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.




First Nation’s Enfranchisement in Canada

First Nations peoples in Canada have a complex historic, legal, and symbolic relationship to enfranchisement. The vast majority could not vote in federal elections until a 1960 change in the Indian act legally reclassified ‘Indians’ as no longer “wards of the state.” Despite this long-delayed inclusion of Aboriginal people within the democratic electoral process, enfranchisement has never been a straightforward benefit. The vote and participation in the Canadian electoral system, have sometimes proved a straightforward  attempt at  the assimilation Indigenous peoples by the Canadian State. Participation in the Canadian electoral system  may threaten distinctly Indigenous rights and practices. Thus, the 1960 enfranchisement of Indigenous peoples stands at the centre of the debate over whether it is possible to be both First Nations and to participate in the Canadian political system.

Photo via the_amanda on Flickr.

Photo via the_amanda on Flickr.

The history of gradual enfranchisement helps explain such concerns. Prior to 1960 particular Indigenous groups or individuals were enfranchised federally.  This, however, required the sacrifice of Indian status with its accompanying rights or recognition. In 1857 the “Gradual Civilization Act” forced the enfranchisement of any Indian male over the age of 21 “able to speak, read and write either English or the French language readily and well, and is sufficiently advanced in the elementary branches of education and is of good moral character and free from debt” (3rd Session, 1857). With the right to vote for male Indians came the status of a “regular British Subject,” and land and other treaty rights were revoked. Only one man was voluntarily enfranchised in this act.

In 1880 an amendment to the Indian Act offered automatic enfranchisement to  men who obtained a university degree. That evidence of ‘civilization’ was deemed sufficient to remove them from the status of a ward of the Canadian state. In 1933,  another amendment allowed the government to impose enfranchisement on any male Indian who met the qualifications. His permission was not required. Indigenous servicemen in World Wars One and Two could seek enfranchisement but only if they surrendered rights and community membership. Only 250 agreed.

Until 1960, participation in the Canadian electoral system explicitly required relinquishing Indigenous rights and community membership in exchange for electoral participation. Thus, enfranchisement on the conditions set by the colonial settler state has required the disappearance of the Indigenous other. The meaning and the necessity of that sacrifice remain at the centre of debates about the proper relations of Indigenous and Settler Canada, and the method and purpose of participation in the Canadian democratic electoral process. While First Nations people can now vote without relinquishing their membership to their Nations, the history of enfranchisement raises questions as to whether participation in the Canadian democratic process threatens distinctly Indigenous political practices. That possibility troubles all Indigenous activists and complicates their relations with other equality-seeking groups who have a different history of engagement within the Canadian Settler state.


Work Cited:

3rd Session, 5th P. of C. (1857). An Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of Indian Tribes in this Province, and to Amend the Laws Relating to Indians. Toronto: S. Derbishire & G Desbarats. Retrieved from

Diefenbaker Canada Centre. (2012). The Enfranchisement of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples. Retrieved October 10, 2012, from

Diefenbaker, J. G. (n.d.). Letter from John G. Diefenbaker to Mrs. Hurley. University of Saskatchewan. Retrieved from

Further Readings:

Indigenous Foundations at UBC. (2009). Indigenous Foundations- The Indian Act. First Nations Studies.

Milloy, J. (2008). Indian Act Colonialism: A century of Dishonour, 1869-1969. National Centre for First Nations Governance.

Lawrence, B. (2003). Gender , Race , and the Regulation Native Identity in Canada and the United States : An Overview. Hypatia, 18(2), 3–31.

Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. (1999). Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 5 volumes. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services.


Singapore Feminism: Fertility and Transnational Immigration

Post-World War II Singapore witnessed crucial nation-building decisions. Women were given the right to vote and right to stand for election on July 18th, 1947, two years after the end of the Japanese occupation. In subsequent decades, public policy targeted fertility and immigration, issues that directly affected women. Although today its international image as an Asian tiger has afforded this tiny island-nation notoriety as one of the richest countries in the world (“The World’s Richest Countries”, 2012), progress remains gendered, raced, and classed. Feminist alliances and protest have started to address resulting inequality.

