Great Canadian Speeches, Nellie McClung and the vote for women

Nellie McClung
Nellie McClung

Women received the vote in Manitoba 100 years ago, in January 1916, and it did not happen by accident.  Nellie McClung and others were forced to take an overtly political route to get there. McClung was well known in western Canada as a writer and an activist for women’s rights. On 27 January 1914, Manitoba Premier Rodmond Roblin and members of the legislature met with McClung and a delegation of several hundred from the Political Equality League, which was seeking the vote for women. Roblin treated them condescendingly, and flatly refused them, saying, “I believe woman suffrage would break up the home and send women to mix up in political meetings.” The following evening McClung and others turned that meeting into a piece of guerrilla theatre. McClung played the premier’s role and mimicked his inflated rhetoric in a mock speech which she made to a fictitious group of men appearing before women legislators asking for the right to vote. McClung’s oration is one of those contained in my book Great Canadian Speeches.  

Gentlemen of the delegation, it gives me great pleasure to welcome you here today. We like delegations, and although this is the first time you have asked us for the vote, we hope it will not be the last. Come any time and ask for anything you like. We wish to congratulate you, too, on the quiet and ladylike way in which you have come into our presence; and we assure you that if the working men in England had fought for their franchise in such a pleasing and dignified way, the results would have been entirely different. If they had used these peaceful means and no other, they might still be enjoying the distinction and privilege of waiting on members of Parliament.

Manhood suffrage a nightmare

But I cannot do what you ask me to do, for the facts are all against you. Manhood suffrage has not been a success in the unhappy countries where it has been tried. They either do not vote at all, or else they vote too much, and the best men shrink away from the polls as from a pestilence . . .

Manhood suffrage would plunge our fair province into a perfect debauchery of extravagance, a perfect nightmare of expense. Think of the increased size of the voters list—we have trouble enough with it now. Of course, with the customary hot-headedness of reformers, you never thought of that, oh, no, just like a man, you never thought of the expense . . .

I tell you frankly, I won’t do it, for I have always loved and reverenced men. Yet though I love them, I know their frailties. If once they are let vote, they become addicted to it, and even if the polls are only open once every four years, I tell you, I know men, they are creatures of habit, and they’ll hang around the polls all the rest of the time . . .

Man was made for more than voting

Man was made for something higher and holier than voting. Men were made to support families and homes which are the bulwark of the nation. What is home without a father? What is home without a bank account? The man who pays the grocer rules the world. In this agricultural province, man’s place is the farm. Shall I call men away from the useful plough and the necessary harrow to talk loud on street corners about things which do not concern them? Shall I cheat the farm by turning honest ploughmen into dishonest and scheming politicians? I tell you no, for I was born on the farm and I am not ashamed to say so—the farm, the farm, the dear, old farm—we’ll never mortgage the farm.

In the United States of America, when men vote, there is one divorce for every marriage, for politics unsettle men, and that leads to unsettled bills, and broken furniture, and broken vows. When you ask me for the vote, you are asking me to break up peaceful and happy homes and wreck innocent lives, and I tell you again, frankly, I will not do it. I am an old-fashioned woman; I believe in the sanctity of marriage. Politics unsettles men, and enters every department of life, with its blighting influence. It even confuses our vital statistics. They tell me that where men vote, when the election is very close, men have been known to come back and vote years after they were dead. Now, do you think I am going to let the hallowed calm of our cemeteries be invaded by the raucous voice of politics? . . .

Leaderless lambs

I know I am a factor in the affairs of this province. If it were not for this fatal modesty which on more than one occasion has almost blighted my career, I would say that I know I have written my name large across the province, so large indeed we had to move the boundaries to get it all in, and my most earnest wish for this bright land of promise is that I may long be spared to guide its destiny among the nations of the earth. I know there is no one but me who can guide the ship of state. I actually tremble when I think what might happen to these leaderless lambs. But I must not dwell on such an overwhelming calamity, but go forward in the strong hope that I may long be spared to be the proud standard-bearer of the grand old flag of this grand old party, which has gone down many times to disgrace but, thank God, never defeat.

McClung and the others held Premier Roblin and the Conservatives up to ridicule for their arguments against women getting the vote. McClung became a speaker in great demand during the 1914 and 1915 Manitoba provincial elections on behalf of the Liberals. They won in August 1915. Women received the vote in Manitoba in January 1916 and throughout Canada in 1918.

 

 

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Dennis

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament

3 thoughts on “Great Canadian Speeches, Nellie McClung and the vote for women”

  1. The Canadian parliament declared that women were persons in Canada in October 1929. By that time my mother had eight children, me included. It is interesting to know that I was born to a non person. What does that make me? However, I am glad that an act of the Canadian parliament made my mother into a person.

  2. Thank you for bringing back to life Nellie’s creativity and courage. It sent me back to Charlotte Gray’s brief bio of Nellie.

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