Women Win the VoteIn January 1914 Winnipeg writer and political activist Nellie McClung led a five-person delegation to meet with Manitoba premier Rodmond Roblin. On behalf of the Manitoba Political Equality League, McClung was calling on the premier to grant the right to vote to the province's women. The meeting turned into a verbal tussle: while Roblin claimed that the right to vote would breakup families and leave the raising of children to servants, McClung suggested that Roblin represented a corrupt political order that time was passing by. When the meeting ended, McClung told Roblin that she and her supporters would get him.
At the time Roblin was at the height of his political power. He had been premier for over a decade and could see no clouds on his political horizon. The staunchly Conservative Winnipeg Tribune suggested that Roblin could afford to treat McClung as little more than a nuisance. Later that winter, when the Liberals proposed in the legislature that women be granted the vote, Roblin's Conservatives easily defeated the motion. Roblin went on to beat the Liberals in that year's closely fought provincial election.
Just two years later, in January 1916, the Manitoba legislature gave unanimous approval to a bill that made Manitoba the first province in Canada to give women the right to vote. Roblin had been driven from government in disgrace, forced to resign in the face of allegations of kickbacks and corruption surrounding the construction of the Manitoba legislative building. The new Liberal premier, Tobias Norris, had been elected on an ambitious platform of political reform. He was committed not only to granting women the vote, but to banning alcohol, making education compulsory, establishing workers' compensation, allowing citizens to have more control over politicians through the use of referendums, and reforming the education system. This was a victory for a vital if at times intolerant political and social reform movement that thought that government action could create good citizens. The reformers believed that, as long as people could maintain control over politicians, government could purify society, restrict negative impulses such as drinking and gambling, and even encourage the development of a better society.
While a number of the reforms brought in by the Norris government, such as prohibition and binding referendums, were relatively short-lived, others were permanent, reflecting a new role for government in society. The women's suffrage campaign played a central role in the reform movement that ushered in these changes. Its leaders were often active in other campaigns, calling for prohibition, an end to political corruption, laws that would provide factory workers with safe and clean working conditions, and improved services for rural communities. Writers such as McClung and Lillian Thomas developed national reputations as social reformers. The suffrage movement, which had been founded and led by women from the outset, could trace it roots back to the 1890s in Manitoba. Its leaders cut their political teeth on the Woman's Christian Temperance Movement's campaigns to ban the liquor trade, through their activities in the women's section of the Manitoba Grain Growers' Association, and while volunteering in the missionary societies of the Protestant churches. Their case was strengthened with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 as women were called upon to play a more active role in the paid economy. The fact that Manitoba was the first province to give women the vote was in many ways a tribute to the Political Equality League, which was founded in 1912. Its pamphlets, petitions, and public events succeeded in making suffrage a popular issue in a very short period of time.
The women's suffrage campaign was a movement with tensions: some suffragists of English ancestry were angered by the fact that they did not have the vote while men from Eastern Europe who had become citizens did. Other reforms that they championed, such as the end of bilingual education, reflected fears that a pure society could only flourish if English cultural values were protected. These middle-class women, and most active suffrage campaigners came from the middle class, believed that they would make wiser political choices than immigrants. Other suffragists argued that women should have the vote strictly on the basis of equality. In Manitoba, the pressures created by the First World War would bring these tensions to the fore. The battle for suffrage was won in Manitoba in 1916, but women reformers continued to play an ongoing role in the turbulent years that followed.