Winning the voteThe campaign to win the vote for women was revived in the summer of 1912. It arose from the discussions that a group of successful and emerging women writers and journalists regularly held in the Winnipeg offices of the Canadian Women's Press Club. Nellie McClung, E. Cora Hind, Francis Beynon, her sister Lillian Thomas, and a number of other professional women established the Political Equality League that year, which has been judged one of the most creative and successful suffrage organizations in Canadian history. Its president was Dr. Mary Crawford and its director was Winona Flett (who later married the director of the Direct Legislation League and future leader of the Independent Labor Party, Fred Dixon). With the support of the Manitoba Grain Growers' Association, the WCTU, and the Manitoba Direct Legislation League, it soon had 1,200 members the across the province.
The Manitoba suffragists did not follow the militant example of the British suffragists, whose protests had led to the imprisonment of their leaders. Instead they published leaflets, gave lectures, sold postcards, circulated petitions, lobbied politicians, and organized highly theatrical public meetings. Suffrage was also taken up by branches of the Manitoba Women's Institute and other rural women's organizations across the province.
In January 1914, Nellie McClung and four other members of the PEL met with Manitoba Premier Rodmond Roblin. It was a clash of the political titans of the day. Roblin explained that he opposed suffrage since it would 'break up the home and throw children into the arms of servant girls.' To Roblin suffrage would set family members against each other, lead to female independence and destroy marriage. An outraged Roblin called McClung's allegations that he led a corrupt government the imaginings of a vile mind. As the meeting broke up McClung warned Roblin, "I believe we'll get you yet."
And she did the following night, when the PEL staged its satiric drama, "How the Vote Was Won", at the Walker Theatre. The premise of the show, which built on earlier suffragist plays about what the world would be like if women had the vote, was that Nellie McClung was the premier of a province where men rather than women were denied the vote. Turning Roblin's arguments on their head, she told a group of men who were asking for the vote that Politics unsettles men, and unsettled men mean unsettled billsbroken furniture, broken vows and divorce. The Manitoba suffrage movement had always enjoyed good press, the Walker theatre performance turned it into the talk of the town.
But Roblin still controlled the legislature and in February 1914 his Conservatives easily defeated a Liberal motion to give women the vote. The reformers had their hopes set on the 1914 provincial election. At its spring convention the Manitoba Liberal Party had given Nellie McClung a standing ovation and come out in favour of virtually every measure in the reform movement agenda. The Liberal platform called for temperance, votes for women, educational reform, direct legislation, civil service reform, workers compensation, mothers allowances, and child welfare laws. The Reverend Charles Gordon said: One the one side are the Christian Churches, various organization, social workers and all the decent citizens, on the other Roblin government, the Liquor traffic, and every form of organized vice and crime. The Liberals had drawn the battle lines, but the Conservatives won the election.
Despite this victory, Roblin was driven from office within the year. In 1915 the Liberals claimed that the contractors building the Manitoba legislature were being overpaid. Based on their allegations, Manitoba lieutenant governor Douglas Cameron gave Roblin two choices: resign or appoint a commission of inquiry. Roblin appointed the commission, but the evidence was so damning that he resigned. The commission eventually concluded that the contractors had been overpaid by $800,000, much of which had been eventually paid to the Conservative Party.
Led by Tobias Norris, the Liberals swept the 1915 election, taking 42 of 49 seats. Only five Conservatives were elected, four from ridings with large French-speaking populations whose voters correctly suspected that the Liberals would end the bilingual education system.
The Liberals had promised to grant women the vote if they could present the legislature with a petition signed by 17,000 people. By the end of 1915, the PEL submitted a petition with 39,584 signatures. There was a second petition, with 4,250 signatures, all of which had been collected by 94-year-old Amelia Burdett of Sturgeon Creek. Shortly before the bill was to be submitted to the legislature in January 1916, Lillian Thomas discovered that the proposed legislation would not permit women to be elected to the legislature. Thomas and her sister Francis Beynon enlisted the Manitoba Grain Growers in quick but effective lobbying campaign to have the bill changed.
The measure, which had been so contentious only two years earlier, received unanimous support in the legislature. Conservative legislator Joseph Hamelin once more raised the warning that suffrage would lead to household disputes, but he too voted for it. One of the few sources of opposition to the measure were the province's two francophone newspapers, Le Manitoba and La Liberté. The Free Press offered another perspective in its articles from July 28 and 29, 1915. Local Catholic church authorities opposed women entering political life, but encouraged them to vote in favour of what the Church viewed as sacred causes. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union was at last able to consider closing down its Equal Franchise Department.
The Norris government lived up to its other election commitments. It quickly enacted a direct legislation law and established a workers compensation system, a civil service commission, and a mothers allowance for widows. After holding a provincial referendum on the issue, it brought in prohibition. More controversially it also repealed the Laurier-Greenway compromise, ending Manitoba's 20-year experiment in bilingual education.
Having won the vote in 1916 the Political Equality League disbanded a year later. Many of its leading figures took differing position on both the First World War and the Canadian government's Wartime Election Act, which gave the vote to some women while taking it away from some immigrants who had become citizens. Women played an active role in Manitoba life, but few contested provincial elections and even few were elected. After Edith Rogers was elected in 1920, the next woman to be elected to the provincial legislature was Salome Halldorson in 1936. Women had won their political rights, but feminism remained a controversial subject (Ref1, Ref2, Ref3) and the debate over the role that women should play in public life was often conducted by men alone.