Sister Suffragists: Lillian Beynon Thomas (1874-1961) and Francis Marion Beynon (1884-1951)

Lillian Beynon Thomas, Archives of Manitoba, Personalities,  L.B.1. (N19359).

Lillian Beynon Thomas, Archives of Manitoba, Personalities, L.B.1. (N19359).

By Tiffany Johnstone


“[T]he women of Manitoba are now citizens, persons, human beings, who have stepped politically out of the class of criminals, children, idiots and lunatics.”

-Lillian Beynon Thomas Qtd. in Gutkin and Gutkin.

Sisters Lillian Beynon Thomas and Francis Marion Beynon were teachers, writers, and outspoken activists involved in the historic women’s movement in Manitoba. They were raised along with one other sister and four brothers, by James Barnes Beynon and Rebecca Manning Beynon, devout Ontario Methodists. In 1889, the farm family joined the Ontario land rush to Manitoba and settled in Hartney. Both parents were active in Methodist organizations and Rebecca was particularly involved in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union ( /?p=21211). More radical, and arguably ahead of their time, in their socialist beliefs than their well-known feminist contemporaries such as E. Cora Hind and Nellie McClung (Strong-Boag et al. 15), the Beynon sisters helped to pioneer a community of Manitoba activists and reshape the Canadian political landscape.

Lillian Kathleen Beynon, who also went by “Lilly Kate,” was born in Temperanceville, Ontario in 1874. After moving to Winnipeg, she taught school and also attended the Portage Collegiate Institute from which she earned a “Non-Professional Second Class Teaching Certificate” in 1896. She attended Wesley College (later the University of Winnipeg) and graduated with a BA from the University of Manitoba in 1905. Lillian then taught school for a period in Morden, Manitoba. However, her teaching career was not long lived. In 1906, Lillian was hired as assistant editor and columnist for Winnipeg’s Weekly Free Press by John Dafoe, the same editor who had hired E. Cora Hind in 1901. The seemingly gentle Lillian is said to have boldly confronted Dafoe at the train station to ask for a job (Gutkin and Gutkin). Under the pseudonym of “Lillian Laurie,” she edited what became a well-known feature entitled “Home Loving Hearts” that included letters from the province’s farm-women. As with many other such columns in the popular press, women found a public forum to address pressing issues such as cultural isolation, alcoholic and abusive spouses, loss of property, and the rights of unwed mothers (Gutkin and Gutkin). Like many progressive feminists, she was disillusioned by the militarism unleashed in Canada during World War One. In 1911, she married journalist and male feminist A. Vernon Thomas and in 1918 they followed Francis to New York City. While in New York, Lillian worked with Francis at an Episcopalian Mission known as the Seamen’s Church Institute. She and her husband returned to Winnipeg in 1923. Lillian wrote several well-received plays, such as Among the Maples (performed in 1932), The Pioneer Minister (performed in 1935), and Jim Barber’s Spite Fence. A Comedy in One Act (published in 1935 and performed the following year) (“Lillian Beynon Thomas”). She published a last novel, New Secret, in 1946. Lillian received several awards for her creative writing, including first prize for a short story entitled “Five Cents for Luck” that first appeared in Maclean’s and then was republished in American Magazine. Like many Canadian writers of her time, Lillian published in both Canadian and American periodicals. She died in Winnipeg in 1961. In 1983, the Manitoba Heritage Council honoured her with a plaque in Laura Secord School.

Francis Maron Beynon,  Archives of Manitoba, Still Images Section, Personalities Collection,  Item Number 1, (13687).

Francis Maron Beynon,
Archives of Manitoba, Still Images Section,
Personalities Collection,
Item Number 1, (13687).

Ten years Lillian’s junior, Francis was born in Streetsville, Ontario in 1884. Like three of her siblings, Francis studied to be a teacher and she taught school near Carman, Manitoba. As with Lillian, that employment did not hold Francis’ interest for long. Around 1909, she and Lillian moved to Winnipeg. Francis worked in advertising for the Canadian department store T. Eaton Company Limited. Her employment trajectory continued upward when she moved on to become a full-time editor of the Grain Growers’ Guide (GGG), as the first woman to hold this post, from 1912 to 1917. Francis worked as an editor of “The Country Homemaker’s Page,” “The Sunshine Guild” feature, and a children’s page. She sometimes used the pseudonym, “Dixie Patton” but she also wrote an anonymous column titled “Country Girl’s Ideas” (“Francis Marion Beynon”). The GGG, an early advocate of women suffrage, mobilized support for a range of women’s issues in rural communities including dower rights (Muir and Mitchell 48). Like her sister, Francis was particularly outraged by the chauvinism unleashed by World War One. In 1917, she moved to the United States to be followed by her sister and brother-in-law. She is best remembered for her unusual and somewhat autobiographical novel, Aleta Day (1919), which she published two years after moving to New York. The novel invoked the wartime struggles of feminists and pacifists and included the revealing line, “I think I was born to be free, but my parents, with God as one of their chief instruments of terror, frightened into servility” (4). In New York, Francis supervised the Ways and Means division of the Episcopalian Mission where her sister also worked. Between 1922 and 1925, she worked as editor of the Mission’s periodical, The Lookout. Francis is then thought to have continued working as a freelance writer (“Francis Marion Beynon”). Aside from a brief period of working in Rhode Island as a clerk for a trust company, she stayed in New York until returning to Winnipeg shortly before her death in 1951.

