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Right of Québec women to vote and to stand for office

Step by step, the quest by Québec women for political equality

1791-1849 - One step forward, two steps back…

Under the Constitutional Act of 1791, certain owners and tenants were granted qualified voter status, without distinction as to sex. Some women of Lower Canada who met the prerequisites interpreted this constitutional "oversight" as an authorization to vote. It would seem that they were the only women in the British Empire to avail themselves of this right[1]. However, the spirit of the times was not one of feminism, and history would see to it that women return to their domestic activities. In the February 3, 1834, issue of La Minerve, Louis-Joseph Papineau clearly voiced the mentality of the era: "It is revolting to see women dragged by their husbands, and daughters by their fathers, often against their will, to hustings. Public interest, decency and the modesty of women demand that these scandals never reoccur"[2]. In 1849, under the leadership of La Fontaine-Baldwin, this "historical irregularity" was rectified when women were formally prohibited from voting.

However, in 1892, the province’s Conservative premier, Charles-E. Boucher de Boucherville, spearheaded the passing of legislation granting single, land-owning women and widows the right to vote in municipal and school elections so long as they did not run for office themselves.

1912-1922 - The beginnings of the suffragist movement

It would not be until the 20th century that a true movement to abolish electoral discrimination against women would appear in Québec. The fight began at the federal level. In 1912, the Montreal Suffrage Association mobilized its forces to obtain the right to vote in federal elections. This goal was achieved in 1918.

Meanwhile, suffragettes were active in the other provinces. Manitoba was the first province to grant women the right to vote in 1916, followed that very same year by Saskatchewan and Alberta. In 1917, British Columbia and Ontario followed suit. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island authorized women to vote in 1918, 1919 and 1922 respectively. For its part, Newfoundland and Labrador, which joined Canada in 1949, granted women the right to vote in 1925.

Only Québec women remained excluded from political life and they would have to wait several more years to regain their right to vote.

1922-1940 - Suffragettes crusade for equality

  • Activists organize

    The Québec suffragist movement was basically centered in urban areas and was the initiative of a minority of women who were ahead of their time.

    The Comité provincial pour le suffrage féminin (CPSF) (Provincial committee for women’s suffrage) was created in 1922. For the most part, the members of this organization came from the Montreal Suffrage Association and the Fédération nationale Saint-Jean-Baptiste. English-speaking and French-speaking activists joined forces for the same cause. Initially, the committee was co-chaired by Mrs. Marie Gérin-Lajoie and Mrs. Walter Lyman. A split in the group occurred in 1927. Two women would then take over the leadership of the suffragist movement: Idola Saint-Jean with the Canadian Alliance for Women’s Votes and Thérèse Casgrain with the Comité du suffrage provincial (Provincial suffrage committee) which, became, in 1929, the League for Women’s Rights.

    In addition to being activists with these organizations, the two women helped break barriers by becoming involved in political life and running for office at the federal level. Supported by working people, Idola Saint-Jean would become the first Québec woman to run for office, doing so as an independent Liberal during the 1930 federal election, in the riding of Saint-Denis. Thérèse Casgrain, for her part, stood for election in 1942 in the federal riding of Charlevoix-Saguenay, also as an independent Liberal. She was defeated nine times during provincial and federal elections, between 1942 and 1962. Thérèse Casgrain would, however, become the first female leader of a Québec political party, when she was elected to head the provincial wing of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), in 1951.
  • Adversaries

    The quest for democratic freedoms would be long and the road would be paved with many pitfalls. Indeed, there was no shortage of adversaries. The clergy, politicians, journalists, the majority of women, society in general did not subscribe to the idea of seeing Québec women become full-fledged citizens. To understand this attitude, it is necessary to recall the mores and values of the era. For most opponents, the political emancipation of Québec women meant the end of a social order, the foundations of which were based on the exclusion of women. The Civil Code, adopted in 1866, confirmed this exclusion by entrenching the legal incapacity of married women.

    For the most part, the arguments against giving women the right to vote centered on their place in the home and their role as guardians of the French-Canadian race.

    The struggle for universal suffrage gave rise to stormy debates. The following words are a good reflection of the obstacles and biases confronting suffragettes:
  • "The entry of women into politics, even if only by suffrage, would be a misfortune for our province. Nothing justifies it, neither natural law nor the social interest; the authorities in Rome approve of our views, which are those of our entire episcopate." Words of Cardinal Bégin (source: Cap-aux-Diamants, no. 21, spring of 1990, p. 23.

