Under the Constitutional Act, 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. 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". In 1849, under the leadership of La Fontaine-Baldwin, this "historical irregularity" was rectified when women were formally prohibited from voting.
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.
Only Québec women remained excluded from political life and they would have to wait several more years to regain their right to vote.
"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).
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. However, it was not until 1961 that they would have a voice inside parliament. This voice was that of Marie-Claire Kirkland-Casgrain. The first woman to become a Member of the Legislative 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.
However, a significant presence by women in the National Assembly would not be felt until the 1980s. Women would have to wait until 1985 for the number of women MNAs to exceed ten: 18 in 1985, 23 in 1989 and 1994, finally reaching 29 at the time of the 1998 general election, namely 23% of the seats.
The political equality of women and their access to power have contributed to the evolution of legislation and have made it possible to initiate 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.
The struggle for women’s rights has taken place one step at a time or 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!"
On October 2, 2000, the Directeur général des élections du Québec, 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 right to vote. "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."
BIBLIOTHÈQUE DE L’ASSEMBLÉE NATIONALE. Le suffrage féminin: débats sur la Loi accordant aux femmes le droit de vote et d’éligibilité, Division de la recherche, 9 - 25 avril 1940, Québec 1990, 30 pages.
BRADBURY, Bettina. « Devenir majeure - la lente conquête des droits » dans Cap-aux-Diamants, no 21, printemps 1990, p. 35 à 38.
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 » dans Cap-aux-Diamants, no 21, printemps 1990, p. 19 à 21.
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 » dans Cap-aux-Diamants, no 21, printemps 1990, p. 23 à 25.