Geneva Misener and W.H. Alexander: University of Alberta Classics Professors and Women’s Suffrage Activists, 1914 – 16

Share

 

Misener, Geneva U of Alberta ArchivesOn a cold February evening in 1914 Edmonton at a “rousing” meeting of the Equal Franchise League (EFL), University of Alberta Classics professor Geneva Misener “knocked down like nine pins one of the greatest arguments advanced against equal rights.”[1] Also present that evening as chair and first president of the EFL was another Classics professor, William Hardy Alexander. At that meeting there were many “fine arguments and eloquent pleas made to give the vote to women.”[2] It was reported that even though “Jack Frost and his cohorts seemed to conspire against it, they could not cool the ardor of those who have the subject of Equal Franchise at heart.” While researching a book on the history of the women suffrage movement in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba I was pleased to learn that one hundred years ago members of my own department at the University of Alberta took an active role in the EFL and the cause of women’s suffrage. Their contribution and that of many others in Edmonton resulted in the April 19, 1916 passage of the Equal Suffrage Bill in the Province of Alberta.

Geneva Misener (1878 – 1961) joined the Classics Department as assistant professor in 1913 and she was the first woman member of the academic staff at the University of Alberta. From Welland Court, Ontario, she obtained her BA and MA from Queen’s and a Ph.D from the University of Chicago.[3] At the “rousing” February 5, 1914 meeting, the argument that she “knocked down like nine pins” was that granting votes to women would result in “the increase of illiterate votes.”[4] She argued that in Ontario statistics showed that illiteracy was more common among men than women. Addressing fear of the “foreign vote,” she said that there were more men than women immigrants to Alberta, that the education of these lay in the hands of Alberta teachers, most of whom were women and that “if women mould citizens, why should not the privilege of citizenship be theirs?” Misener’s was a spirited reply to the efforts of a faction of Alberta activists who in 1913 recommended that before women campaigned for their own suffrage they should “first curtail universal male enfranchisement to eliminate the enormous ‘ignorant vote,’” limiting the male franchise to those who could read or write.[5] By early 1914 however, this restricted franchise proposal had lost ground to an emerging province-wide strategy of equal franchise with men. This strategy was reflected in the petitions that were circulated at the February meeting of the EFL in Edmonton.

Alexander, Prof. W.H. EB 29 June, 1914 p. 5W.H. Alexander (1878 – 1962), chair and first president of the Edmonton EFL, was head of the Classics Department. He was one of the original four professors at the University of Alberta hired in 1908 by President Henry Marshall Tory. He attended the University of Toronto and completed his Ph.D. in Classics at the University of California, Berkeley in 1906.[6] Alexander often spoke at public gatherings in Edmonton in support of votes for women. In November 1913 he delivered an address on “Why Women Should Vote.” His views reflected ideas about the distinct innate abilities of women and men. He stated that “man had the superior executive ability, as a rule, and women the keener intuitive perception or gift of second sense,” and he believed “the two elements would make an ideal combination in the government of the country.”[7]

Alexander was also active in the “People’s Forums” in Edmonton. These gatherings for lectures, discussion, and debates were first organized by Methodist minister J.S. Woodsworth in Winnipeg’s North End. They were intended to “help in bridging the gap between the Canadian and the foreign-born.”[8] Working men and women met to hear lectures on politics, unionism, history, literature, art, and current events. The “forum movement” grew and branch organizations sprang up in other Canadian cities. At a meeting of the People’s Forum in Edmonton on February 2 1914 the topic was “Equal Suffrage,” with a lecture by Jennie Avery Smith. Alexander took part in the discussion that followed, stating that “democracy is [a] necessity of the age, and that it cannot be secured by the disenfranchisement of one-half of the intelligent people.”[9] In Edmonton the People’s Forum was organized by the Unitarian Church and Alexander was a member of that congregation.

Alexander was instrumental in the 1914 province-wide campaign that focused on a petition to the Alberta legislature. When the petition with 44,000 supporters was presented to the legislature on October 10, the reply of Premier Arthur Sifton was tepid.[10] He stated that there was not enough support from rural Albertans. To drum up the needed support, Alexander spoke at a January 1915 meeting of the Women’s Parliament of the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) annual convention in Edmonton when the Women’s Auxiliary of the UFA was formed. He “gave a brief history of the progress of the Woman Suffrage movement during the past year.”[11] He said that “the expression of opinion from the farming women was very small indeed,” and he “urged the women from the farms to form some organization whereby an expression of opinion from the country people could be placed before the Premier.”

In February 1915, Alexander was a member of the “largest delegation of men and women that ever waited on [the] provincial government. They occupied the politicians’ seats, refusing to move until they were heard.[12] Alexander spoke, along with Nellie McClung (who moved to Alberta from Manitoba in the fall of 1914) and others. He looked at the matter from an “academic point of view,” saying “women were born citizens and he could never understand why they should not have the privilege of citizenship conferred upon them. This was an era of democracy, and one sex should not be privileged as against another.”[13] Although reluctant, in September 1915, Sifton committed his government to the introduction of an equal suffrage measure in the next session, and the Equal Suffrage Statutory Law Amendment was enacted in 1916.

Alexander’s contribution did not end there; he was once again president of the EFL in September, 1916. While researching in Nellie McClung’s papers at the Province of British Columbia Archives, I found a letter from Alexander dated 30 September, 1916.[14] McClung was speaking at many rallies and conventions in the United States, as representative of the Edmonton EFL:

To Whom it May Concern:

This is to certify that Mrs. Nellie McClung of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada is the duly  accredited representative of the Edmonton Equal Franchise League, and she is hereby commended to all leagues, societies and organizations having for their object the political emancipation of women, as we have already achieved it in Canada from the Great Lakes to the Pacific.

