We all know that Canadian women, with the exception of some Aboriginal and Asian women, acquired the federal vote in 1918, right? Well, not actually. The vote is tied to citizenship (or, as it was called prior to 1947, nationality), and the issue of whether the wives of newly naturalized immigrant men should be able to vote remained a live one until Canada adopted its own Citizenship Act in 1946, with effect from 1 January 1947. In the intervening decades, the Canadian government, with the acquiescence and sometimes the support of some Canadian women’s organizations, put a number of procedural barriers in the way of immigrant women exercising the franchise—a franchise that should have been theirs under existing law once their husbands were naturalized.
The Canadian Citizenship Act stated for the first time that a married woman enjoyed citizenship in her own right, regardless of the citizenship of her husband. Thus, after 1 January 1947, if a Canadian-born woman married a citizen of Italy, she would remain a Canadian, and he would remain an Italian unless and until he applied for and was granted Canadian citizenship. However, in the first half of the twentieth century, matters were not that straightforward. By law, a married woman’s nationality was considered dependent on that of her husband. Thus a Canadian-born woman who married an Italian in 1915, say, became an Italian citizen and lost her Canadian citizenship, regardless of whether the couple remained in Canada or went to live somewhere else.
During the campaign for female suffrage in the 1910s, reform of the law of married women’s nationality was also advocated by some women’s groups in Britain, the U.S.A., Canada and elsewhere (Bredbenner). For the British women’s movement, the idea that a married woman should possess citizenship in her own right was a straightforward claim based on liberty and gender equality. They mounted a very active campaign that resulted in bills coming before Parliament almost every year in the 1920s and 30s. Many of these bills passed in the House of Commons but were rejected by the House of Lords (Baldwin, 2001). Members of the House of Lords were concerned to maintain the legal concept that the husband was the head of the family, and supported their position with an equestrian metaphor: “if two ride a horse, one must ride in front” (Girard 2013).
In Canada, the campaign was more muted and many Canadian women’s organizations did not frame the issue in the same way. They were concerned about Canadian-born women losing their citizenship by marrying non-Canadian men, but some also thought that the law was too generous in providing automatic citizenship to the wives of immigrant men who achieved naturalization (Kinahan, 2008). They wanted immigrant women and men to face more stringent tests for citizenship, and the National Council of Women debated in the 1920s whether literacy tests should be imposed in order to make citizenship more difficult to get (though the organization ultimately rejected making this its official policy).
The government also shared these concerns about immigrant women voting, even after they had been naturalized and were theoretically entitled to all the rights of citizenship. In fact, the issue had divided organized women during the war when Ottawa excluded foreign-born citizens in the 1917 Wartime Elections Act (see Beynon). In 1920, the Borden government amended the Dominion Elections Act to require wives of naturalized men to get a special certificate from a judge before they could vote. The certificate itself could be had for the asking, but in the western provinces in particular, obtaining it might require a lengthy trip to the nearest town with a court. It is clear that this manoeuvre was meant to, and did, block naturalized immigrant women from voting in the December 1921 election. The Liberals, who were pretty confident of securing those votes, abolished this requirement in 1922 after winning the election.
A similar, but more long-lived barrier to immigrant women exercising their franchise was enacted by the Bennett government in 1931. It amended the Naturalization Act to remove the automatic naturalization of the wives of naturalized immigrant men, but required them to declare within six months of their husband’s naturalization that they wished to obtain Canadian citizenship. They had to make the declaration before a judge and receive a certificate attesting to this fact. Those women who did not do so retained their citizenship of origin and were not given the right to apply independently for Canadian citizenship later on. The government took no steps to educate immigrant communities about how to negotiate this requirement. The Secretary of State himself observed in 1933 that in spite of tens of thousands of applications for citizenship, he knew of no case where an immigrant wife had made the required declaration. The ballots of immigrant women were thus subject to challenge if they did vote: they could be called upon to produce the required certificate and their votes set aside if they could not do so, as happened in a Manitoba election in 1938. Unlike the situation in 1922, the Liberals did not come to the aid of immigrant women when they returned to power in 1935.
Much of the mainstream Canadian women’s movement acquiesced in this effective disenfranchisement of immigrant women, and its efforts to reform the law of married women’s nationality waned over the next decade. After the war, the King government passed the Canadian Citizenship Act, creating a new status of Canadian citizen distinct from that of being a British subject. At the same time, it stated that this status had to be acquired independently by spouses: a woman would no longer lose or acquire citizenship on marriage. Britain followed Canada’s lead in 1948.
Two distinct but related issues would take longer to solve. Non-Aboriginal women who married Aboriginal men, acquired their status and therefore lost their vote until Aboriginal persons were given the vote in 1960; Aboriginal women lost their status by marrying non-Aboriginal men but thereby acquired the right to vote before 1960.
These struggles show how the dependent nature of married women’s citizenship status continued to interfere with their political identities long after female suffrage was supposedly obtained in 1918. Tens of thousands of immigrant women were denied the vote that their naturalized husbands could exercise because of racial, ethnic and gender stereotyping and discrimination, delaying their full integration into Canadian society.
Baldwin, M.P. Subject to Empire: Married Women and the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act. 40:4 Journal of British Studies 40:4 (2001): 522-566.
Beynon, Francis, Marion, “The Foreign Woman’s Franchise (1916)” in Nancy Forestell with Maureen Moynagh. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. 144-145
Bredbenner, Candice Lewis. A Nationality of Her Own: Women, Marriage, and the Law of Citizenship. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Girard, P. . “If two ride a horse, one must ride in front”: Married Women, Nationality and the Law in Canada, 1880-1950. Canadian Historical Review 94:1 (March 2013): 28-54
Kinahan, A-M.. Transcendent Citizenship: Suffrage, the National Council of Women of Canada, and the Politics of Organized Womanhood. Journal of Canadian Studies 42:3 (Sept. 2008): 5-27.