Photo by Wikipedia user someformofhuman

Photo by Wikipedia user someformofhuman

Singapore’s concern with population growth prompted state policies on family planning. The vast majority targeted women. In the 1970s, in the context of the post-WWII ‘baby boom’, the ‘Stop at Two’ campaign was established with public exhortation and disincentives (Wong and Yeoh, 2003). Soon, however, falling fertility was identified as a national problem. Not all Singapore women were equally targeted for attention. In the 1980s, the highly controversial ‘Graduate Mother’s Scheme’ was implemented to get educated women, particularly those with university degrees, to marry (specifically male graduates) and have babies. Conversely, women under age 30 with low levels of formal education were given sterilization incentives of $10,000 after their first or second child and penalized the same amount plus interest for a third child (Wong and Yeoh, 2003). The distinction (essentially a marker of class) between more or less educated women mirrored the division between the more highly educated majority Chinese and the indigenous Malays and minority Indian populations with fewer formal credentials. The remnants of this policy still privilege heterosexual, upper-class, highly educated Chinese. Such essentially eugenic policies produced a backlash, contributing, though we do not know how much, to a significant protest vote in the 1984 General Election.

Nor did such ‘positive eugenics’ produce the desired result. In 2001, the ‘Baby Bonus’ scheme was introduced to encourage all female citizens, regardless of education and income, to reproduce. Such monetary incentives proved insufficient (“Key Demographic Indicators”, 2011). Increased promotion of family-friendly workplaces and a ‘Romancing Singapore’ campaign, launched in 2003 offered new strategies to encourage Singaporeans to marry and have babies. Despite such efforts, the birth rate continued to decrease, hitting an all-time low at 1.2 children per woman citizen in 2011 (“Key Annual Indicators”, 2011). Instead of reproducing, women were choosing the possibility of greater independence and autonomy that so often accompanies fewer offspring.

In the same period, immigration emerged as a related public policy concern for feminists. ‘Liberalized’ immigration created a large pool of immigrant domestics (some 30% of unskilled permanent residents and immigrants, most from the Philippines and Indonesia) (Population in Brief”, 2011). Such caregivers subsidize, as in Canada, the care-giving responsibilities of better-off families and encourage greater fertility. In confronting the entry of vulnerable women into the domestic labour market, Singapore’s feminists faced a potent issue of equality for feminist organizing.

Only recently have Singapore’s feminists championed domestic workers. Considerable media attention on abusive working conditions has prompted them, as in Canada, to connect racism, disadvantaged international domestic workers, and women’s disproportionate responsibility for caregiving. Protest is led by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) – a nationally recognized women’s organization, which since its formation in 1985 has actively rallied for gender equality in education, marriage, employment and reproductive rights. AWARE aligns itself closely with Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a non-governmental organization campaigning for the ‘Day Off campaign’ aimed at encouraging employers to voluntarily give domestic workers a day off a week (“Day Off”, 2011). TWC2 has also joined with the National Committee of UNIFEM Singapore and the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economic (HUMO) to demand government remedy. Their demands have brought occasional redress. On March 6th, 2012, a new law required all employers to give their foreign domestic workers a day off per week starting January 1, 2013 (Tan 2012). Feminists will need to monitor its impact.

Fertility and immigration in Singapore as elsewhere have always been connected to nation-building. They simultaneously raise questions about women’s rights and the relations among different groups of women. Today the feminist movement in this island-nation has begun to address such concerns and join similar protests across the region and the world.

Resources and Further Reading

About the campaign. (n.d.). DAY.OFF Campaign . Retrieved April 15, 2012, from

Greenfield, B. (2012, February 22). The World’s Richest Countries – Forbes. Information for the World’s Business Leaders – Retrieved April 15, 2012, from

Lyons, L. (2010). Examining Migrant Worker Organizing in Singapore. Solidarities Beyond Borders (pp. 89 -107). Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. Population in Brief. (2011, September 28). Population (Themes). Retrieved April 15, 2012, from

Statistics Singapore – Key Annual Indicators. (2012, March 16). Welcome to Statistics Singapore. Retrieved April 15, 2012, from

Statistics Singapore – Key Demographic Indicators 1970 -2011. (2012, March 16). Welcome to Statistics Singapore. Retrieved April 19, 2012, from

Statistics Singapore – Population in Brief. (2012, March 16). Welcome to Statistics Singapore. Retrieved April 15, 2012, from

Tan, Amanda – Weekly day off for maids a must from next year. (2012, March 6). The Straits Times. Retrieved April 18, 2012 from

Wong, T., & Yeoh, B. S. (2003). Fertility and the Family: An Overview of Pro-natalist Population Policies in Singapore. Asia MetaCentre Research Paper Series, Retrieved April 15, 2012, from

Women’s Rights – AWARE Singapore. (n.d.). Women’s Rights – AWARE Singapore. Retrieved April 15, 2012, from

DAY.OFF Campaign (n.d.). DAY.OFF Campaign . Retrieved April 15, 2012, from