Armine Nutting Gosling (1861-1942) and “The Counsel of Responsible Women”: The Suffragists of Newfoundland and Labrador

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By Tiffany Johnstone

Armine Nutting Gosling, 1885.  Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives and Special Collections, Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.

Armine Nutting Gosling, 1885.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives and Special Collections, Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John’s, Newfoundland.

“The laws that so materially affect [our] lives are bound to be haphazard and one-sided without the aid of the counsel of responsible women”

-Armine Nutting Gosling, Qtd. in Duley 142.

 

While most women in Canada won the right to vote at the federal level in 1918 and to run as candidates in federal elections in 1920, the struggle for suffrage was more complicated in the province of Quebec and in what was then the dominion of Newfoundland and Labrador (NL).  Newfoundland and Labrador, which did not join Canada until 1949, granted women the right to vote and run for office in 1925.  Quebec women had to wait 15 years before winning the right to vote provincially in 1940.  Religious conservatism, entrenched class-based social inequalities, and a strong cultural emphasis on traditional gender roles seem to have posed particular obstacles to suffrage in Quebec and NL.  The story in NL is remarkable considering the number of challenges and the public opposition suffragists faced at the time.  The suffrage history of the young province sheds light on the wider struggles for women’s federal and provincial enfranchisement in the rest of the country.

As in many other jurisdictions, the fight for suffrage in NL was strongly linked to the temperance movement.  The NL chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) formed in 1890 with the help of Methodist minister A.D. Morton and consisted mainly of Congregational, Presbyterian, and Methodist women (Duley 13), while also including some Catholic supporters (Duley 15).  It had roots in earlier colonial temperance groups including the Daughters of Temperance that dated back to the 1850s (Duley 14).  In the 19th century, alcohol had become a form of currency amongst seamen, labourers, and servants (Duley 15). A long history of indentured labour and exploitative working conditions culminated in a culture of alcohol dependency that engulfed many of the poor and exacerbated their poverty.  As elsewhere, temperance activists argued that women and children were the most likely victims (Duley 17).  Without voting rights, women had limited means to change the very social conditions by which they were victimized.

While in 1891, WCTU members famously marched through St. John’s from the Old Temperance Hall to support temperance and suffrage, motions to expand women’s voting privileges in 1892 and 1893 were ultimately defeated and suffragists faced a brutal media backlash.  An 1893 Evening Telegram article accused them of mere attention-seeking and of ultimately “unsex[ing] themselves” by seeking the vote (Higgins).  In 1897, newspapers sensationalized local sightings of a female cyclist who voiced her support for suffrage and defended her hobby, which was quickly becoming an international symbol of women’s liberation and the ‘New Woman’ (Duley 36).  Many of the dominion’s middle-class women nevertheless continued to meet and to lobby.  NL suffragists took inspiration from the suffragist movements in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, as well as in Canada as a whole, and in the United States and Britain (Cleverdon 210).  American suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947) actively supported the NL suffragists and is said to have supplied them with suffrage literature (Cleverdon 210).  Not until the 1920s, however, did the NL media begin supporting votes for women (Higgins).

Literacy, education, and the arts were strongly associated with women’s activism.  Around 1909, the St. John’s Ladies Reading Room (LRR) organization was founded in response to the ban on women attending lectures at an all men’s club (Duley 41).  Harriet Armine Nutting Gosling, known as Armine Gosling (1861-1942), is particularly well-known for her support of the LRR.  Hailing from Waterloo, Quebec, Gosling was a well-educated product of “gentile poverty,” the daughter of an alcoholic father and a milliner and seamstress mother (Duley 43).  When the Church of England Girls’ School in St. John’s advertised for a new principal, Gosling successfully applied and stepped ashore in 1882.  Soon after arriving, she met her future husband, William Gilbert Gosling (1863-1930), a Bermuda businessman who would later become Mayor of St. John’s (Duley 42-43).  In 1885, Armine resigned from her job to live in Ottawa and Bermuda.  In 1888 she and William wed in Halifax. They soon returned to St. John’s where he was employed by a local business (Riggs A9).  The Goslings had six children, two of whom died before the age of one (Riggs A9).  Armine gradually became active in community organizations.  While in London from 1904 to 1905, she befriended American nurse and suffragist Lavinia Dock (1858-1956), started subscriptions to British suffragist papers, and attended suffragist meetings (Duley 45).  On her return, she became heavily involved in the franchise struggle (Riggs A9).

