When one picks up a Canadian history textbook, the year 1916 usually receives special emphasis. And so it should. In 1916, Manitoba became the first province in Canadian history to grant women the right to vote.
If one flips backward through the textbook, the year 1851 will not feature so prominently. British North America, as it was called, still only consisted of four sparsely populated colonies. The Province of Canada (present-day Ontario and Quebec), Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island had only recently received their legislative independence. New Brunswick would still have to wait a few more years for responsible government. To the west, the Hudson’s Bay Company still laid claim to much of the land despite its First Nations majority.
Perhaps 1851 should nevertheless receive greater emphasis. After decades of attending the polls, 1851 marked the year that women could no longer legally vote in legislative elections anywhere in British North America.
That’s right. Women voted in early-nineteenth-century Canada. But only certain women had the privilege of doing so. At the time, a woman’s enfranchisement depended upon where she lived, her religious affiliation, and how much real property she owned.
When the British Crown conferred representative institutions to its British North American colonies during the second half of the eighteenth century, it essentially established the same electoral franchise used in the English countryside: the so-called 40 shilling freehold. This legislation stipulated that any person who wished to vote first needed own 40 shillings worth of real estate. Since the 40 shilling freehold identified potential voters as persons, and not specifically men, most women who owned the requisite amount of property could technically vote at British North American elections (O’Gorman, 58-67; Vernon, 32-36).
Although economically exclusionary, the 40 shilling freehold, on paper at least, appeared culturally inclusive. In practice, however, it essentially established a racialized franchise across British North America. Because the colonies had retained stewardship over First Nations lands, the vast majority of First Nations British North Americans, whether men or women, could never own their own land or meet the franchise’s property qualification (Garner, 160-161). Their race had effectively barred them from the vote.
One’s religious convictions could also prevent one from voting. Although not a problem in nineteenth-century Upper Canada, Lower Canada, and Nova Scotia, Roman Catholics faced disenfranchisement in New Brunswick until 1810 and Prince Edward Island until 1830 (both a holdover from England’s anti-papist history). These religious restrictions applied to women as much as they did to men (Garner, 136-143).
Aside from universal limitations upon the franchise, propertied women had to overcome an additional obstacle before they could vote: English common law. Employed by every colony besides Lower Canada, patriarchal common law traditions effectively forbade women from voting. But, the unwritten nature of common law also allowed for a broad range of interpretation. So long as electoral officers adhered to the letter of the 40 shilling freehold instead of hazier common law customs – and some certainly did so in both Upper Canada and Nova Scotia – very little could prevent propertied women from voting for members of their Legislative Assemblies (Cuthbertson, 9; Garner, 156-159).
In Lower Canada, where the French Civil Code was in effect, the path to the hustings was easier. Only the franchise’s property qualification itself prevented women from voting. And since the Civil Code contained fewer impediments to women’s property ownership, the majority of propertied women at this time voted in Lower Canada (Greer, 204-206; Bradbury, 262-275).
This is not to say that the number of women who voted in British North America was large by any stretch of the imagination. Because married women’s property fell under the authority of their husbands, no matter the legal regime, most women could not actually meet the franchise’s property qualifications. As a result, women voters were overwhelmingly unmarried women or widows. None of this, however, should take away from that fact that women’s votes helped to turn certain elections in nineteenth-century British North America.
In the end, though, patriarchy would trump property ownership. As the British North American provinces began to move away from the 40 shilling freehold, colonial legislators needed to codify their new franchises. Before they could do that, they first had to define their ideal citizen. Although each province would eventually define this ideal somewhat differently, they all agreed upon the same first principles: that common law conventions should win out; that the idea of separate spheres should be codified; that only men should vote; and, that full citizenship within the colonial state should fall under the umbrella of patriarchy. Prince Edward Island applied these principles in 1836, followed by New Brunswick in 1843, and then the Province of Canada in 1849. Women would face formal disenfranchisement across the whole of British North America in 1851, when Nova Scotia determined that only men should have access to the vote.
With the end of women’s enfranchisement, and with the vote unequivocally established as a patriarchal prerogative, legislators would turn to other questions. How far, for example, should the privileges of patriarchy extend? Or to rephrase, what sort of man was manly enough to vote? Did labouring men or men from racialized communities, for example, meet the manly ideal? These questions would divide British North Americans for years to come.
Bradbury, Bettina. Wife to Widow: Lives, Laws, and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Montreal. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011.
Cuthbertson, Brian. Johnny Bluenose at the Polls: Epic Nova Scotian Election Battles 1758-1848. Halifax: Formac Publishing, 1994.
Garner, John. The Franchise and Politics in British North America 1755-1867. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969.
Greer, Allan. The Patriots and the People: The Rebellion of 1837 in Rural Lower Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.
O’Gorman, Frank. Voters, Patrons, and Parties: The Unreformed Electoral System of Hanoverian England, 1734-1832. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Vernon, James. Politics and the People: A Study in English Political Culture, c. 1815-1867. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.