Woman suffrage, eugenics, and eugenic feminism in Canada


grain growers guide suffrage imageThe relationship of suffragism to the eugenics movement is certainly one of the most complicated and contentious aspects of the achievement of the vote for women in Canada. Many of the principles and people associated with suffragism are also associated with the ideas of the science of “race improvement” that had been named “eugenics” by Francis Galton in 1883. Galton (1822-1911), a half-cousin of Charles Darwin and a British scholar and explorer across a range of areas of study, was also a “proto-geneticist” whose writing on making “better” humans through controlled breeding provided the ground for a movement not only in Britain and the British Empire but, through the first quarter of the twentieth century, in many countries around the world. It is thus possible to make reference to a “eugenics movement” that is both nationally specific in its development and global in its spread. In every context its emergence pertains to anxiety about the preservation and reproduction of a national constituency characterized as a “race.” In Canada, through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth a part of the British Empire and, later, a member of the imperial “family” of the Commonwealth, the national “race” was represented as foundationally British or Anglo-Saxon—the identity of the settler rather than the Indigenous culture.

In Canada, the ideas of the eugenics movement began to gain traction at the end of the nineteenth century in the context of the British Empire’s expansion across Indigenous territory. A cluster of factors had already begun to fuel imperial fears about the future of the Anglo-Saxon “race” and its maintenance: imperial wars through the nineteenth century with their decimation of population numbers and shifting of militia and others to distant locations, the emigration of people from Britain, and the reduction of distance and the blurring of national boundaries through the development of technologies of travel and communication produced a concomitant expansion of anxiety about Anglo-Saxondom’s vitality. This anxiety was exacerbated in Canada by the fact that residents were not only British: Anglo-imperial emigrants struggled to affirm an idea of the Britishness of Canada against the fact of Indigenous First Nations and Métis people, French Canadians, and migrants from other countries. In Canada, as elsewhere, “race” became more important arguably precisely as it became more difficult to maintain as a discrete and discernible category.

Eugenics emerged as a set of practices of social engineering with the objective of more clearly defining and, crucially, improving particular racial categories through the management of reproduction: breeding in “good” qualities (positive eugenics) and breeding out “bad” ones (negative eugenics) or characteristics seen to lead to the decline of “the race” if reproduced, including mental illness, disability, and what was often called “feeble-mindedness.” Eugenics also undertook “race improvement” through the eradication of what were often called “racial poisons,” substances and diseases believed to weaken individuals and subsequent generations (for instance, alcohol, drugs, sexually transmitted diseases, and tuberculosis). As Galton put it, the “aim” of eugenics was first “to check the birth-rate of the Unfit” and second to improve “the race by furthering the productivity of the Fit by early marriages and healthful rearing of their children” (323).

Central to eugenic practices everywhere was the notion of women as the bearers of the future “race.” Although initially positioned only as “breeders”—in Galton’s theories, women were to function as a medium for the transmission of “genius” from father to son—later eugenicists who saw the importance of bringing women onside in the big project of race preservation began to reshape Galtonian ideas of femininity and to make a case for the vital importance of women as “mothers of the race” or what British eugenicist Caleb Saleeby (1878-1940) described in 1911 as “Nature’s supreme organ of the future” (1911 25). Eugenicists such as Saleeby, Karl Pearson (1857-1936), and Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) maintained that women were not simply vehicles but agents of reproduction, thus establishing a ground for what would develop as what Saleeby called “eugenic feminism” (7).

By the end of the nineteenth century, many women began to position themselves and the goals of what is often characterized in this period as the “advancement” of women in relation to the ideas of eugenics. This positioning is evident not only within the eugenic project itself—within the texts produced by women arguing for the importance of particular kinds of eugenic social engineering—but, more broadly, across the rhetoric of mainstream feminism. While not every feminist of the years before the vote necessarily saw herself as a supporter of eugenic practices—much religious ideology, notably but not only in the Roman Catholic Church, mitigated against its wholesale acceptance—the notion that the uplift of “the race” could not happen without the uplift of women underpins much feminist rhetoric of the period.