    "The argument of the similarity with the other provinces is cited, as if for some, progress consists of aping what others do. Québec has its traditions, its customs and they are its strength and its greatness. Were this bill to pass, women would resemble a star having left its orbit." L.-A. Giroux, legislative councillor (Wellington), excerpt from the April 25, 1940, debates at the Legislative Assembly.

    "…French-Canadian women risk becoming "public women," "veritable women-men, hybrids that would destroy women-mothers and women-women." Henri Bourassa, founder of Le Devoir, (source: Cap-aux-Diamants, no. 21, spring of 1990, p. 20).

  • Battle strategy

    This was the context of the struggle by women to acquire the right to vote. The battle was organized along two main lines. First, activists initiated media operations with the general public. Public demonstrations, the use of the media and carefully orchestrated information campaigns allowed the suffragist movement to gradually “transform” mentalities and to rally public opinion, which had initially been largely resistant, behind its cause. During the 25th anniversary of the reign of King George V, in 1935, suffragettes sent him a petition with 10,000 signatures in favour of women’s suffrage in Québec.

    While this marketing operation was taking place, women engaged in lobbying with parliamentarians at the Québec Legislative Assembly. In 1922, and from1927 until victory was finally achieved, suffragettes literally marched on Québec City. Each year, they found a parliamentarian who sided with their cause to sponsor bills on suffrage. Henry Miles agreed to introduce the first of these bills. It would take several pilgrimages and fourteen bills to achieve victory.

    Supported by Premier Joseph-Adélard Godbout, Bill 18 was adopted on April 11, 1940, at second reading, by a vote of 67 to 9, before receiving the same majority at third reading, on April 18, 1940. The Act granting to women the right to vote and to be eligible as candidates received royal assent on April 25, 1940, thus putting an end to electoral discrimination against women. Québec women would henceforth be able to vote and to stand for office.

1940-2015: 75 years later

April 25, 1940, marked the end of a hard-fought struggle and the beginning of a new era in which women would continue to fight for their rights and to improve society. The next challenge consisted in getting elected! No women made the leap in the 1944 election, while a first female candidate, Mae O’Connor, ran in a by-election in 1947. However, it was not until 1961 that they would have a voice inside parliament, that of Marie-Claire Kirkland-Casgrain. The first woman to become a Member of the National Assembly and the first to become a minister, she advanced the cause of women by tabling a bill which, in 1964, put an end to the legal incapacity of married women. At the municipal level, women gradually obtained the right to vote between 1968 and 1974, depending on the city and the municipality. First Nations women have had the right to vote in Québec since 1969.

However, in spite of the Act passed in 1940, a significant female presence would not be felt in the National Assembly until the 1980s. The general election of 1976 marked the first time that more than one woman was elected to the National Assembly: five women were elected at that time, rising to eight in 1981. Women would have to wait until 1985 for the number of female MNAs to exceed10: there were18 elected in the 1985 general election and 23 in 1989 and 1994, before finally reaching 29 at the time of the 1998 general election, i.e. 23.2 percent of all seats.

During the first decade of the 21st century, women’s representation in the National Assembly tended to move two steps forward and one step back. For example, women represented 30.4 percent of all elected MNAs in 2003, 25.6 percent in 2007, and 29.6 percent in 2008. In 2007 and 2008, Premier Jean Charest formed the first cabinet in which men and women were equally represented, a parity that has not been seen since. As of the 2014 general election, women hold 31 percent of all cabinet positions.

After reaching a historic peak of 32.8 percent in 2012, women’s representation in the National Assembly dropped to 27.2 percent after the last provincial election, in 2014. In the 2012 general election, Québec also elected its first female prime minister, Pauline Marois.

The political equality of women and their access to power have contributed to the evolution of legislation and have made it possible to introduce numerous measures that have helped Québec society to move forward. Since the adoption of the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms in 1975, all discrimination based on gender has been prohibited.

A number of other important steps forward also deserve mention: the Act establishing the Conseil du statut de la femme (1963); the Act to amend the Québec Civil Code and other legislative provisions [...] respecting the economic equality of spouses (1989); the Act to facilitate the payment of support (1995); the Pay Equity Act (1996); the Act respecting parental insurance (2001); and the Act to amend the Charter of human rights and freedoms “to expressly state that Charter rights and freedoms are guaranteed equally to women and men” (2008).

