Where have all the Suffragists gone? Deconstructing Children’s History Books

Samantha Cutrara

As a scholar interested in teaching and learning Canadian history, I am embarking on a series of blog posts for Active History about the representation of the post-confederation period (1867-1920) in picture books for children ages 4 to 10. In my last post, I looked at the history of residential schools and used a list published by the CBC as a starting place for finding children’s books that explored these stories.

In this post, coinciding with International Women’s Day today, I want to look at a topic that I thought would be far easier: women’s suffrage. (For a historical overview of women’s suffrage in Canada, see the Canadian Encyclopedia entry “Women’s Suffrage in Canada” written by Veronica Strong-Boag).

I was interested in the representation of Canadian women’s activism throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries and question if these books, like the textbooks Rose Fine-Meyer explored for her CHEA paper “’A reward for working in the fields and factories’: Canadian women’s suffrage movement as portrayed in Ontario texts,” would be written with the narrative that women were “given” the vote as an corollary to war or, more accurately, if the fight for women’s suffrage was shown as being decades in the making by the time the Great War started?

Would all the books tell the same story or would authors present the histories as coming from different points of view? Would issues related to race and class be presented or would these ‘messy’ parts of the past be glossed over for young audiences? And, like my findings for the residential schools books, would these histories present disenfranchisement as being the result of individual actions or would the nation be shown as continuously supressing women’s activism and voting rights?

My expectation was that there would be a plenty of picture books on women’s suffrage and, while telling a very similar narrative of fight and success, these books would end with reference to the unequal nature of early activism.

I was wrong.

In my search, it became very clear that there are no picture books for children on women’s suffrage in Canada.

Figure 1: American books on women’s suffrage vs. Canadian books on women’s suffrage

Like with my last post, I searched the Toronto Public Library (TPL) and I used a variety of search terms to mimic what a child or a parent may use to find books on suffrage in Canada. Over and over, my search resulted in a selection of fiction and non-fiction books for older, juvenile readers, but that these books were on American suffrage, not Canadian. I also looked through the History Book Bank to find titles I may have missed, and again, this database listed no specific books on women’s suffrage in Canada. Frustrated, I spoke to a children’s librarian at TPL and he confirmed my findings. He said that every couple of years a new book comes out on Nellie McClung and it replaces one of the five books in circulation on Nellie McClung, but that is the extent of Canadian suffrage history for children ages 5 to 12.

Figure 2: Mixed-media illustration from Two Friends

What is this absence about? Perhaps it is a topic that publishers, authors, and/or historians feel might not be relevant or interesting for young readers? Maybe it is too controversial or too benign? But these questions do not make sense when looking at the variety of interesting and intersectional American books on women’s suffrage. A Mighty Girl, an American resource website for books, toys, and movies designed to support “raising smart, confident, and courageous girls,” published a blog post in 2016 about children’s books exploring women’s suffrage in the US. They list 42 books on the subject on their website, 35 of which they classify for readers aged 3-8. The list includes a mix of fiction and non-fiction and archival and drawn illustrations.

When looking at some of these books available at the Toronto Public Library, I found a focus on 19th and 20th century activism, books that discuss race and gender, books that examine cause and consequence within hegemonic systems such as government and patriarchy. I also found a blend of fiction and non-fiction, with foci on individuals as well as whole movements. I found unique artwork and primary sources for a range of readers between ages 5 and 12. Storybooks for young readers like Two Friends, by Dean Robbins and illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, or Chasing Freedom, by Nikki Grimes and illustrated by Michelle Woods, demonstrated the intersection between the fight for the abolition of slavery and the right to vote for women. Non-fiction books for slightly older juvenile readers such as Great Women of the Suffrage Movement by Dana Meachen Rau and Women’s Right to Vote by Elaine Landeau illustrate connections between the suffrage and abolitionist movements and link federal political decisions directly with activists and activism, using archival photographs and documents. As demonstrated by titles such as Created Equal: Women Campaign for the Right to Vote 1840-1920 by Ann Rossi, these histories are situated in the 19th century and demonstrate decades of activism and a legacy of work.

On the other hand, the absence of books on women’s suffrage in Canada led me to juvenile biographies of Nellie McClung. These books are older (published between 1975 and 2000), text-heavy and written for more mature audiences. Books such as Nellie McClung and Women’s Rights by Helen K. Wright, Nellie McClung: The girl who liked to ask questions by Tom McCarthy, or Nellie McClung by Mary Lile Benham are biographies that link McClung’s suffrage activism to the temperance movement. In these books, McClung’s activism reaches into the 20th century and past the federal enfranchisement of White women in 1917 with the coverage of the Persons Case in 1929. In these books, McClung’s activism is depicted as resulting in her thinking that things were not “fair” for girls and women and her desire to do more than housework. Because of her hard work, sense of Godly duty, and recognition of injustice, McClung made progress for Canadian women by being part of the movement that won the right to vote for women in Manitoba and being part of the Persons Case. Suffrage is part of McClung’s story, but her childhood in Western Canada and her success as part of the Persons Case bookend the narratives leaving suffrage as one early mark of her success, not as a movement involving many women across Canada, the empire, and the continent.

Figure 3: Famous Five from The Kids Books of Great Canadian Women

In these books, suffrage and women’s activism is a hallmark of the turn of the 20th century, not something that began in 1832 across the Empire with the passing of the Imperial Reform Act. Even in general interest books such as The Kids Book of Great Canadian Women by Elizabeth MacLeod, 20th century milestones such as the Persons Case with the Famous Five are featured rather than any individual 19th century suffragists.

Interestingly, in the children’s books I found on residential schools, these stories also take place in the 20th century, with limited 19th century connections. Thus, I question: where have the 19th century Canadian suffragists gone in our histories for children? Why are there no books that explore with the same colour, archival research, and historical intersection as American books on the same topic? Why does Canadian coverage of this history focus on the 20th century? How can we understand the development of the Canadian nation over the 19th century without these stories?

It is often said that Canadians neither know nor revere their history, but I question where the foundation is for this reverence and appreciation if there aren’t books available at public libraries that parents, guardians, and educators can read with their young Canadians? Where are the picture books that introduce young Canadians to the stories and histories that narrate their existence in Canada today?

Where have all the suffragists gone?

My next post in April will be on the representation of Chinese labourers working in the railway in the late-1880s. Like with this post and the last, I am intrigued about how these histories are, or are not, represented the 19th century activities of nation-building and whether this these stories intersect with residential schools, women’s activism, or Confederation. My expectation is that they will not, if these books do in fact exist. In May, I’ll bring these discussions together and look at them in relation to the representation of Confederation in children’s books at this year’s CHA at Ryerson University. Any book recommendations are appreciated!

Dr. Samantha Cutrara is a History Education Strategist and is currently working on a manuscript for UBC Press entitled Creating a New “We”: Canadian history education for the 21st century. Find more information about her consulting and academic work on her website SamanthaCutrara.com.


Note

The author would like to acknowledge that this work was created on land that is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, the Métis, and most recently, the territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit River. The territory was the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. This territory is also covered by the Upper Canada Treaties. Today, the meeting place of Toronto (from the Haudenosaunee word Tkaronto) is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and the author is grateful to have the opportunity to write, study, teach, and learn in the community, on this territory.

 

 

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