In 1909 the LRR began in the Goslings’ home and soon boasted over a hundred members.  With its singularly reassuring title, the organization was reminiscent of the Toronto’s Women’s Literary Club from 1876, which soon enough transformed itself into the Suffrage Club in 1882.  The seemingly unremarkable ambition of the LRR was to give local women access to print culture from Britain and the United States (Riggs A9). This phenomenon of the literary society as a means to promote suffrage can be traced back to the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC) that was founded in 1878 by a Methodist minister in Chautauqua, New York.  The CLSC operated ad a kind of book club that coordinated and supervised “home reading circles” and even offered university credits (Murray 77), feeding a demand for increased home-based access to higher learning, especially on the part of women (Murray 81).  The CLSC developed a Canadian branch and soon claimed members throughout Canada and in NL (Murray 85).  The St. John’s LRR thus represented the wider cultural connection in the late 19th century between suffrage and increased access to women’s education and literacy.  The vast growth of organizations such as the CLSC shows that in the process of improving access to education, women gained credentials, skills, and networks that helped to improve women’s individual lives and to promote women’s rights.

The LRR also produced the Current Events Club of which Armine was president (Higgins) and aimed to encourage women’s involvement in politics (Riggs A9).  Women, such as Gosling and the more radical suffragist, Myra Campbell (1868-1964),[i] spoke at the club’s weekly meetings.  In 1912 Gosling gave a lecture called “Woman Suffrage,” which was then printed and sold as a pamphlet (Riggs A9).  She was particularly angry about the negative “propaganda” (Qtd. in Duley 47) aimed at suffragists, and she dedicated herself to combating misinformation (Duley 47).  Venues such as the Ladies Reading Room and the Current Events Club provided a safe space for women to educate themselves and to refute biases of mainstream media, religious conservatism, the education system, and the government.

Leaders such as Armine Gosling tended to represent a middle-class, often Protestant, urban, “come from away,”[ii] perspective on NL suffrage.[iii]  Like many, she drew heavily on British influences, favouring the literary activism of John Stuart Mill, the rhetoric of maternal feminism, and British suffrage struggles, arguably at the expense of meaningful engagement with NL  issues, especially those facing outport women (Duley 47).  This perspective could be interpreted on the one hand as limiting, and on the other as making suffrage more “palatable” to those in charge by associating it with Great Britain (Duley 47-48).  The lingering colonial class-system, re-enforced by religious conservatism in the dominion, contributed to this elitist bias.  However, while the first franchise champions drew heavily on the elite of the capital, the movement grew in time increasingly diverse and locally engaged with activity in rural areas (Duley 39). In 1891, women from the small outports of Cupids and Pardy’s Island officially presented petitions to the legislature (Duley 22). World War I brought outport women increasingly into the public eye as significant contributors to the military effort.[iv]  The active inclusion of rural women in the suffrage movement can be seen as an important contribution to suffrage success because of the geographically widespread support that it provided to the movement.

As in other jurisdictions, World War I expanded women’s roles and increased their political leverage.  In 1914, Lady Margaret Davidson, the wife of the British governor, formed the Women’s Patriotic Association (WPA) to encourage contributions to the war effort.  From 1916-1918, Gosling served as the Honorary Secretary for the WPP.  Its efforts helped ensure the survival of rural families and communities in particular (Duley 54).  All across the island and in Labrador, rural women contributed to “fundraising, knitting, and sewing” to support the troops (Duley 57). By 1915, the WPA had grown to 208 branches and 15,000 members (Riggs A9).  Their efforts were widely applauded (Duley 61).  This impressive mobilization was associated with what became known as “distaff feminism,” a term that, like ‘domestic feminism’ or ‘maternal feminism’ used more widely elsewhere, signaled political engagement and contributions based on traditional women’s roles (Duley 58).  One benefit for longtime activists was the WPA’s effective creation of a vital suffragist network across the island (Duley 58).  This network became a powerful tool in increasing women’s involvement and public opinion favourable to the franchise.  As well, the WPA’s emphasis on traditional women’s work would have helped to overcome opposition to suffrage.

“Woman's Franchise Movement," 8.11, Agnes Ayre Collection, Coll-158, the Archives and Special Collections, Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University. Archivists describe this photo as most likely taken in Carbonear between 1921 and 1925.  Fannie McNeill (1869-1928) is seen standing second from left.  Agnes Miller Ayre (1890-1940) is seated to the left. Janet Miller Ayre Murray (1892-1946) is seated to the right. The Ayre sisters were important local members of the Women's Franchise League (Duley 104).

