One hundred years ago this week, most women on PEI regained the right to vote in provincial elections.
While the story of women winning the fight for the franchise in the first decades of the 20th century is a familiar one, what is less known is that they were fighting to regain that right.
“In 1836 women actually lost the right to vote on PEI,” Samantha Kelly, the curator of history with the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation, told main street host Matt Rainnie in a series of interviews marking the anniversary.
“That 1836 decision stems from an act in Great Britain called the Great Reform Act. That was actually in 1832, and what that act did was it increased voting rights for a lot of people, gave more representation to areas that previously hadn’t had any, growing populations from the industrialization of many cities in Great Britain.”
But the Great Reform Act also defined voters as evils. The colonies in North America began to follow suit.
Given the other restrictions on voting in the early 19th century — such as land ownership and, for women, being unmarried — it is unclear if any Island women were voting before 1836, said Kelly. But PEI was the first of the British colonies in North America to formally disenfranchise women, followed by New Brunswick in 1843 and the province of Canada in 1849.
‘They’re under-rated a little’
The fight to regain voting rights began almost immediately, but it would be toward the end of the 19th century before the movement began to gain a more visible momentum.
“It’s different than the rest of Canada,” said Kelly.
“What we see on the Island is a very quiet and subtle and strategic approach, and it really goes to show that the women that led this movement understood Island politics, Island culture, and they understood the best way to get things done.”
Contrary to what was happening in other parts of the continent, and across the sea in Great Britain, there were no marches or protests, no posters or women wearing banners, and certainly no violence
“The women who undertook this, they’re under-rated a little, because there isn’t the flashiness of protests and signs and slogans,” said Kelly.
“Sometimes there’s the belief that there wasn’t really a suffrage movement here.”
An early public sign that there was a movement came in 1894, with a petition from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which was backed by MLA John Bell, who was destined to be a key figure in women’s suffrage on the Island.
There was another petition in 1895, but neither was acted on in the legislature. The issue would lie mostly dormant until the upheaval of the First World War.
‘A shift of women moving outside the home’
The war transformed society in many ways, one of them being the role of women.
With many men fighting overseas, women on the home front began to take on roles more traditionally filled by men.
“There was definitely a shift of women moving outside the home to work and contributing in a very different way,” said Kelly.
This more prominent role in society bolstered the argument for votes for women. Manitoba was first to reenfranchise women provincially, in 1916. Saskatchewan and Alberta followed that same year, and two women were elected to Alberta’s legislature the next year.
In 1918 women were granted the right to vote federally.
Women’s Liberal Club
On PEI a new group had emerged to lobby for the vote.
The Women’s Liberal Club was founded in 1916 by Margaret Stewart and Elsie Inman, who would go on to become a senator. In 1918 the club presented a petition to the legislature that received unanimous support.
Despite that support, the 1919 provincial election went ahead without the participation of women.
The 1919 election also made John Bell premier. While his backing of him for the cause went back decades, Bell was in no hurry to push through votes for women. In 1922, following three more petitions, this time from the Women’s Liberal Club, IODE Abegweit Chapter, and the Women’s Institute, women were enfranchised again.
Indigenous women, however, were left out. They would have to wait until 1963, three years after they were granted the right federally.
With Quebec the only other province holding out, there was little resistance. Newfoundland and Labrador, then still a British colony, restored the vote in 1925. Quebec women would wait until 1940.
While PEI women have had the vote for 100 years, and the province can claim a significant milestone no other has achieved, representation in government is still far from equal.
In 1993 on PEI women were sworn into office as lieutenant-governor, premier, speaker, deputy speaker and leader of the Official Opposition. In holding these positions simultaneously Marion Reid, Catherine Callbeck, Nancy Guptill, Libbe Hubley and Pat Mella did something that had not been seen before, and has not been repeated.
The significance of having five women in those positions of power was not immediately recognized, said Kelly.
“The only picture we have of the five of them together was a regular day. It was the opening day of the spring session,” she said.
“The provincial photographer was there, They sat down in their roles in these positions, had their photograph taken, and got on with their day.”
But, said Kelly, Callbeck remains the only woman ever to be premier. The Island’s two cities have only ever seen one major each: Dorothy Corrigan in Charlottetown (1968-72) and Frances Perry in Summerside (1979-81). Perry died in office.
Currently seven of 27 MLAs are women, and all four of PEI’s MPs are men.
Marking the event
While the women who fought for the vote on PEI left behind few artifacts, the PEI Museum felt the occasion of the 100th anniversary was worthy of something physical to remember it with.
Buttons were commonly worn in the UK and the US by women fighting for the vote, so the museum designed one for PEI It takes colors commonly used by those international movements: violet, signifying loyalty and dignity, and white for purity. A rusty red was added to represent PEI’s soil.
Beginning this summer and for the remainder of the year, the PEI Museum will host a traveling exhibition in honor of the anniversary. It will detail the women and events that led to most Island women winning the vote in 1922, as well as stories of women who have changed Island politics and the province in the 100 years since then.
Saturday, at Beaconsfield Carriage House in Charlottetown, some of the photos from this exhibition will be on display. Starting at 1:30 pm, there will be a panel discussion on the significance of the occasion, the progress made to advance the socio-economic status of women over the last century and the work that remains, featuring Cheryl Simon, Sara Roach Lewis, Sobia Ali Faisal and Ann Sherman.