The basic argument of eugenic feminism—that if women had the responsibility to produce the coming race, then society had the responsibility to empower them to do that work—was a persuasive and pervasive one, particularly with regard to the struggle for the vote. Without the vote, women could not act as full citizens; they could not work to ensure the best conditions for mothers and babies and thus could not ensure that the “best” babies would be born. Women, whom eugenic discourse insisted were naturally and necessarily mothers, should also be seen to know best what was needed to maintain the best conditions: as mothers, they “naturally” wanted and were needed to turn their maternal instinct upon society as a whole. For eugenic feminists, this was not only a matter of having babies and working to make “better” babies, but of turning what was widely represented as women’s moral superiority toward social space, and “cleaning up” corrupt social conditions. Some feminists found a good fit in eugenics in part because of the strong correlation between cleaning up as an ideologically feminine impulse and practice and eugenic ideas of mental, moral, social, and “racial” hygiene. Eugenic feminist ideas in Canada as elsewhere crossed a broad spectrum, from birth control to sexual sterilization of the so-called “unfit,” but all these ideas were represented with reference to the “natural” disposition of women to have the best interests of the society at heart: not self-preservation but “race” preservation; not personal advancement but the advancement of the “race.”

In its grounding in an ideology of maternalism, eugenic feminism converges with what is often called maternal feminism: the two are often virtually indistinguishable. Although the first tends toward the “scientificization” of motherhood that eugenic discourse mobilizes as a strategy of engaging women with the ideas of “race improvement,” and the latter is not necessarily always disposed toward social practices of controlling reproduction and the production of “better” babies, both mobilize the same rhetoric of women’s “natural” desire to be mothers and of the need for women, on these terms, to be given the power to act in the political and social spheres. Both, moreover, show up in suffrage rhetoric which in Canada is saturated, as it is elsewhere, with the principle of “race” protection that underpins eugenical thinking. Indeed, it is in suffragism’s maternalist rhetoric that its relationship to the ideas of eugenics is most evident.

In Canada, as elsewhere, an extensive suffragist network had developed by the turn of the century. The Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association was formed in Toronto in 1883; the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association (DWEA) was incorporated in 1889. Some of the most prominent—and most often remembered—representatives of the woman suffrage movement in Canada are also those with a strong connection to the eugenics movement, suggesting that eugenic feminism was a powerful stream in suffrage rhetoric and was especially influential in the achievement of the vote. Dr. Emily Stowe (1831-1903), founder and first president of the DWEA, along with fellow physician Dr. Amelia Yeomans (1842-1913), endorsed “strict immigration and eugenic policies” (Warsh 185; see also Bacchi 1983 114). Carrie Derick (1862-1941), the first female professor in a Canadian university, founder of McGill University’s Genetics department, and president of the Montreal Suffrage Association from 1913 to 1919, would, Constance Backhouse points out, “advocate the segregation and sterilization of the ‘feeble-minded’ along with restrictive immigration policies, as the only real guarantee for ‘race purity’” (1991 287). Like Derick, Helen Gregory MacGill (1864-1947), one of Canada’s first female judges, was a vocal advocate  of “mental hygiene,” the eugenic movement’s term for the control or eradication of characteristics perceived to be “dysgenic” or detrimental to the collective social health of “the race.” Nellie L. McClung (1873-1951), whose speeches and writing were influential in the granting of the provincial vote to women in Manitoba in 1916 as well as the federal vote in 1919, is also the best-known representative of eugenic/maternal feminism in Canada. Her 1915 book based on those speeches, In Times Like These, remains the central manifesto of woman suffrage and of feminism on eugenic principles in this country.

It is, of course, not only in suffrage and feminist rhetoric that the early twentieth-century ideas of eugenics are central: these ideas are pervasive across social and discursive registers. “Race” in early twentieth-century Canada is a conception not framed in ironizing and distancing quotation marks, as it typically is in the early twenty-first when its stability as a category of identity has been significantly problematized. Rather, the concept of race is mobilized in everyday communication in the early 1900s as a term whose meaning and implications would be readily comprehended. Canadian newspapers and magazines of this period routinely use the vocabulary not only of race but of eugenics itself; this vocabulary and the ideas it it indexes can be found in the discourses of public health, medicine, social reform, gendered social responsibility, education, labour, law, justice, ability, and social class, as well as popular conceptions of the future of the nation and its place in the world.