                                                                   William Hardy Alexander, President, 1916

Alexander was not quite correct that the “political emancipation of women” had been achieved from the Great Lakes to the Pacific. There were women (and men), such as First Nations, disqualified under the Indian Act, not included in the “equal suffrage” legislation. Despite the visibility of Indigenous peoples on the Canadian prairies, no attention was paid to this issue by any member of the EFL as far as I can tell.

Geneva Misener had a distinguished career at the University of Alberta, retiring in 1946. She continued to be devoted to feminist causes. In 1915, at a meeting with the all-women student members of the University of Alberta’s Wauneita Society, Misener “outlined a course of study on the status of women, which subject the Wauneitas have decided to take up,” with classes to be held every other Monday. [15] She was the first advisor to women’s students and was the first live-in “warden” at Pembina Hall, the women’s residence. Misener promoted higher education and academic positions for women, but warned that a woman “must be far superior to the men with whom she competes to be appointed to such posts.” She was a strong critic of the idea that women had to choose between marriage and a career, believing that “marriage and a profession may go hand in hand for a woman as for a man.”[16] Misener did not marry, but she adopted and was a single parent to two young nieces. Misener was an advocate of “an adequate salary schedule” and of the principle of equal pay for equal work. She was also active in peace organizations, and in the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) both in Edmonton and after her retirement, in Vancouver. Misener died in Edmonton in 1961.[17] She is remembered through scholarships in Classics and Modern Languages at U of A.

Alexander remained active in many progressive causes in Edmonton and beyond. He was ordained in the Unitarian Church in 1920. He was married to Marion Kirby Alexander, from California and they had a son Lawrence. She was vice-president of the Women’s Alliance of the First Unitarian Church, one of the many groups in Edmonton that supported women’s suffrage. [18] Alexander wrote a column for the Alberta Labour News in the 1930s and was also a supporter of the CCF, attending the 1932 founding meeting in Calgary. He returned to Berkeley in 1938, and retired from teaching in 1948. But he returned to Edmonton where he died at the age of 84.[19] There is a W.H. Alexander Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at the University of Alberta, and a W.H. Alexander Library in the Department of History and Classics. Yet I don’t think most of our students, and even many of the faculty today, know much about Alexander and his colleague Geneva Misener who contributed so much to the cause of women’s suffrage in Alberta.

 

Photo Credits: 

1. Photo of Geneva Misener (1878 – 1961) , University of Alberta Archives, Misener, Geneva biographical file
2. William Hardy Alexander (1878 – 1962), Edmonton Bulletin 29 June, 1914

 

Endnotes:

[1] “Equal Franchise League Complete Organization,” The Edmonton Bulletin 6 Feb., 1914: 3.

[2] “Equal Franchise Supporters Hold Rousing Meeting,” The Edmonton Capital 6 Feb., 1914: 6.

[3] See http://www.ualbertacentennial.ca/cgi-bin/people/displaybio.php?bio_id=727

[4] Bulletin, 6 Feb., 1914: 3.

[5] Marjorie Norris, A Leaven of Ladies: A History of the Calgary Local Council of Women (Calgary: Detselig Enterprises Ltd., 1995: 87.

[6] See http://www.ualbertacentennial.ca/cgi-bin/people/displaybio.php?bio_id=574

[7]“Do Women Now Exercise Right They Have to Vote In Municipal Affairs?” The Edmonton Bulletin 3 Nov., 1913: 10.

[8] Olive Ziegler, Woodsworth: Social Pioneer: An Authorized Sketch (Toronto: Ontario Publishing Co. 1934): 47.

[9] “Says Women Should Vote to Regulate the Liquor Traffic,” The Edmonton Capital 2 Feb., 1914: 5.

[10] David Hall, “Arthur L. Sifton,” in Bradford J. Rennie, ed., Alberta Premiers of the Twentieth Century, (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 2004): 35.

[11] “Alberta Women’s Parliament,” The Grain Growers’ Guide 27 Jan., 1915: 14.

[12] Hall, 35.

[13] “Women’s Suffrage Before Legislature Next Year,” The Edmonton Bulletin 27 Feb., 1915: 1.

[14] British Columbia Archives, Nellie McClung Fonds, Box 11, File 21, William Hardy Alexander
To Whom if May Concern,” 30 Sept., 1916.

[15] “Ladies” The Gateway 23 Nov., 1915: 3.

[16] Katie Pickles, “Colonial Counterparts: The First Academic Women in Anglo-Canada, New Zealand and Australia,” Women’s History Review vol. 10, no. 2 (2001): 289; and Mary Kinnear, Margaret McWilliams: An Interwar Feminist (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press,1991): 76-7.

[17] There is a plaque installed at Geneva Misener’s former home in Edmonton on 90th Ave. unveiled in 2013, through the work of the Canadian Federation of University Women. (Although at a recent visit the plaque is not visible – perhaps hidden by snow.)

[18] Canadian Women’s Press Club, Edmonton Branch (Edmonton: Canadian Women’s Press Club,1916): 84.

[19] Tom Monto, Old Strathcona: Edmonton’s South Side Roots (Edmonton: Crang Publishing, 2011): 265. The W.H. Alexander House at 7425 Saskatchewan Drive is a Designated Municipal Historic Resources Site.

Carter, Sarah

Carter, Sarah

Sarah Carter is a professor and Henry Marshall Tory Chair at the Department of History and Classics and Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta.