“Men Want to Hog Everything”: Women in Canadian Legislative Politics after Suffrage Victories

By Veronica Strong-Boag

“Men Want to Hog Everything”: in one revealing phrase, Agnes Macphail, Canada’s first female parliamentarian (as of 1921), summed up the decades after the first partial suffrage victories.  Admittedly, she went on to note that

There are even some men who think a woman should get a fair break. Not many, but enough to make the struggle seem worth while.[1]

But the overall assessment was bleak.

Hillary Clinton’s fate in November 2016, and many before her, invites the same conclusion. Many men (and male-identified women), like, to invoke yet another farm-yard metaphor from Nellie McClung’s anthropomorphic Mike the Ox in her suffragist manifesto In Times Like These (1915), to resist sharing power and fiercely defend their privileges. As my 1996 article “Independent Women, Problematic Men: First and Second Wave Anti-Feminism in Canada from Goldwin Smith to Betty Steele” demonstrated, Canada’s anti-woman politics has a long history.

While admitting the familiar argument that women sometimes let themselves down (not hard to do in deeply patriarchal cultures), that no party has a monopoly on misogyny, that the ‘first past the post system’ discriminates against women, and minority candidates, and that few suffragists embraced inclusive democracy, this paper highlights resistance to the first enfranchised female voters.[2] That subversion of even partial democracy is easy to find. Newspapers, magazines, sermons, political texts, and legislative reports are jammed with discouragement. It echoed from one side of Canada to another, handicapped all governments, and diminished women’s electoral chances everywhere.  The magnitude of deterrence is, however, generally under-appreciated as an explanation for mainstream women’s limited political gains in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Misogyny is of course far from the only offense to democracy.  Canada’s electoral practices, including the first suffrage victories, routinely advantage Anglo-Celtic settler society. Indigenous peoples, Blacks, Asians, and some European groups face special barriers, most readily summed up as racism.[3] Nor to be forgotten are the prejudice or classism directed at the poor of all origins and ableist biases. Women from variously disadvantaged communities face special barriers, including indifference or hostility from many settler women during and after the initial suffrage campaigns.

Suffragists themselves were cautious about the first wins. In their most optimistic moments, they hoped for great changes and applauded the success of pioneers like BC’s Mary Ellen Smith, who became the first female cabinet minister, albeit without portfolio, in the British Empire/Commonwealth. Many, however, would have agreed with later political scientists in pointing to “women’s ambivalence toward electoral politics” and their frequent disinterest and ignorance.[4]  Feminists also understood the tenacity of long-standing arguments emphasizing women’s inferior capacity and their over-riding responsibility for domestic life. They were right to stress such deterrents.

Pervasive Prejudice

Prejudice takes many forms, from the more subtle to the overtly hostile. One scholar of modern misogyny describes the first, designated “‘benign’ bigotry,” as entailing

everyday, seemingly innocent slights, comments, overgeneralizations, othering, and denigration of marginalized groups. Subtle prejudice is insidious because it can be nonconscious and unintentional… due to its subtlety, the target or victim may not notice it as prejudice, and … it can have the veneer of a ‘positive’ stereotype. … (e.g., women are nurturing).

Such attitudes permeate “all corners of society,” robbing women of “individuality” and “box[ing] them …into certain behaviors (and, sometimes lower-paid jobs), and the person being judged is not seen in individual terms but in categorical, less accurate, and more exaggerated terms.”[5]  This ‘soft’ prejudice readily transitions into vicious and obvious women-hating. At its extreme, this involves violence.  Female politicians offer special targets. Simply by taking office, they question patriarchy’s foundations.

Naturalized Bigotry

From childhood on, bigotry’s straitjacket restricts options and depresses spirits. 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s Canada remained preoccupied with the assumption that women should be at home, their talents best deployed as men’s complements, assistants, and, at best, temporary replacements. The pressure to marry was ever-present. Not even the wake-up call provided by World War Two stopped writers lyricizing that “We are finding marriage a thrilling adventure in cooperation between a man, a woman, and God.”[6]

Women’s supposed inappropriateness for public life was highlighted in Maclean’s Magazine’s 1927 search for the ‘greatest living Canadian.’ Only two women appeared among the 70 plus candidates: MP Agnes Macphail and judge Emily Murphy. Some readers preferred ‘composite characters,’ of whom only one, ‘the Canadian Mother,’ was gendered female. The rest were white men, many politicians.  The discoverer of insulin, Dr. Frederick Banting was eventually crowned, and men took all top positions.[7]

In the same spirit, July 1st that year saw Maclean’s initiate its “Young Canada Boosters Club.”  It promised “to encourage the study by Canadian boys and girls of the development of this country and the opportunities it has to offer, so that, when their school and college education is completed, they may take advantage of these opportunities.”[8] In fact, this club, little more than an effort to promote sales while aligning with 1920s nationalism, never included girls as members, or women leaders as mentors.  Ontario’s male Minister of Lands and Forests, soon broadcast the real message that “the object of the Young Canada Boosters Club is to foster a Canadian spirit among boys throughout the Dominion.”[9]  Girls constituted only admirers.

The media’s increasing emphasis on domestic consumption reinforced efforts to confine women to private life. Female politics and activism appeared as no more than passing and eccentric side-shows.  Education affirmed such socialization, with the post-suffrage years revitalizing arguments against co-education as a threat to necessary gender roles.[10]

Animus to publically-minded women was reinforced by messages that hard-won rights were re- renegotiable.  Post-suffrage decades, especially the 1930s, were chilling. In 1931, a so-called ‘Business Woman’ squared off against a self-identified ‘Spinster’ and a leader of Quebec’s Anglophone suffrage movement.  The first, a champion of male Canada, painted a desperate portrait of financial insecurity, lack of opportunity and appreciation, and better treatment by male bosses. Women in public life were portrayed as useless and safe havens were imagined in the arms of indulgent middle-class husbands.  Her spinster opponent fought back, stressing sisterhood, accomplishments, and opportunities and rejecting the romantic fallacy. She was supported by Quebec’s suffrage veteran, Mrs. John Scott, who described herself as loving and loyal “to her own sex” and “honestly endeavouring to make this world a better and happier place for women.”[11] Two years later, the assault resumed with Montreal’s former mayor, Médéric Martin, demanding women’s removal from paid employment and Agnes Macphail robustly defending women’s right to choose.[12]

Such gender debates routinely subjected female bodies to damning scrutiny. The long-time Sports Editor of the Montreal Herald and founding Secretary of the Montreal Athletic Commission typified supposedly humorous sniping in his extended 1938 diatribe against ugly “Amazon Athletes.” Once again a woman had to expend energy in rejecting his caricature. With gritted teeth, Edna Roxanne or ‘Roxy’ Atkins, the 1935 Canadian champion in the high hurdles, dismissed him at length as ‘goofy.’[13]

Garden-variety resistance to equality was similarly visible in recurring insistence that Canadian women were so lucky that complaints of any kind were simply out-of-order. A 1932 story in Maclean’s, entitled “Women Worship,” introduced a minor British aristocrat applauding Canadian men for “old-time chivalry” and condemning women’s lack of appreciation.[14] Her critics responded that “ONLY an Englishwoman living in England could have written “Woman Worship.”[15] Even as violence and poverty attracted little attention in the nation’s media, arguments insisting upon good fortune (all at the hands of benevolent men) flourished.  A few months after the aristocratic sally, an ‘Official Wife,’ declared Ottawa “a Kingdom Ruled by Women.”[16] Economic vulnerability again went unmentioned. Such intervention constituted what Nellie McClung had dismissed as “dope given to women to keep them quiet.”[17]

Overt Hostility to Women in Politics

Such misogyny reduced democratic capacity. While tradition wavered briefly in the immediate aftermath of the first suffrage victories, it quickly reasserted itself. Worries about post-war political education highlighted boys and men.  In 1922 humorist and political economist Stephen Leacock unpacked old refrains to contend that “men and women need a different mental diet.”[18] In the next decade an apostle of gendered civics worried about “training our young men for public service careers – men who will understand democracy, what democracy is about.”[19] Girls’ democratic preparation was ignored.

One unidentified provincial female politician summed up disadvantage for Maclean’s readers:

First, when a woman is elected she realizes that she has taken a man’s place, that is, kept a man out of a place which he thinks rightfully belongs to him, and so do his friends, and it will not be long before she is aware of the antagonism … I have yet to find … any body of men who will receive you into their charmed circle with unbounded enthusiasm. … my greatest drawback … was the fact that I was not a man. …. I was never present at the informal discussions … and … any man will tell you that the informal discussions (lunch together at the club, meeting in the bank, or any of the dozen ways men are in contact “downtown”) sometimes mean far more than regular meetings of a formal nature. I had ‘the uncomfortable feeling … that I was not ‘on the inside’; we are all supposed to be tenants of the same house but the men occupied the living room and I the verandah.[20]

Such concern was visionary.

In the decades after the initial partial suffrage victories, female voters and politicians generally remained invisible or stigmatized as democratic citizens. Indigenous and other women left un-enfranchised because of racial prejudice were of even less interest. In 1919, an Ontario observer of the first provincial election after partial enfranchisement smugly condemned all electoral newcomers:  women might make “good house-keepers, tender mothers, and excellent neighbors: but constituted “mere masses of prejudice and ignorance on public questions.”[21]

By the 1925 federal election, prominent Conservative journalist and future senator Grattan O’Leary regaled readers with chaos in Ottawa politics where women clearly did not matter when big boys played in the parliamentary pen.[22] A feminist commenting that same year concluded,

A man is no longer a novelty in the legislature and can get away with almost anything if he has been trained in the old political game but women are scarce and very new … and there are always those waiting eagerly to point to their failures and longing for the day when they can enjoy themselves to the full in repeating, ‘I told you so!’[23]

Reception stayed unfriendly. For the 1930 federal contest, O’Leary now singled out female influence as “entirely in the negative” and “largely one of window dressing. He admitted antagonism:

Men, too, especially the old-line, hard-boiled partisans, are suspicious of the woman politician, disdainful of her efforts, and often openly contemptuous of her achievements. This may be unjust, is perhaps undeserved, but it is a reality nonetheless, perfectly and palpably obvious to all familiar with the political game.[24]

And, very typically, this ‘grand old man’ in the making blamed women’s flaws. When their sex wasn’t being criticized, they got soft-soaping from Conservatives. Women might be one of 255 female delegates to the 1927 national convention but potential candidates faced the “widespread antipathy of the local party stalwarts.”[25]  No female Conservative was elected to Ottawa until 1950.

Despite early support for enfranchisement and equality, the Canadian left had its own share of misogyny. Take the case of Tom Uphill (1874-1962), Fernie, BC’s long time labour/socialist politician. First a town alderman (1913), then mayor (1915; 1946; 1949-56), and eleven term MLA, initially for the Federated Labor Party (1920; of which suffragist Laura Marshall Jamieson, whose biography I am writing,[26] was also a member) and then as a Labor Independent until 1960, Uphill was an irrepressible misogynist. Between 1939-1945 and 1952-1953 Laura and he were both seated in Victoria where he flaunted notoriety as “one of the boys,” with “hundreds of ‘nieces’” and “pictures of pin-up girls.”[27] Uphill damned wage-earning wives and female judges, all of whom threatened male prerogatives.’”[28] Independent women were anathema.

The culture of male political entitlement persisted in the CCF.  As a party member concluded in 1940:

… men do not consciously discriminate against women but we know that unconsciously they do so all the time…. The same age-old customs are responsible for women discriminating against women. Women who stand for office are a challenge to the Ideal Woman of the past, and some women, without analizing [sic] why, are afraid that this new woman who reads, and thinks, and speaks with assurance, may displace the “home” woman, and make her in turn have to brush up her thinking too.[29]

Even as Canada fought fascism, a CCF man asserted male rights, freely admitting that he

thought that one thing wrong with the [CCF] movement is the place of women in executive positions. … women should be in the movement, but not in any executive capacity, and certainly not as members of the Legislature or in the Dominion House.[30]

Such opinions litter the supposedly progressive press.

Liberals were no better. Despite belatedly appointing the first female senator, Cairine Wilson, a longstanding Liberal partisan, to the Upper Chamber in 1930, William Lyon Mackenzie King steadfastly accommodated prejudice that might jeopardize his politics of the middle ground.  BC journalist and Liberal champion Bruce Hutchison typified the self-satisfied response of Canada’s ‘governing party’.  In a 1949 article, he casually slammed women as “the all-powerful, unknown, deified, glamorized and unintelligible riddle of our times.” Such irresponsible citizens “will spend anything” and “believe anything.” Women’s supposed shortcomings fed his crude invocation of a “total and ruthless matriarchy” where men were “already obsolete.”[31] When such authorities ruled the media waves, women were the first to be chucked from the democratic ship of state.

Rare female politicians, such as Macphail, produced special apoplexy. Despite her accomplishments, she rarely received substantive or fair treatment.  In 1929, one anonymous journalist savagely ridiculed his unnamed but identifiable target. He excused his “familiar” views  “because a woman is speaking and her opinions are part of the eternal feminine.” He mocked the only female MP’s egalitarianism and prophesized the triumph of “the Rights of Nature” in a quick exit.[32] A later critic reiterated similar prejudice. Presenting himself as a former supporter, he faulted “women electors” who would “not support a woman against a man.” While claiming to respect Macphail, he focused on Conservative Martha Black and Unity Party/Communist Dorise Nielsen, elected in 1935 and 1940 respectively: the former in pink, radiated “charm” and properly hid her brains, as she kept the seat warm for her husband; the latter was only redeemed as “by no means hard to look at.” In contrast, Liberal Cora Casselman, elected in 1941, was rejected as ungrateful for male attention and Conservative Ellen Fairclough from the 1950 in-take as little more than the thief of a “solidly Liberal” riding. Overall, he dismissed the distaff electorate, concluding “women politically have psittacosis. That’s parrot disease. It means that the Little Woman has only one political policy …John says …[33] Once again, a woman, in this case Fairclough, had to respond that a female politician was “there to do a job not flaunt her feminine traits” and challenge demands that required women “to be well-nigh perfect.”[34]

Result

Prejudice’s long shadow is clear.  In 1928 BC suffragist Helen Gregory McGill simply concluded that women were already “ suffering from the depression of an implied and accepted inferiority.”[35] By 1936, another champion of democracy, condemning the drop in female candidates, told Chatelaine’s readers that the rare female intruders were effectively “An act of God’—allowing the rest of their sex a glimpse of the Promised Land which they may gaze upon, but never enter into possession of.” She foresaw that “the millennium will catch up with women before they have secured even a modest quota in the Canadian parliament.” This was not women’s “fault.”  Many tried  “hard, and successfully, to be clear-headed, public-spirited, and business-like” but received  “carping criticism, jealousy and a dog-in—the manager attitude.” Ultimately, they were only “permitted to paddle in the political stream and to “work their heads off to help elect a worthy male candidate.” She finished bleakly that “the parade of political women is being turned homeward.”[36]

Such concerns went largely unheeded. Although it did not elect a woman to Charlottetown until 1970, Canada’s smallest province was typical:

[Prince Edward] Island’s political culture and the attitudes and traditions of the Legislative Assembly created, at best, suspicion about, and at worst, hostility towards, women as elected representatives.[37]

Even when enfranchised women ‘toed the lines’,[38] few succeeded as MPs, MLAs/MPPs, or in elections generally. Agnes Macphail waited until 1935 to be joined by Black. Only in the 1980s would Ottawa’s numbers go beyond a baker’s dozen and the situation was equally bleak provincially. As late as the Fall 2015 federal election, women constituted only 26% of the Commons and in December 2016 Canada stood 63rd of 193 countries in the proportion of women in the lower or single House.[39]  Parity in the 2015 federal cabinet was significant but insufficient. In 2017, 150 years after Confederation, only 315 women, the vast majority of British origin, had served as MPs, most in the previous three decades.

Does it matter?

Finally, we have to ask, do women’s numbers matter?  Clearly they have diverse social locations and points of view. While the suffragists believed that enfranchisement could better the nation, new voters did not escape male limitations.  Nevertheless, whatever their voting preferences, and political scientists are divided,[40] women are democratic subjects with a right to representation. So long as they are disadvantaged in elections, unable to remove the protective “armor” described by one sympathizer in 1925, [41] political life is impoverished. As we have seen recently in the United States but elsewhere as well, including Canada, where Alberta’s premier Rachel Notley has been subjected to unprecedented threats of violence,[42] democracy is the loser.

Even as suffrage anniversaries are celebrated, Conservative feminist Charlotte Whitton’s 1925 conclusion that

The dinosaurs may lie deep in their prehistoric graves but their spirits come out to range at night. … a mighty barrier to the progress of women in the business of government.[43]

continues all too true. That outcome is especially unfortunate when some female premiers, [44] like the US’s First Daughter (as of 2016), do not so much ‘rewrite the rules for success’[45] as nurture properly extinct reptiles.  In 2017, the result continues to impoverish life for everyone else.

Veronica Strong-Boag, the author and editor of many scholarly books and articles, received the Tyrrell Medal for excellence in Canadian history from the Royal Society of Canada in 2012 and is a former president of the Canadian Historical Association. She is a Professor Emerita at UBC.


This paper was given at the British Association for Canadian Studies meeting in London, UK, in April 2017.  I also wish to thank SSHRCC for its support of the larger project on suffragist Laura Jamieson of which this is a part and Jed Anderson for his research assistance.

[1] Agnes Macphail, “Men Want to Hog Everything,” Maclean’s  (15 Sept. 1949)

[2] See L. Trimble, J. Arscott and M. Tremblay, eds., Stalled: The Representation of Women in Canadian Governments (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013) for an excellent discussion of such impediments.

[3] See Veronica Strong-Boag, “The Citizenship Debates: Race and Gender in the 1885 Franchise Act,” in R. Adamoski, D. Chunn and R. Menzies, eds., Constructing Canadian Citizenship (Toronto: Broadview Press, 2002).

[4] Lisa Young, “Women (Not) in Politics: Women’s Electoral Participation,” ResearchGate (2008), https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228848346_Women_Not_in_Politics_Women’s_Electoral_Participation.

[5] Kristin J. Anderson, Modern Misogyny: Anti-Feminism in a Post-Feminist Era (NY: OUP, 2015), xiii.

[6] M.L. Young, “Marriage is My Career,” Chatelaine (Jan. 1941)

[7] “Who Is the Greatest Living Canadian,” Maclean’s (1 May 1927).  See also “The Greatest Living Canadian” ibid. (15 May 1927) and “Voted the Greatest Living Canadian,” ibid. (15 June 1927).

[8] “Earnest K. Lawson, “Young Canada: A department reflecting the activities of MacLean’s Young Canada Boosters Club,” Maclean’s (1 June 1927). See Also “Young Canada,” ibid (1 May 1927) which featured the premier of Saskatchewan addressing Canadian boys.

[9] Earnest H. Lawson, “Young Canada,” Maclean’s (1 July 1927).

[10] See A.M. Pratt, “Co-Education? –No!” Macleans’ (15 Oct. 1934).

[11] A Business Woman, “This Freedom,” Maclean’s (15 July 1931) and A spinster, “A Reply to ‘This Freedom,”” (15 Sept. 1931) and Mrs. John Scott, “This Anti-Feminism,” ibid., (15 Oct. 1931).

[12] Méderic Martin, “Go Home, Young Women?” Chatelaine (Sept. 1933) and Agnes Macphail, “Go Home Young Woman? Ha!,” ibid. (Oct. 1933).

[13] Elmer W. Ferguson, “I Don’t Like Amazon Athletes,” Maclean’s (1 Aug. 1938) and Roxy Atkins, “Elmer, You’re Goofy,” ibid., (15 Sept. 1938).

[14] Lady Rena Terrington, “Woman Worship,” Maclean’s (15 Sept. 1932).

[15] Margaret Pennell, “Partners, Not Doormats,” ibid., (1 Nov. 1932).

[16] An Official Wife, “A Candid Critics Looks at Ottawa and finds a Kingdom ruled by Women,” Maclean’s (15 Dec. 1932).

[17] Nellie L. McClung, In Times Like These (1915), http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/mcclung/times/times.html

[18] “Review of Reviews. Leacock Roasts Co-Education,” Maclean’s (15 Jan. 1922).

[19] A.M. Pratt, “Co-Education? –No!” Maclean’s (15 Oct. 1934).

[20] “The Confessions of a She-Politician,” Maclean’s (1 June 1922).

[21] “The Woman and the Franchise,” Saturday Night (1 Nov. 1919).

[22] O’Leary wrote a series of commentaries in Maclean’s. See, for example, his “Don’t Curse Our Politicians: Help Them!” (15 Dec. 1924).

[23] Amy J. Roe, “Canada’s Woman Cabinet Minister,” Maclean’s (15 June 1925).

[24] Grattan O’Leary, “Is Women’s Suffrage a Success?” Maclean’s (Sept 1930):

[25] Larry A. Glassford, “’The Presence of So Many Ladies’: A Study of the Conservative Party’s Response to Female Suffrage in Canada, 1918-1939,” Atlantis 22:1 (Fall/Winter 1997).

[26] The Last Suffragist Standing:  Laura Marshall Jamieson and Canadian Socialism (forthcoming UBC Press).

[27] Robert McDonald, “’Simply a Working Man’: Tom Uphill of Fernie,” in Wayne Norton and Tom Langford, eds., A World Apart: The Crowsnest Communities of Alberta and British Columbia (Kamloops: Plateau Press, 2002), 105.

[28] Ibid., 104.

[29] Constance Errol (Mrs. Elizabeth Kerr), “Women’s Views,” The Federationist (25 Jan. 1940).

[30] Constance Errol (Mrs. Elizabeth Kerr), “Women’s Views,” The Federationist (18 April 1940).

[31] “’Total and Ruthless Matriarchy, Male Already Obsolete,”, Vancouver Herald (8 Dec. 1949).

[32] H.F. Gadsby, “Letters of a Woman M.P.,” Maclean’s (15 Feb. 1929).

[33] Austin Cross, “Women in Politics haven’t Much Sense” Maclean’s (Sept. 1950).

[34] Ellen Fairclough, “Nonsense,” Maclean’s (Sept. 1950) (13,  58, 60)

[35] Helen Gregory MacGill, M.A. “Are Women Wanted in Public Life? And the Important Question is, ‘Are They Really Needed?” Chatelaine (Sept. 1928).

[36] Edith Kerr Macdonald, “’Women in Politics’—But are They?” Chatelaine (Oct. 1936).

[37] John Crossley, “Getting Women’s names on the Ballot: Women in Prince Edward Island Politics,” in Stalled, 176.

[38] Sylvia Bashevkin, Toeing the Lines (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993).

[39] See “Women in National Parliaments,” Inter-Parliamentary Union, accessed 17 February 2017, http://www.ipu.org/WMN-e/classif.htm

[40] See Manon Tremblay and Linda Trimble, “Women and Electoral Politics in Canada: A Survey of the Literature,” Tremblay and Trimble, eds., Women and Electoral Politics in Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[41] “Are Women Unjust to Men?” Ottawa Journal (5 Sept. 1925)

[42] “Statistics Show Rachel Notley has been the most Threatened Alberta Premier,” Edmonton Sun 13 Feb. 2017. See also Mary Beard, “Women in Power: from Medusa to Merkel,” Lonson Review of Books 39:6 (16 March 2017) for the global and classical case.

[43] Charlotte Whitton, “Will Women Ever Run the Country?” Maclean’s (1 Aug. 1952).  See also her “The Exploited Sex,” ibid., (15 April 1947).

[44] See Nora Loreto and Sarah Beuhler, “Christy Clark is the Kind of Feminist That Makes Things Worse,” Rabble.ca, Blog (11 March 2016), http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/sarahbee/2016/03/christy-clark-kind-feminist-makes-womens-lives-worse

[45] See Ivanka Trump, Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success (2017).

 

One thought on ““Men Want to Hog Everything”: Women in Canadian Legislative Politics after Suffrage Victories

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of May 14, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

Please note: ActiveHistory.ca encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.