Until the end of the 19th century, women in Quebec enjoyed more possible rights than their counterparts in Canada’s other provinces and territories. In those jurisdictions ruled by Common Law, a wife had no legal existence separate from her husband since, at marriage, a man obtained absolute control of the woman’s person and assets. In Quebec, however, the Civil Code initially permitted women political and legal status (however limited).
Although they were not explicitly granted provincial suffrage until 1940, propertied women in pre-Confederation Quebec, like a few elsewhere in Canada, sometimes voted. This was possible through the Constitutional Act of 1791, which granted certain owners and tenants qualified voter status without distinction to sex. Some women interpreted this act—which was later clarified as a “constitutional oversight” rather than an act of feminism—as an authorization to vote. Female property holders in Quebec consistently voted in elections from 1809 until at least 1834. In 1849 the “historical irregularity” was rectified and the word “male” was inserted into Quebec’s franchise Act to formally prohibit women from voting.
Historian John Makoff has argued that the Quebec shutdown was likely a cross-border reaction to the founding moment of the US women’s rights movement at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. This event may also have spurred the eastern Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to alter the gender-neutral language of their electoral laws to explicitly disqualify women in 1848 and 1851, respectively (Makoff 2003: 89). When even small numbers of women attempted to give silence a more favorable spin, lawmakers responded with formal exclusion.
Joining suffragists across Canada, the suffrage movement became active in Quebec in the early 20th century. Francophone and Anglophone women allied in the National Council of Women (founded 1893) and the former in the Fédération nationale St.-Jean-Baptiste (FNSJB; founded 1907) supplied the first activists. The FNSJB was, however, severely limited by the opposition of the Catholic Church.
Canada enfranchised most women at the national level in 1918, two years ahead of the industrial giant to its south. Suffrage campaigns then focused on local capitals. Quebec was the last of the provinces and territories to legislate the female franchise. This occurred at the beginning of World War Two (1939-1945) under a new Liberal government anxious to establish more progressive credentials. Between 1918 and 1940, Quebec suffrage campaigns were led by activists such as Thérèse Casgrain (1896-1981), Idola St. Jean (1880-1945), and Carrie Derick (1862-1941).
Markoff, J. (2003). “Margins, Centers, and Democracy: The Paradigmatic History of Women’s Suffrage.” Signs Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 29 (1), 85-116.
Black, N. and Brandt, G.C. (1999). Feminist Politics on the Farm: rural Catholic Women in Southern Quebec, and Southwestern France. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Casgrain, T. F. (1972). A Woman in a Man’s World. J. Marshall, translator. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart. (Also published in French under the title: Une Femme chez les hommes.)
Casgrain, T. (1993). Une femme tenace et engagée. Sainte-Foy: Presses de l’Université du Québec.
Cleverdon, C. L. (1950). The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Collectif Clio. (1982). L’histoire des femmes du Québec. Quinze, Montréal.
Lamoureux, D. (1989). “Citoyennes? Femmes, droit de vote et démocratie.” Montréal: Les Éditions remue-ménage.
Laplante, L. (1990). “Les femmes et le droit de vote: L’épiscopat rend les armes.” Cap-aux-Diamants, 21, printemps, pp. 23-25.
Trifiro, L. (1978). “Une intervention à Rome dans la lutte pour le suffrage feminine.” Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française, 32 (1), pp. 9-18.