peace advocate Mary Russell Chesley, from the small town of Lunenburg in Nova Scotia and an active leader in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), contradicts earlier historians’ assumptions that urban women led the struggle and those working through such organizations as the WCTU tended to be conservative in their politics.
Born Mary Rebecca Russell in 1847 in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, she was the third of six children and descended from pacifist Quakers who had moved from Boston during the American Revolution. One of Mary’s brothers, Benjamin, and her future husband, Samuel Chesley, became friends while studying at Mount Allison University. Mary Russell herself attended the Mount Allison Ladies’ Academy in 1868, just a few years prior to the university becoming the first institution in the British Empire to grant a degree to a woman. Mary’s parents’ support of higher education for a daughter at this early date, coupled with the fact that Mount Allison was in the vanguard of women’s education, undoubtedly had an impact on Mary. Fortunately, in Samuel Chesley, she found a husband who shared (or perhaps came to share) common principles and ideals.
The Chesleys had three children. Tragically, the two oldest, a son and daughter, lost their lives while in their late teens in a boating accident. The youngest, Mary (known familiarly as Polly), was only four at the time. Like her mother, she would go on to lead a life of political and social activism internationally, first in Britain and then in India.
Without the vote, in the late-19th and early-20th century, women’s political self-expression had to be articulated largely through petitioning government or writing to newspapers. Mary Chesley effectively used both avenues and the suffrage petition to the Provincial Legislature that she organized in 1894 appeared destined for success. Disappointingly, the bill for women’s enfranchisement was narrowly defeated by one vote, but this led suffragists to believe that victory would be achieved the following year. Signed by over 10,000 men and women, the 1895 petition had the backing of several Members of the Legislature, including Liberal MLA Albert Hemeon, who introduced the bill. However, strong anti-suffrage forces, mobilized by Attorney General James Longley (also a Liberal), carried the day and blocked the bill’s passage.
Longley’s prowess as an orator and his reputation for invective would have discouraged meeker souls; however, Chesley countered his arguments blow for blow in a powerful rebuttal that appeared on the front page of the Halifax Herald. Articulate in her decimation of Longley’s logic, Chesley likened his position to that of a child who builds a mud dam across a tide-filled stream and does not reckon that the tide will eventually break down the dam. Little did she imagine that it would take more than two decades for the dam to break.
The 1895 defeat of the franchise bill undoubtedly had a deleterious effect on the suffrage movement in Nova Scotia. Nevertheless, Chesley continued writing in vigorous support of the vote. In one instance, she countered the frequent argument that women are not sufficiently educated to vote by stating, “the ballot itself is an educator.” Continuing, Chesley wrote, “We would not think of saying to a strong-limbed child… ‘No – you would not be able to use the skates properly if you had them. You must learn a great deal about the construction of skates and…the laws of motion….’ We would simply give her the skates knowing that by exercising with them she would soon learn to use them.”
Through the early 1900s, feminists continued to work on issues in the background; however, they did not resume petitioning until 1917. Again, Chesley initiated this action, working in collaboration with several women’s organizations in the province. In the midst of collecting signatures for the petition, disaster struck. The Halifax Explosion, the largest man-made catastrophe prior to the bombing of Hiroshima, took every able-bodied and community-minded woman into intensive relief work. Nevertheless, by this time, with women’s contribution to war work as a major justification, the tide had turned and the franchise bill passed with little opposition.
Chesley, one of the rare feminists who maintained pacifist principles throughout the war, made it very clear that she did not accept the vote as “payment” for war work. To quote from the Halifax Herald, 12 April 1917:
[Chesley] resented the argument on behalf of suffrage that women, by making bombs and sharpening bayonets, had earned the right to suffrage. All down the ages, by training citizens, women had earned that right. Women would not favor war. The cause of peace would never be promoted unless women had a share in the Government. “We ask this not as a gift not as a favor, but as a debt that is somewhat overdue.”
By this time in her 70th year, Chesley would devote the rest of her life to promoting peace and encouraging women to engage in the electoral process. Because of Chesley, the town of Lunenburg had the first Canadian chapter (albeit short-lived, due to Chesley’s death in 1923) of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).
Further Reading & Resources
Bacchi, Carol. Liberation Deferred? The Ideas of English-Canadian Suffragists, 1877-1918. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983.
Cleverdon, Catherine Lyle. The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950.
Forbes, Ernest R. “Battles in Another War: Edith Archibald and the Halifax Feminist Movement” and “The Ideas of Carol Bacchi and Suffragists of Halifax,” in Challenging the Regional Stereotype: Essays on the 20th-Century Maritimes. Fredericton: Acadiensis Press, 1989. 67-89 and 90-99.
MacDonald, Sharon M. H. “A Passionate Voice for Equality, Justice, and Peace: Nova Scotia’s Mary Russell Chesley,” in Making up the State: Women in 20th-Century Atlantic Canada. Janet Guildford and Suzanne Morton, eds. Fredericton: Acadiensis Press, 2010. 45-55.
“Hidden Costs, Hidden Labours: Women in Nova Scotia During Two World Wars,” M.A. Thesis, Saint Mary’s University, 1999.
“Neither Memsahibs nor Missionaries: Western Women Who Supported the Indian Independence Movement,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of New Brunswick, 2010.
Reid, John. “The Education of Women at Mount Allison, 1854-1914,” Acadiensis XII, no. 2 (Spring 1983). 3-33.