On Valentine’s Day in 1916 Saskatchewan suffragists converged on the Legislative Building in Regina. They had been invited to attend the Legislative Assembly by Walter Scott, the besieged Premier, who apparently hoped his invitation would be seen as chivalrous. Scott’s Liberal government, which had been stalling, was doing an about-face, in part because it was in a race with the governments in Alberta and Manitoba. It wanted Saskatchewan to be seen as the most “progressive” province in Canada. Violet McNaughton, who was the leader of the suffrage movement in Saskatchewan, later recalled that when she and the other leaders of the provincial suffrage alliance, arrived at the Legislature they were shown to “the ‘Seats of the Mighty’ by the venerable Sergeant-at-Arms.” The galleries were full of suffragists from many areas of the province who had gone to Regina to present petitions with thousands of signatures in support of women’s suffrage to the Premier.
Scott told the assembled suffragists that he was committing the government to passing a suffrage law giving women a provincial franchise equal to the men’s franchise. In her study of the suffrage movement in Saskatchewan one historian concluded that, even though Alice Lawton, the President of the suffrage alliance, “fluttered her handkerchief facetiously and trilled ‘this is so sudden,’ the event was in fact an anti-climax.” Lawton appears to have been a bit of a romantic, it being Valentine’s Day and the premier being a handsome fellow. McNaughton saw the day differently. Having worked so hard for an equal franchise for women, she experienced the day as neither romantic nor anti-climactic. For her it was an important historic occasion. She had emigrated from England where the franchise for working-class men had been extended four times during the nineteenth century because the elites feared disorder and violence if they did not do so. In 1909 when she left Britain women were campaigning for the franchise, but the intransigent government would not grant it to them, even though some of them had used violence to get attention. Before 1916 the only countries to have granted national universal suffrage were New Zealand in 1893, Australia in 1901, Finland in 1906, and Norway in 1913 so for McNaughton this Valentine’s Day was a day of triumph. What had McNaughton and other suffragists done to push the Premier to issue the invitation when he had refused to grant women’s suffrage a few years before?
W.R. Motherwell, a prosperous farmer who was the Minister of Agriculture and a friend of the Premier, had claimed that women did not really want the vote because “they endure no wrongs which are not removed under the present system.” In 1912 when the question of women’s suffrage had been debated by male Members of the Legislature Assembly amid disparaging remarks and laughter, Motherwell had summarized the government’s case. He said women had a “right” to the vote, but until a “considerable number of women approached the government urging the extension of the franchise to women” the government would not consider it. The Grain Growers’ Guide, an agrarian paper widely read in Saskatchewan, graphically depicted the premier’s attitude in a 1913 cartoon showing the government’s stalling tactics and its distain for the suffragists. It showed Premier Scott saying “Speak!” as he held a card labeled “Votes for Women” above the head of a woman begging like a dog. McNaughton, who refused to beg, sent a letter to the editor of “The Guide” in which she said the Premier’s handling of the petitions and the letters she and other farm women had gathered and presented to him had caused them a great deal of “useless trouble.”
McNaughton, an agrarian feminist with a strong belief in the co-operative ideal, was the president of the Women Grain Growers (WGG). She worked closely with Zoa Haight, the Vice President, and other farm women in the WGG. After they were rebuffed by the government McNaughton realized that in order to get the vote the WGG needed to form an alliance with other suffragists who were willing to work hard in order to gather signatures on more petitions. This was not easy in a province where most people lived in primitive conditions on homesteads, but McNaughton and the suffragists who were working with her believed in using constitutional methods so they persisted. From February 1914, when she and other farm women brought the pro-suffrage WGG into being, she had worked tirelessly to forge a suffrage alliance. She had convinced the evangelical feminists in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and equal rights feminists who formed Political Equality Leagues in the cities to set aside their differences and to work with her and other agrarian feminists in the WGG. Together they launched the Provincial Equal Franchise Board (PEFB), which then co-ordinated a concerted drive for signatures.
Powerful conservative opponents like George Exton Lloyd, an influential Anglican clergyman who was the principal of the Church of England college at the University of Saskatchewan, opposed an equal provincial franchise for women. Because he had a life-long hatred of booze, he and his supporters wanted women to be granted a temporary franchise so they could vote for prohibition in a plebiscite and then he wanted the franchise to be taken away from them. This infuriated the suffragists in the WCTU and therefore with McNaughton’s encouragement they had thrown themselves into collecting signatures on the PEFB petitions. She later estimated that there were 21,000 signatures in total on all of the petitions the suffragists presented to the government during the campaign.
Once the suffragists had won the provincial franchise McNaughton reorganized the PEFB to fight for the dominion, municipal, and school board franchises and for other feminist goals. The first provincial election in which Saskatchewan women could vote was in 1917 when Zoa Haight was the first woman to run for a seat in the Legislature. McNaughton gave Haight her whole-hearted support. The dedication of suffragists across Canada, such as McNaughton, Haight, and Lawton, and triumphs like the one on Valentine’s Day 1916 mean that today Canadian women can stand for election and they can vote in federal, provincial, municipal, and school board elections.
Catherine L. Cleverdon, The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada (1950. Reprint. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1974).
Elizabeth Ann Kalmakoff, “Woman Suffrage in Saskatchewan.” M.A. Thesis, University of Regina, 1993.
Georgina M. Taylor, “Coming ‘Together On Common Ground For Common Good’ During The Suffrage Campaign,” chapter six in “‘Ground for Common Action’: Violet McNaughton’s Agrarian Feminism and the Origins of the Farm Women’s Movement in Canada,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Carleton University, 1997, 229-280. <http://amicus.collectionscanada.ca/s4‑bin/Main/BasicSearch?coll=18&l=0&v=1>, 21 February 2015.
—, “‘Let us co-operate’: Violet McNaughton and the Co-operative Ideal,” in Co-operatives in the Year 2000: Memory, Mutual Aid, and the Millennium, ed. Brett Fairbairn and Ian MacPherson (Saskatoon: Centre for the Study of Co-operatives, University of Saskatchewan, 2000), 57-78.
—, “Organized Farm Women in the WGG, the UFC, the SFU, and the NFU,”in The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, <http://esask.uregina.ca/entry/organized_farm_women_in_the_wgg_the_ufc_the_sfu_and_the_nfu.html>, 21 February 2015.
—, “Violet McNaughton,” in Veronica Strong-Boag, “Women Suffrage and Beyond: confronting the democratic deficit,” <http://womensuffrage.org/>, 21 February 2015.