“Woman’s Franchise Movement,” 8.11, Agnes Ayre Collection, Coll-158, the Archives and Special Collections, Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University.
Archivists describe this photo as most likely taken in Carbonear between 1921 and 1925. Fannie McNeill (1869-1928) is seen standing second from left. Agnes Miller Ayre (1890-1940) is seated to the left. Janet Miller Ayre Murray (1892-1946) is seated to the right. The Ayre sisters were important local members of the Women’s Franchise League (Duley 104).

Since their war effort did not bring the ‘reward’ that it won in Canada, Gosling founded and became the president of the Women’s Franchise League in 1920 (in Quebec the equivalent was the Provincial Committee for Women Suffrage 1922).  Drawing on WPA networks, she led branches in petitions, lectures, and letters to the editor (Riggs A9).  One  petition is said to have contained 20,000 signatures from across the island, a remarkable feat considering that most rural NL outports had populations below 5000 and were often extremely isolated and only accessible by sea (Cleverdon 211).  While Gosling’s husband used his mayoral position to help introduce a new charter allowing women voters in 1921, Prime Minister Sir Richard Squires was strongly opposed (Riggs A9).  Despite generally supportive newspapers, the government remained largely hostile (Higgins).  In 1921, female property owners were awarded the municipal vote but this victory was limited because of the NL convention of listing property owners as male (Cleverdon 210).  Not until the appearance of a sympathetic new Conservative Prime Minister, Walter Monroe, did women gain the franchise (Riggs A9).  In 1925, the Monroe Bill allowed women over 25 (four years older than men, a disability that remained until 1946) to vote and to run for election (Cleverdon 212).  NL women did not waste time in taking action.  On October 29th, 1928, a resounding 90% of eligible women voters cast their ballots in a general election (Higgins).

The story of suffrage in NL from the 1891 WCTU march to the LRR, the WPA, and the Women’s Franchise League is a story of patient grassroots community-building in the face of persistent opposition.  The emergence of activists such as Gosling was essential in creating suffrage networks largely modeled on those in Britain, Canada, and the United States.  The NL suffrage movement testifies to the power of social ills in bringing activists together and in gathering public support. As early NL suffragists pointed out, women’s suffrage was not just about improving the lives of individual women but about improving social conditions in general.  This successful connection between suffrage and broader human rights was crucial in defeating opposition.

 

Bibliography

Brandt, Gail Cuthbert, Naomi Black, Paula Bourne, and Magda Fahrni. 1996. Canadian Women: A History. Toronto: Nelson Education Ltd., 2011.

Cleverdon, Catherine L. The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada. 1950. 2nd Ed. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1974.

Duley, Margot I. Where Once our Mothers Stood we Stand: Women’s Suffrage in Newfoundland 1890-1925. Charlottetown: Gynergy Books, 1993.

Greenwood, Rob, Candice Pike, and Wade Kearley. A Commitment to Place: The Social Foundations of Innovation in Newfoundland and Labrador. St. John’s: Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Policy and Development, 2011.

Higgins, Jenny. “Women’s Suffrage.” Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site. Memorial University of Newfoundland. 2008. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.

Riggs, Bert. “Securing the Right to Vote: Armine Nutting Gosling led Newfoundland Women in the Struggle for Female Suffrage.” St. John’s Telegram 15 Dec. 2003 Monday Final Ed.: A9.


[i] Myra Campbell was born in Nova Scotia, but was raised in Bay of Islands, NL (Duley 48).

[ii] This term is a common NL expression used to refer to individuals who were born outside of the province or whose parents were born outside of the province (See Greenwood et al.).  It has derogatory connotations and reflects longstanding colonial class-tensions in the province between indentured workers and the merchant class.  It usually associates “come from aways” with an elitist, usually urban and middle-class perspective in contrast with those whose ancestors settled in isolated outports.

[iii] For example, see Duley, 18-22 for a list of WCTU leaders who were generally recent middle-class immigrants.

[iv] During World War I, the opportunity to go to war for Great Britain was taken up enthusiastically throughout the dominion.  For many men in rural NL, military service seemed hardly less dangerous than familiar traditional forms of labour including the cod and seal fishery.  Newfoundlanders took the brunt of badly planned military events at Gallipoli and in Beaumont Hamel, resulting in massive casualties.  NL “suffered one of the highest casualty rates of any part of the British Empire” (Duley 57).