Violet Jackson, who went on to become one of western Canada’s most extraordinary suffragists, was born and raised in radical north Kent in England. Progressive politics were encouraged by co-operators and radicals in her family and others in the area. Her ancestors took an active part in rebellions in north Kent and James Terry, her great grandfather, was a founder of the Sheerness Co-operative. Founded by dockworkers in 1816 to supply good food and water for their families, it was the oldest co-operative in England in 1863. After work, James and his wife Sarah were water carriers for the co-operative. Violet had rickets as a baby so she was small in stature. All her life others called her “the mighty mite” and similar names indicating her small stature and her indomitable spirit.
Violet taught school before she emigrated to Canada in October 1909 after her fiancée died. She came to keep house for her father and brother who were homesteading in Saskatchewan. In May 1910, she married John McNaughton, a homesteader from New Zealand, who would be her loyal supporter all his life. A feminist and pacifist sympathizer when she arrived, she was an active agrarian feminist by 1914. The ardour of her feminism arose originally out of the dire conditions on the rural prairies during the settlement period and having a hysterectomy in 1911 while living in these conditions. Unable to have children, she resolved during her recovery in their ragged little “sod shack” to improve the world for all children.
McNaughton became a leader in the Canadian farm, women’s, peace, and co-operative movements and a good friend to other activists, such as Irene Parlby of Alberta and Alexander McPhail, her protegé and the first president of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool. She organized the Women Grain Growers (WGG) in Saskatchewan, one of the most radical groups in Canada. She was a leader of the provincial woman’s suffrage campaign and other WGG crusades, including the one for “Medical Aid Within the Reach of All.” It successfully lobbied for legislation in 1916 enabling the establishment of union hospitals, municipal nurses, and municipal doctors. It was the first step on the long road to medicare in Saskatchewan and later in Canada. McNaughton and other members of the WGG were ‘mothers of medicare.’ McNaughton helped to organize farm women’s groups in other provinces and was the President of the Interprovincial Council of Farm Women and the Women’s Section of the Canadian Council of Agriculture from 1919 to 1923. The most influential Canadian farm woman, she was regarded as “the big little woman” in the farm movement and “one of the ablest women in Canada.”
In the 1920s McNaughton was one of the three most influential members of the powerful Saskatchewan Grain Growers’ Association. She was active in the Progressives and she helped to organize and maintain the Wheat Pool, the ‘Egg and Poultry Pool,’ and The Western Producer. Although she remained “first and foremost a farm woman,” she became its women’s editor in 1925. The “Mainly for Women” pages and the “Young Co-operators” pages edited by McNaughton and her staff, were read by tens of thousands of westerners.
During the interwar years, McNaughton was one of Canada’s most influential pacifists. She linked peace between nation states with co-operation among the various ethnic and racialized peoples in Canada. Having learned more about settlers from continental Europe and the bad conditions in which the Aboriginal Peoples lived she became an adamant supporter of their struggles for social justice.
A dedicated member of the Canadian Women’s Press Club, McNaughton retired as women’s editor at the end of 1950 and wrote a column for another ten years. She then annotated and treasured her voluminous papers and promoted the preservation of the history of western settlers, women, and female agrarian journalists. This collection is now held by the Saskatchewan Archives Board. The McNaughtons sold their farm in 1959, John died in 1965, and Violet in 1968. We still need a full biography of this extraordinary Canadian. The author of this post hopes to supply one. Stay tuned!
Further Reading & Resources:
Bacchi, Carol Lee. Liberation Deferred? The Ideas of the English-Canadian Suffragists, 1877-1918. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983.
Cleverdon, Catherine L. The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada. 1950. Reprint. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1974.
Taylor, Georgina M. “‘Let us co-operate’: Violet McNaughton and the Co-operative Ideal” in Co-operatives in the Year 2000: Memory, Mutual Aid, and the Millennium. Ed. Brett Fairbairn and Ian MacPherson ( Saskatoon: Centre for the Study of Co-operatives, University of Saskatchewan, 2000), 57-78.
“‘What Can We, the Plain Common People Do?’: Violet McNaughton and the Hillview Local of the Saskatchewan Grain Growers’ Association” in The Prairie Agrarian Movement Revisited. Ed. Murray Knuttila and Bob Stirling (Regina: University of Regina, Canadian Plains Research Center, 2007), 31-60.