Giving women the right to vote

On Feb. 24th, 1916, a new session of the Alberta Legislature opened with the traditional Speech from the Throne. Two major pieces of legislation were promised. One was a bill to implement the prohibition of the sale of alcohol, as mandated by a province-wide plebiscite on July 21st, 1915. The other was an act to give women the right to vote.

In some respects, the two measures were linked. For many years, there had been a push to give women the right to vote as it was correctly presumed they would give strong support to the implementation of Prohibition.

However, Prohibition had received a strong endorsement by the male electorate even though women did not have the right to vote yet. Moreover, Prohibition was actually part of a larger progressive movement to remove what was seen as a leading cause of poverty and domestic violence for families.

There was also growing pressure to improve lives for women and children through such reforms as the passage of a Dower Act (giving women legal rights to family property) and maternal custodial rights. Giving women the right to vote would give a big boost to these causes.

The strong linkages between Prohibition, women’s suffrage and progressive social reform can be easily seen in the records of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. For example, in May 1914, the Central Alberta region’s W.C.T. U. argued for extending the franchise to women on the grounds that, “Who knows more about the needs of our children – the street loafer or the pure-minded educated mother.”

Similar stances were taken by other groups, such as the Alberta Women’s Institute (which had as its provincial secretary Jean Muldrew of Red Deer), the powerful United Farm Women of Alberta, and the Local Council of Women, which formed a Red Deer branch in the spring of 1916.

Despite some claims to the contrary, there was actually a lot of support in Red Deer and across Central Alberta for the women’s suffrage and social reform proposals. As early as 1901, when Red Deer was incorporated as a town, the right to vote was given to unmarried women and widows with property.

In 1913, Francis Galbraith, the first mayor of the City of Red Deer, proposed the right to vote should be given to all women and men over the age of 21. His proposal failed, not because of the extension of the municipal franchise to women, but because he wanted to also remove the requirement to own property. Hence, the city charter ended up giving the right to vote to all married and unmarried adult women, so long as they owned property.

In 1916, when the Red Deer Branch of Local Council of Red Deer was formed, Mayor John Carswell hosted the inaugural meeting at City Hall and made an opening speech supporting the work of the LCW. The keynote speaker that day was Henrietta Muir Edwards of the national Local Council of Women. While in Red Deer, she stayed at the home of Jessie and Francis Galbraith.

When the Liberal government of Premier A.L. Sifton announced the bill to give votes to women in Alberta in 1916, the Leader of the Conservative Opposition, Edward Michener, who was also the MLA for Red Deer, gave his unequivocal support. Moreover, in his reply to the Speech from the Throne, Michener stated he not only endorsed the principles of equal suffrage, he also supported ‘the logical conclusion’ that women should, “Be accorded all the privileges that men now enjoy”.

Michener later publicly supported the creation of a ‘Women’s Club’ in Red Deer. This group would not duplicate the Local Council of Women, which was a federation of women’s organization. Instead, it would have as its main focus the extension of political, legal and social rights for women. Not surprisingly, that stance earned Michener strong support from women in the provincial election of 1917 and reelection as Red Deer’s MLA.

Meanwhile, while the right to vote for women came into legal force in Alberta on April 19th, 1916, similar measures had already been passed in Manitoba (Jan. 28th, 1916) and Saskatchewan (March 14th, 1916).

The federal government, on the other hand, did give the right to vote to women in national elections in 1917, but limited the measure to women who were serving in the armed forces, or else had husbands and/or sons who were serving in the First World War. Universal national suffrage for all adult women did not come into effect until Jan. 1st, 1919.

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