It might be possible to understand feminism’s investment in eugenical ideas of social engineering as a strategic measure—to secure the vote—and a desperate measure, given the depth and breadth of opposition to woman suffrage in Canada, as elsewhere. It might likewise be understood that suffragists were seduced by eugenicists’ rhetoric of the promise of social agency for women. But the fact is that the suffrage feminism that is best remembered and that may have been most influential in the push for the vote—the argument that women needed to be empowered to function as “guardians of the race”—is deeply imbricated in the eugenical ideas of race preservation that shape national discourse across many registers. In the context of Canadian social politics, in other words, what Saleeby would call eugenic feminism is not unusual in its engagement with eugenics. What were popularly perceived to be its contentious politics, in fact, were not then its notions of making a better “race,” but its argument for women’s rights.

Most women in Canada were granted the vote federally in 1918, two years after the provincial vote was first extended to women in Manitoba. After 1918, eugenical ideas flourished well into the century. Women and men both supported practices of social engineering, from the ideas of “social” and “mental hygiene” promoted by medical practitioners such as Helen MacMurchy, Ontario’s designated “inspector of the feeble-minded” from 1915, through the legislation of sexual sterilization for the “unfit” in Alberta in 1928 and British Columbia in 1933. It is often observed that feminists in Alberta—some, like Nellie McClung, who were also formerly suffragists—were instrumental in securing the 1928 bill, with the effect, as Moss, Stam, and Kattevilder point out, that many of these women “have gone from being admired, celebrated, and respected for their contributions, to being criticized for perpetuating stereotypes of women and seeking to protect the interests and privilege of the ruling Anglo-Saxon class” (113).

Women who supported eugenic thinking are often subjected to harsher criticism than their male counterparts (MacMurchy more than William Osler; McClung more than Tommy Douglas[1]), a gesture that attests, somewhat ironically, to the persistence of eugenic feminism’s own foundational conception of women as naturally morally superior to men. It is vital to pay attention to the histories of racist practices in Canada that have been so instrumental in shaping the nation, to consider how and why suffragists engaged with and endorsed eugenical ideas, to understand them and the role they play in national history, and to work toward comprehending the mechanisms of power that produce particular ideologies—not least, to avoid reproducing them.


Works Cited

Bacchi, Carol. Liberation Deferred? The Ideas of the English-Canadian Suffragists,

1877-1918. Toronto, Buffalo and London: U of Toronto P, 1983.

Backhouse, Constance. Petticoats and Prejudice: Women and the Law in Nineteenth-

century Canada. Toronto: Women’s Press, 1991.

Moss, Erin L., Henderikus J. Stam, and Diane Kattevilder. “From Suffrage to

Sterilization: Eugenics and the Women’s Movement in 20th Century Alberta.” Canadian Psychology 54.2 (2013): 105-14.

Saleeby, Caleb. Woman and Womanhood: A Search for Principles. New York and

London: Mitchell Kennerley, 1911.

Warsh, Cheryl Krasnick. Prescribed Norms: Women and Health in Canada and the

United States since 1800. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2010.


Further Reading:

Bacchi, Carol. “Evolution, Eugenics and Women: The Impact of Scientific Theories on

Attitudes towards Women, 1870-1920.” Women, Class and History: Feminist Perspectives on Australia, 1788-1978. Ed. Elizabeth Windschuttle. Melbourne: Fontana/Collins, 1980. 132-56.

Chapman, Terry. “The Early Eugenics Movement in Western Canada.” Alberta

History 25 (1977): 9-12.

Christian, Timothy J. The Mentally Ill and Human Rights in Alberta: A Study of the

Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act. Unpublished research report. Edmonton, AB: Faculty of Law, University of Alberta, 1973.

Davin, Anna. “Imperialism and Motherhood.” History Workshop Journal 5 (1978): 9-


Derick, Carrie M. “The Montreal Local Council of Women and Mental Hygiene.”

