TemperanceIn discussing the suffrage movement of the early twentieth century, historians often distinguish between feminists, who argued for the vote because they believed in equality between the sexes, and reformers who thought women should have the vote because they believed that women were more likely than men to support needed social reforms. It is sometimes argued that the movement for women's votes in Canada was started by feminists who were challenging the division of labour and responsibility between the sexes. This movement was swamped and taken over by those who sought to strengthen social institutions, including the family, by giving women the vote. The first group of activists are sometimes referred to as equality feminists while the second group are termed maternal feminists, in recognition of their arguments that the values that made women good mothers and homemakers should be put to use to purify society. These were not terms that were used at the time however, and they did not represent hard and fast differences: many equality feminists, for example, also favoured numerous other social reforms.
The clearest example of the links between the desire to purify society and women's suffrage lies in the relationship between the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the suffrage movement. The WCTU was, as its name suggests, a movement of Protestant church women intended to put an end to the drinking of alcoholic beverages. Its members associated alcohol with crime, poverty, child neglect, and family breakdown. While it encouraged people to take a pledge not to drink, it focused much of its effort on attempts to have governments ban the sale of alcohol. The first WCTU branch in Canada was founded in 1874.Within a decade it was a national organization dedicated to outlawing the manufacture and sale of alcohol.
Given the fact that its goals were political and its members were women, it is not surprising that from the outset it also campaigned for votes for women. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most Canadian provinces responded to calls for prohibition through what was called the local option: municipalities could hold referenda on whether or not the liquor traded would be banned locally.
Dr. Amelia Yeomans played a prominent role in the early years of both the temperance and suffrage campaigns in Manitoba. Originally from Ontario, she went to Michigan to study medicine after her husband's death in 1878. Upon graduation, she moved to Manitoba and became active in the Manitoba branch of the WCTU. Like other WCTU organizations across Canada, the Manitoba WCTU had its own Franchise Department that campaigned for women's suffrage. Yeomans concluded that prohibition would not be enacted until women received the vote, but she was also concerned that too close a connection between the temperance and suffrage movements might drive away some potential suffrage supporters. For this reason, she founded the Manitoba Equal Suffrage Club in 1894.
Many of the other leading Manitoba suffragists of the early twentieth century came to the movement through the WCTU, including the writers E. Cora Hind and Nellie McClung. In 1900 victory appeared to be within their grasp. The legislature had adopted a prohibition bill, but before it could be put into effect, the premier resigned. The new premier, Rodmond Roblin decided to hold a province-wide referendum on the issue before putting the law into effect. Voters in that referendum rejected prohibition, a result that convinced many women that prohibition would not come until women were given the vote. The defeat also took some of the wind out of the suffrage movement. The Manitoba Equal Suffrage Club was less active as time went on. It was not until 1912, with the founding of the Political Equality League, that the Manitoba movement was revitalized. When it was, it retained its links to the temperance movement: for example, one of the PEL's honourary presidents was the Reverend D.S. Hamilton, who was also the president of the Manitoba Temperance League.