While Francis in particular seems to have rejected her parents’ Methodism, the progressivism often associated with that faith ran strong in both sisters. Both women were prominent prairie radicals. With her socialist husband, Lillian supported the Stella Mission and the People’s Forum, both organized by James Shaver Woodsworth, a Winnipeg Methodist minister, later Labour MP, and founder of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. From 1907 to 1908 Lillian served as secretary of the local section of the Canadian Women’s Press Club, which Francis also joined. In 1908, both sisters were involved in the Quill Club, a literary organization of politically engaged Manitoba writers particularly committed to women’s issues. While lasting only about a year, the Quill Club proved an important catalyst in assembling like-minded social activists and intellectuals (Gutkin and Gutkin). The sisters’ progressive politics were further affirmed as they, along with E. Cora Hind and Nellie McClung, founded Manitoba’s Political Equality League of which Lillian became the first president. Lillian also contributed to the creation of Homemakers’ Clubs in Saskatchewan, Women’s Grain Growers’ Associations of Saskatchewan and Alberta, and the Women’s Institutes of Manitoba, and she led the first Homemakers’ Convention in Regina, Saskatchewan in 1911. The organization of the Homemaker’s Clubs was an important attempt to create a sense of community and solidarity amongst isolated farm-women, and the first Homemakers’ Convention featured talks by Hind and McClung (Lang 224-225).

While Francis Marion Beynon played a somewhat less publicly visible role in the historic Manitoba suffrage movement, she was notable for her unwavering criticism of the social inequalities and jingoism of war, and her concern for the rights of underprivileged and non-Anglo-Saxon citizens (Cook 196-197). Her “radical form of pacifism” (Cook 199) not only led to a rift with Hind (Lang 82), but also seems to have directly resulted in the loss of her job at the Grain Growers’ Guide (Cook 200). Francis’ anti-war stance also seems to have precipitated her departure to New York in the then still neutral U.S.A. (Kinnear 32) and her ultimate “exile” (Lang 228) from the very community of activists that she had helped to found in Winnipeg.

Francis’ flight from Canada is especially interesting considering the significant victories for women’s rights in Manitoba at the time. Between 1916 and 1919, Manitoba stood in the forefront of Canadian activist governments. In January 1916, the new Liberal government led by T.C. Norris made the province the first to adopt women suffrage, a platform promise since 1910. The result, as in other jurisdictions, was a flurry of progressive legislation that improved women’s rights. Lillian declared in her column, “[i]t’s all over now, even the shouting. [. . .] the women of Manitoba are now citizens, persons, human beings, who have stepped politically out of the class of criminals, children, idiots and lunatics” (Beynon Thomas Qtd. in Gutkin and Gutkin). It is no coincidence that women writers and journalists were so influential in reform causes. As Lillian wryly acknowledges in this passage, only “shouting”—the taking of a public voice—enables women to achieve full citizenship. Francis’ political “withdrawal” (Cook 204) is a telling indication of the personal and professional risks of speaking out, especially for those whose opinions were seen as too counter-cultural even by otherwise sympathetic spirits.

It is important to pay attention to prominent, but lesser known, figures amongst the Manitoba suffragists in order to gain a fuller understanding of an important and in many ways puzzling period in North American women’s history. The Beynon sisters exemplify the rich and complicated literary, journalistic, and activist community that ensured women’s enfranchisement. Surprisingly little information currently exists on the Beynons despite their lengthy careers as writers and activists. It is likely that the resistance faced so noticeably by Francis continues to affect the place of both women in our cultural memory. Nor are the Beynons easily inserted into much second wave treatment of the suffragists that has often viewed activist foremothers as more conservative and even reactionary (Bacchi). The centennial celebrations of the Manitoba franchise victory offer an important vantage point to acknowledge the diversity of Canadian suffragists. Lillian and Francis, like Canada’s many labour women activists (Newton; Kealey), represent a key heritage for later generations of feminist activists.

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Beynon, Francis Marion. Aleta Dey. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2000.

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Cook, Ramsay. “Francis Marion Beynon and the Crisis of the Agrarian Revolt.” The West and the Nation: Essays in Honour of W.L. Morton. Ed. Carl Berger and Ramsay Cook. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1976. 187-208.

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– – -. “Memorable Manitobans: Lillian Beynon Thomas (1874-1961).” The Manitoba Historical Society. Web. Revised 28 July, 2013. May 6, 2013.

Gutkin, Harry, and Mildren Gutkin. ‘“Give us our due!” How Manitoba Women Won the Vote.’ Manitoba History 32 (1996): np. Web. Revised Jan. 3, 2013. April 20, 2013.

Kealey, Linda. Enlisting Women for the Cause: Women, Labour and the Left in Canada, 1880-1920. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

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Muir, Shirley, and Penni Mitchell. “Winnipeg Women Journalists Have Always Led the Way.” Manitoba History 70 (2012): 47-48. Web. April 20, 2013.

Newton, Janice. The Feminist Challenge to the Canadian Left, 1900-1918. Montreal-Kingston: Queen’s University Press, 1995.

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