Canadian Journal of Mental Hygiene 1.2 (1919-1920): 141-44.

Devereux, Cecily. Growing a Race: Nellie L. McClung and the Fiction of Eugenic

Feminism. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2005.

Dowbiggin, Ian. Keeping America Sane: Psychiatry and Eugenics in the United States

and Canada, 1880-1940. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2003.

Ellis, Havelock. The Task of Social Hygiene. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912.

Fiamengo, Janice. “A Legacy of Ambivalence: Responses to Nellie McClung.”

Rethinking Canada: The Promise of Women’s History. 4th ed. Ed. Veronica Strong-Boag, Mona Gleason, and Adele Perry. Toronto: Oxford UP, 2002. 149-63.

Galton, Francis. “Race Improvement.” Memories of My Life. 2nd ed. London: Methuen,

1908. 310-23.

—–. Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences. 2nd ed. London:

Macmillan, 1892.

Grekul, Jana. “Sterilization in Alberta, 1928 to 1972: Gender Matters.” Canadian

Review of Sociology (CRS/RCS) 45.3 (2008): 247-66.

Grekul, Jana, Harvey Krahn, and Dave Odynak. “Sterilizing the ‘Feeble-minded’:

Eugenics in Alberta, Canada, 1929-1972.” Journal of Historical Sociology 17.4 (2004): 358-84.

McClung, Nellie L. In Times Like These. 1915. Intro. Veronica Strong-Boag. Toronto: U

of Toronto P, 1972.

McLaren, Angus. Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945. Toronto:

McClelland and Stewart, 1990.

MacMurchy, Helen. “The Parents’ Plea.” Canadian Journal of Mental Hygiene 1.3

(1919-1920): 211-12.

—–. The Woman, Bless Her: Not As Amiable a Book As It Sounds. Toronto: Gundy,


Roberts, Wayne. “ ‘Rocking the Cradle for the World’: The New Woman and Maternal

Feminism, Toronto, 1877-1914.” A Not Unreasonable Claim: Women and Reform in Canada, 18802 to 1920s. Ed. Linda Kealey. Toronto: Women’s Press, 1979. 15-45.

Saleeby, Caleb. Parenthood and Race Culture: An Outline of Eugenics. New York:

Moffat, Yard, 1909.

Scharlieb, Mary. Womanhood and Race-Regeneration. New York: Moffat, Yard, 1912.

Shevell, M. “A Canadian Paradox: Tommy Douglas and Eugenics.” Canadian Journal

of Neurological Science 39.1 (2012): 35-9.

Strange, Carolyn and Jennifer A. Stephen. “Eugenics in Canada: A Checkered History,

1850s-1990s.” The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics. Ed. Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. 522-38.

Strong-Boag, Veronica. “‘Ever a Crusader’: Nellie McClung, First Wave Feminist.”

Rethinking Canada. The Promise of Women’s History. 3rd ed. Ed. Veronica Strong-Boag and Anita Clair Fellman. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1997. 271-84.

Valverde, Mariana. “‘When the Mother of the Race is Free’: Race, Reproduction, and

Sexuality in First-Wave Feminism.” Gender Conflicts: New Essays in Women’s History. Ed. Franca Iacovetta and Mariana Valverde. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1992. 3-26.

Ziegler, Mary. “Eugenic Feminism: Mental Hygiene, the Women’s Movement, and the

Campaign for Eugenic Legal Reform, 1900-1935.” Harvard Journal of Law and

Gender 31 (2008): 211-35.

*          *          *


[1] Douglas’s early interest in eugenics for social reform is represented in his sociology Master’s thesis, “The Problem of the Subnormal Family” (McMaster, 1933). Founder of Medicare in Canada as well as the CCF (later the NDP), Douglas later rejected eugenics. William Osler, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, and sometimes called the “Father of Modern Medicine,” was a speaker at the first international Eugenics Conference in London in 1912. He spoke there on “Eugenics and the Medical Profession” (106).

Devereux, Cecily

Devereux, Cecily

Devereux, Cecily

Latest posts by Devereux, Cecily (see all)