Married Women, Race, Ethnicity, and Suffrage: A History of Exclusion


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.




Revisiting the Rise of Women in Canadian Politics




Between November 2008 when Eva Aariak, the only woman elected to Nunavut’s 19-member legislature was sworn in as premier and January 2013 when Kathleen Wynne became premier of Ontario after taking over as Liberal leader, six women in five provinces and one territory rose to the top.  Four – BC’s Christy Clark, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Kathy Dunderdale, Alberta’s Alison Redford, and Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne, like the Canadian women leaders before them (Rita Johnston in BC and Kim Campbell federally), became premier /prime minister by winning the leadership of their party and not by seeking an electoral mandate.  Unlike Johnston or Campbell, all but Wynne have won subsequent elections – defying the polls and all expectation in the case of Alberta and BC.  The “rise of women in Canadian politics is unmistakable and unstoppable” remarked The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson (11 September 2012); Kelly McParland of the National Post asked “what happened to discrimination?” (28 January 2013).

A year after Wynne became the country’s sixth sitting female premier, it is time to re-evaluate the seeming triumph of women in politics.   The claim that political equality has arrived seems, at best, premature.  In addition to obvious under-representation in other political offices (only 25% of Members of Parliament and only 16% of mayors are women, for example), women’s success in the role of premier has not been sustained.  In October 2013, Eva Aariak lost her seat in the Nunavut legislature. After that election less than 14% of the territory’s representatives were women and none was the leader.

On 24 January 2014 Kathy Dunderdale, Newfoundland and Labrador’s tenth (and first woman) premier resigned.  She had faced low opinion polls and challenges from within her own Progressive Conservative party.  Criticisms both from within her own ranks and from her political opponents frequently seemed based on expectations arising from her gender – she was accused of lacking empathy, her communication style was deemed too abrupt, and she was seen as too aggressive.

Less than three months later much the same story played out in Alberta. On 19 March 2014 Progressive Conservative premier Alison Redford resigned her post.  Redford had been facing growing challenges from her caucus, including the resignation of one veteran MLA and one member of the front bench. Legitimate concerns abound with Redford herself condemned for excessive spending on personal entitlements. As was the case with Dunderdale, however, some attacks on Redford were undeniably gendered.  One opponent, denied a cabinet position by the premier, argued that “she is not a nice lady” who frequently had  “temper tantrums”.

It is far from clear, however, that being “nice” strengthens political leadership, particularly in the conflictual parliamentary and party system used in Canadian provinces.   In contrast, the female frontbencher who resigned denounced gendered criticisms of the Alberta premier. When asked whether Redford’s supposed ‘bully’ style played a role in her decision to sit as an independent, she replied that she would not engage in the sexist discussion. For her, the problem lay within a party that had been unable to evolve.

In a coincidence of events, media stories containing allegations of Redford’s bullying have appeared alongside a social media campaign to “ban bossy”.  Launched by Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and her ‘Lean In’ organization, Ban Bossy argues that the term discourages girls from speaking up and taking charge.  In fact, attacks on both Redford and Dunderdale indicate that women leaders still face demands that they be “nice” or “empathetic” rather than assertive or indeed bossy.  More concerning, both cases demonstrate the power of such attacks in removing women from positions of power.

In March 2014, female premiers remained to lead the country’s three largest provinces (Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta).   In Quebec Pauline Marois, is in the middle of an election and slightly behind in the polls. In Ontario, Kathleen Wynne continues to govern uncertainly with a minority and a late spring or summer election looks likely.   In British Columbia, Christy Clark, while securing her government a four year mandate in an unexpected 2013 election victory, has faced marked sexism – from comments on her cleavage to media questions on what it’s like to be a MILF.

Should Marois lose the Quebec election on 7 April, female premiers will drop to two.  If she fails to produce a majority, her tenure as PQ leader will be uncertain.  Although an election date is not yet set, the same is true for Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne.  In other words, just over a year after Wynne’s victory made it six, the number of female premiers could be cut to two and may, by the end of summer, even drop to one.