Thus the struggle for women’s rights has taken place one step at a time. As Thérèse Casgrain put it when talking about women’s fight for universal suffrage: "Give it enough time and one can cook an elephant in a small pot![3]"

In 1990, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of women’s obtaining the right to vote and to stand for office in Québec, the Directeur général des élections du Québec (DGEQ) published a study on the representation of women in politics, Le suffrage féminin (Women’s suffrage), recounting the key events that took place in Québec and providing a glimpse into the women’s suffrage movement as it existed throughout the world.

Free to make her voice heard
Libre de faire entendre sa voix
Artist: Brigitte Labbé

On October 2, 2000, the DGEQ, the Conseil du statut de la femme, the Commission de la capitale nationale and the National Assembly unveiled a poster underscoring the 60th anniversary of women's obtaining the right to vote and to stand for office. "The artist, Brigitte Labbé, offers us a serene woman, a woman who belongs to every era, a woman ‘free to make her voice heard.’ The poster created from this work of art is a testimony to all women, for there can be no democracy without them."

In the wake of the 70th anniversary of women obtaining the right to vote, the Québec National Assembly wished to honour the women who fought to acquire the right to vote, including Idola Saint-Jean, Thérèse Casgrain, Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie, and Marie-Claire Kirkland, the first woman elected to the National Assembly. Unveiled on December 5, 2012, the Québec Monument to Honour Women in Politics, created by the artist Jules Lasalle, can be found in the south grounds of the Parliament Building.

In September 2014, the DGEQ published a report entitled Femmes et politique : facteurs d'influence, mesures incitatives et exposé de la situation québécoise (Women and politics: influential factors, incentive measures and a status briefing for Québec). The study, produced in conjunction with the Research Chair in Democracy and Parliamentary Institutions, was intended to provide food for thought concerning the political representation of women and to take stock of the current situation in Québec in this regard.

In this electoral study, the DGEQ noted that after having gradually moved forward between 1976 and 2003, women’s position in provincial politics has stagnated in Québec over the past 10 years in terms of the proportion of women elected to the National Assembly. In order to contribute to the process of reflection concerning this state of affairs, the DGEQ has outlined incentives and factors that could help more women become elected representatives. The study concludes, most notably, that once de jure equality is attained, de facto equality will gradually be achieved through the efforts of women and men alike.

Check your knowledge

Sources:

ASSEMBLÉE NATIONALE DU QUÉBEC. Femmes et vie politique : de la conquête du droit de vote à nos jours, 1940-2010, Québec City, Assemblée nationale du Québec, 2010, 61 pages.

BIBLIOTHÈQUE DE L’ASSEMBLÉE NATIONALE. Le suffrage féminin: débats sur la Loi accordant aux femmes le droit de vote et d’éligibilité, Research Division, 9-25 April 1940, Québec City, 1990, 30 pages.

BRADBURY, Bettina. “Devenir majeure - la lente conquête des droits” in Cap-aux-Diamants, no. 21, spring 1990, pp. 35 to 38.

BROWN, Wayne. “Thérèse Casgrain : suffragette, première femme à diriger un parti et sénatrice,” Perspectives électorales, Elections Canada, vol. 4, no. 1, May 2002, pp. 30-34.

CLEVERDON, Catherine Lyse. Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada. University of Toronto Press, 1950.

COLLECTIF CLIO. L’histoire des femmes du Québec. Quinze, Montréal, 1982.

DARSIGNY, Maryse. “Les femmes à l’isoloir : la lutte pour le droit de vote” in Cap-aux-Diamants, no. 21, spring 1990, pp. 19- 21.

DIRECTEUR GÉNÉRAL DES ÉLECTIONS DU QUÉBEC. Femmes et politique : facteurs d’influence, mesures incitatives et exposé de la situation québécoise, Québec City, Directeur général des élections du Québec, collection Études électorales, 2014, 130 p.

LAMOUREUX, Diane. “Citoyennes? Femmes, droit de vote et démocratie”, Les Éditions remue-ménage, Montréal, 1989.

LAPLANTE, Laurent. “Les femmes et le droit de vote - L’épiscopat rend les armes” in Cap-aux-Diamants, no. 21, spring 1990, pp. 23- 25.

LAVERGNE, France. Le suffrage féminin, Sainte-Foy, Directeur général des élections du Québec, 1990.

Lavigne, Marie. April 18, 1940 – L’adoption du droit de vote des femmes : le résultat d’un long combat, Montréal. Conference presented by Marie Lavigne at the Auditorium de la Grande Bibliothèque de Montréal on February 21, 2013. Fondation Lionel Groulx [Online]. Page consulted on April 21, 2015.