A Conflicted Alliance: Canadian and American Suffragists in Times of War

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For the final stretch of the women’s suffrage movement in Canada and the United States in the early 1900s, suffragists continued a conflicted alliance with their government in times of war. The World War I era differed from previous ones when it came to the association between women’s war work and gaining the vote. Women had engaged in patriotic organizations in the 1800s, for example, advancing goals of the state in the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire and the Daughters of the American Revolution. Through organizations like these, women entered into war and governmental work in the World War I era. Some suffragists in the twentieth century, like Canadian Nellie McClung and American Alice Paul, fervently opposed the war on the grounds that because women lacked political rights, they could not endorse a war waged without their consent. Most like McClung, whose views can be seen in her In Times Like These (1915), however, ultimately supported the First World War as the ‘war to end all wars’ and a legitimate response to German militarism. Many suffragists did give up their agitation for the vote; however, donating their time as well as their coffers, to the war, joining the Women’s State Councils of Defense and other groups, and holding the Women’s War Conference in Ottawa in 1918. Their suffrage rhetoric often overlapped that of military language, and their long-held suffrage networks easily converted into war support networks. What women lost in time and resources for the suffrage movement, they achieved in governmental positions during wartime, as well as the ability to engage fellow Canadians and Americans on the national and international stage with patriotic dialogue (and implied deservedness of the vote). Pro-war women, according to Sharon McDonald, gave war a “humanitarian face,” further legitimizing war and women’s public participation in the political arena in a way that suffrage agitation alone might not. War work allowed women to access the government even though they lacked the vote. The First World War saw women’s suffragists in both places bond with the very government they once criticized. Many suffragist protesters had joined the ranks of those they formerly critiqued.

 

Further Reading

Veronica Strong-Boag and Michelle Lynn Rosa. Nellie L. McClung. Clearning in the West and The Stream Runs Fast, edited, annotated, and introduced (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2003) .

Eileen McDonagh and Douglas Price. “Woman Suffrage in the Progressive Era: Patterns of Opposition and Support in Referenda Voting, 1910-1918.” The American Political Science Review. 79(2): 415-435.

Maroula Joannou and Jane Purvis (1998) “The Women’s Suffrage Movement: New Feminist Perspectives.” Manchester University Press.

Risk, Shannon

Risk, Shannon

This article was written by: Risk, Shannon