The likelihood of a new female premier in most provinces is small.  In Newfoundland and Labrador, three men and no women have entered the race to replace Dunderdale.  It’s too early to speculate on potential leaders for the Alberta Progress Conservatives, but Dave Hancock has been chosen as the interim premier.  Danielle Smith heads Alberta’s official opposition.  Only if her Wild Rose Party can do in 2016 what none other has done in more than 40 years and replace the Conservatives, the province may see a second female premier.  In Quebec, both the Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Québec are led by men and although Françoise David holds the top spot in Quebec Solidaire, it only has two seats and polls suggest little growth, although she was received well in the 20 March leaders’ debate. Ontario’s third party is led by NDP Andrea Horwath but the Liberals’ more obvious main competition, the Progressive Conservatives, are captained by Tim Hudak. In British Columbia, the opposition NDP is in the midst of a leadership race but no women have expressed interest, hardly surprising after Carole James was driven from the office in 2011. Although she insists that it was not the only reason, James has recognized sexism as contributing to her fall.

Those who applauded gender equality in Canadian politics in 2013 responded to an unprecedented group of female leaders.  Their success does not, however, represent “the end of discrimination” nor the “unstoppable rise of women”. It is time to re-assess just where women (and indeed other disadvantaged groups) are and what remains to be done to achieve full democracy.  If we are too quick to declare equality, the sexism undermining women in leadership positions and the persistent inequality in a range of political offices will remain both unrecognized and unchallenged.

Is there a rape culture in politics?


‘Rape culture’ is the social practices, public and private discourses, and beliefs that enable us as individuals and a community to ignore sexualized violence against women and fail to attribute appropriate blame and punishment to perpetrators.   Rape culture at its most innocuous passively enables sexualized violence and at its worst reproduces, condones, or encourages it.  It is victim-blaming and ‘slut’-shaming; it is collective skepticism and minimization of accounts of rape and the objectification of women’s bodies. It is more than gendered power structures; rape culture exploits other forms of social power – including race, class, sexuality, and ability (Buchwald, Fletcher, and Roth). The implications are far-reaching. Communities with high rates of sexualized violence tend also to be defined by male domination and male control over resources (Boswell and Spade).

Rape culture operates and persists at a range of social sites, including pop culture and advertising, law enforcement, the judicial system, and education.  But does rape culture play a role in politics? Does it shape political competition, discourse, or debate?  It does.  Rape culture is both pervasive and dangerously absent in politics.   How can something be both present and absent?    Rape culture informs discourses around women politicians and discussions of sexualized violence, while also contributing to a notable silence and lack of reflection about the ways that society enables such oppression.

Examples of rape culture in politics are commonplace.  In 1982, when she rose in the House of Commons to speak about domestic violence, BC NDP Member of Parliament Margaret Mitchell was greeted by jeers, taunts, and laughs from her male colleagues.  In 1984 Liberal Leader John Turner described himself as a “tactile politician” when confronted by public criticism of his touching Party President Iona Campagnolo’s rear during the federal election campaign (she, incidentally, responded by returning the favour).  In 2011, British Columbia Premier Christy Clarke’s cleavage sparked media discussion when former New Democrat MLA, now political pundit, David Schreck questioned whether her attire was appropriate.   Unsure whether these incidences constitute examples of rape culture in our politics?  Try to imagine a woman initiating a familiar pat on the posterior of a male colleague or a tweet mentioning the tightness of a male MP ‘s pants.  Ask whether such real life incidents reproduce or at the least leave unchallenged the violence or threat of it, with assumptions of male entitlement that define rape culture.   They do.

The objectification of and focus on women’s bodies (portrayed as flawed, unacceptable, and available) remains a staple in politics.  Diamond Isinger’s startling Tumbler site “Madame Premier” has highlighted the misogynous comments on sexuality and appearance directed at Canada’s record number of female premiers.  Many are violent and most are obscene, crude, and vulgar.  Offenders extend well beyond social media.  During the 2013 GOP convention in the USA, where, ironically, reaching out to a key constituency of women voters was supposedly on the Republican agenda, one vendor sold campaign buttons that attacked and deconstructed Hillary Clinton’s body.  The “KFC Hillary Special” reduced her to “two fat thighs, two small breasts, left wing”.  While partisans can be expected to target threatening potential opponents, the attack focused on Clinton’s gender and simmered with implied violence.  And as one student writer put it – no one compared previous Democratic contender, John Kerry, to fries and gravy (Zurevinski).

Recent Australian politics is no better. In 2013, a candidate for the Liberal Party hosted a fundraiser dinner with a menu item titled “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail: Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & a Big Red Box.” Prime Minister Gillard’s body was deconstructed while her Labour rival Kevin Rudd attracted attention solely for his political failings.  The menu contained “Rudd’s a goose fois gras”, subtitled “we were going to serve the Swan fois gras this evening, thought it lost when we put it to a vote”.  Although outstanding for its particular level of vulgarity, the fundraiser was not the only time Gillard was reduced to body parts during her time in office:  one broadcaster had earlier characterized her as a “lying cow” and a “horrible mouth on legs”.  Then Liberal opposition leader and now Prime Minister Tony Abbott positioned himself to speak before anti-carbon tax signs reading “Ditch the Witch” and “Julia: Bob Brown’s Bitch,” the latter reducing Gillard to the sexual toy of a powerful man. Elsewhere the CEO of an Australian agriculture company advertised his commercial equipment as “designed for non-productive old cows … Julia Gillard’s got to watch out.” Implied violence was ubiquitous.

Even when women’s political choices provoke debate, rape culture is evident: political actions are often allegorized as sexual and slut-shaming is used to demean political decisions. When Toronto Conservative MP Belinda Stronach crossed the floor to the Liberal Party in 2005, much commentary focused on her relationship with Conservative Peter Mackay: one headline reported “Stronach leaves boyfriend as well as Tories”.  She was called a “blond bombshell” and “an attractive dipstick” out and about breaking hearts. In essence, Stronach was a slut for changing political allegiances:  “I said that she whored herself out for power, that’s what she did,” confirmed Tony Abbott, a Christian fundamentalist minister and Alberta MLA. In dismissing Stronach, a Saskatchewan Tory MP told the Regina Leader-Post that “some people prostitute themselves for different costs or different prices.” Given the important cues political parties provide voters, floor crossings always invoke condemnation but Stronach’s targeting was a visceral attack on her as a woman, without semblance of reasoned political debate.  In 2013, in a similar demonstration of misogyny, one radio host unrepentantly labeled Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath a ‘whore’ for dealing with the minority Liberal government. When someone objected to the term, the host replied “What do you mean? She was bought”.  Her political tactics were assumed equivalent to sexual actions: made in exchange for political goods they made her a prostitute.   Horwath herself has fallen into the same trap, further confirming the normality of sexist political discourse. When asked why her party did not release their full platform all at once during the 2011 Ontario provincial election, she replied “Look, I’m a woman…I know you don’t give it all up at once.”RapeCulture_SlideRapeCulture_SlideIs there a rape culture in politics?

It is hard to imagine comparable treatment of male behavior.  Did anyone reduce BC’s David Emerson’s switch from the Liberals to the Conservatives a mere two weeks after the 2006 election to sexual indiscretion?  Was strategic maneuvering by Conservative Stephen Harper, NDP Jack Layton, or Liberals Paul Martin, Stephane Dion, and Michael Ignatieff during the seven years of minority governments (2004-2011) construed as sexual philandering? Their changing allegiances, tactical talking points, and behind the scenes deal-making were portrayed as tough party politics and plays for power not prostitution.

The rape culture of politics does not restrict itself to gender. As University of Toronto political science professor Erin Tolley argues, race (and for that matter sexual orientation and class) always interact.  Minority women encounter not only preoccupation with their appearance and sexuality but an exoticization of their person and, often, politics (Tolley, 2013).  After the 2011 election, New Democratic MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan (Scarborough—Rouge River) attracted international coverage not so much for her politics but for her Parliamentary headshot.  “Too Hot For Politics?” asked London, UK’s Daily Mail after the cleavage of the 29-year-olds was photo-shopped out of her official picture. In 2009, former Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla (who was defeated in the 2011 election) was judged to have “undeniable Bollywood-actress good looks”.  One article began its “Ten things you should know about Ruby Dhalla” with the phrase, “young, single and fond of stiletto heels and figure-hugging pencil skirts” (Taber, 2009). Revealingly, the current (2014) online version of the article features Dhalla only from the neck down, a shot reminiscent of advertising which uses women’s bodies merely as objectified props. Minority sexual orientation offers similar opportunities to express rape culture. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynn, Canada’s first openly gay premier (of either gender), has been subject to criticism of her appearance and sexuality simultaneously – one tweeter commented that she “doesn’t want an election. She doesn’t want an erection either” (Madame Premier).  Political decisions by women are construed as wanting ‘it’ too much or not enough. In either case, their political autonomy is undermined and their use of political power policed.

The language of rape culture also shadows parliaments. A recent report surveyed MPs on the heckling they encountered and the impact it has on their participation in debate (2011).  Gender was a significant basis for the jeers. Liberal front-bencher (1984-2004) Shelia Copps reported the recurring use of the slut epithet, while an anonymous NDP MP said a Conservative backbencher used the c-word to heckle her.  In the United Kingdom, when the Labour Party elected a record number of women in 1997, they were familiarly termed  “Blair’s Babes” and occasionally worse, with some Conservative MPs “put[ting] their hands in front of them as if they were weighing melons” (as reported in Childs, 2003).

The effect of rape culture is also evident in how rape is talked about and when it is not.  During the 2012 American election campaign, Tea Party candidate Todd Akin infamously (and wildly inaccurately) stated that abortion wasn’t an issue in cases of rape because “From what I understand from doctors… if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”  His statement echoed dangerous myths – that if women do get pregnant it wasn’t sexual assault and, perhaps more generally and troubling, that some and maybe even most rapes may somehow not be ‘legitimate’  – women were asking for it, enjoyed it, or had consented whether by dress, drink, or previous consent. A few months later, Indiana GOP U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock said that when rape resulted in conception (suggesting at least it can happen), God intended it to happen.  Not only men but god(s) it seemed conspire to violate women.

Just as significant as its repeated implicit and explicit invocation, rape culture remains dangerously absent when it comes to policy and protection.  Elected representatives ignore that rape myths are indeed myths and that slut-shaming, victim-doubting, and objectification of women form part of a society-wide culture that perpetuates and condones violence against women. The two tragic cases of young Canadians Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons who took their own lives garnered much public and political attention.  Largely unmentioned, however, was that both women experienced sexualized violence and were targeted on this basis. Conservative Justice Minister Peter Mackay, for example, announced the changes to the Criminal Code from a podium with the generic slogan “stop hating online”.   While bullying is a topic worth tackling a loud silence remains about sexualized violence and exploitation of women.

The extent and the specifics of the pervasive culture of violence were also typically sidestepped by BC’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry.  The Commission focused narrowly on a specific and limited time period, location, and perpetrator, despite evidence that 600 Aboriginal women and girls have been missing or murdered across Canada over the last three decades (Native Women’s Association of Canada). Important voices were stifled when the Commission failed to fund the participation of women’s, First Nations, and other social justice organizations.  The Federal Government in turn has routinely rejected calls for a national inquiry. Politicians thus refuse to recognize the broader systematic rape culture behind the day-to-day violence.

The prejudices of politics and politicians deserve serious attention.  Commonplace acceptance and expression of rape culture lends credibility to rape myths, perpetuates silences on sexual violence, and legitimizes women’s objectification. When breasts rather than policy priorities are the target of discussion, more women can hardly be expected to run for office.   BC’s Premier Christy Clark understood this in responding to comments on her cleavage: “we all want our daughters to be willing to step up and be leaders someday … I don’t think we can groom a lot of young female leaders if this is the level of comment we have.”  The deterrent is all the greater for visible minorities or Canadians who identify as LGBTQ.   The result– the perpetuation of Canadian men who are most often white and straight in positions of power– is not just an effect of rape culture – it is a key part of rape culture.   Only by naming its presence in politics can we hope to challenge the pervasive narratives and practices of violence that restrict the diversity, equality and vitality of political life and impede Canadians’ ability to construct a healthy democracy for all.


This appeared, in part, as part of a presentation for the event “Is There a Rape Culture In Politics?”, co-hosted by the Canadian Women Voters Congress and the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, January 29th, 2014 at the University of British Columbia.


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