Canadian Women Gain the Vote Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Canadian women’s struggle for the right to vote, which began in the 1880’s, succeeded province by province.

Summary of Event

Canadian women’s struggle to achieve the right to vote spanned more than fifty years. With the exception of Quebec, the woman suffrage movement in Canada closely paralleled the one in the United States. The success of the movement in Canada is indebted to the efforts of numerous women. Emily Howard Stowe, Canada’s first woman physician, emerged as one of the most active and successful women in the movement, working intensively for the advancement of Canadian women. Stowe and several Toronto women founded the Toronto Women’s Literary Club Toronto Women’s Literary Club[Toronto Womens Literary Club] in November, 1876, to work for women’s right to vote. Apparently, they called the group a literary club because of negative societal attitudes regarding woman suffrage. One popular argument against women’s voting at the time was that women should be protected from the contamination of politics. Woman suffrage;Canada Suffrage;women Canada;woman suffrage Women;suffrage [kw]Canadian Women Gain the Vote (Sept. 20, 1917) [kw]Women Gain the Vote, Canadian (Sept. 20, 1917) [kw]Vote, Canadian Women Gain the (Sept. 20, 1917) Woman suffrage;Canada Suffrage;women Canada;woman suffrage Women;suffrage [g]Canada;Sept. 20, 1917: Canadian Women Gain the Vote[04330] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Sept. 20, 1917: Canadian Women Gain the Vote[04330] [c]Women’s issues;Sept. 20, 1917: Canadian Women Gain the Vote[04330] [c]Social issues and reform;Sept. 20, 1917: Canadian Women Gain the Vote[04330] Stowe, Emily Howard Grant, Mrs. Gordon H.

Stowe’s efforts are notable for the courage and persistence she showed in working for the enfranchisement of women in the face of society’s hostility. In 1882, the Literary Club successfully lobbied the Ontario legislature to pass a law permitting unmarried women who met certain property qualifications to vote on municipal bylaws. In 1883, the club supported the formation of an organization focused completely on woman suffrage. This organization, the Toronto Women’s Suffrage Association, Toronto Women’s Suffrage Association[Toronto Womens Suffrage Association] went on to serve as a model for other such groups.

The suffrage movement in Canada had distinct occupational and economic characteristics. Most suffrage activists came from a narrow spectrum of the female population, characterized by some degree of professionalism, self-employment, or economic independence, or they were the spouses of wealthy men. These characteristics were useful in that they helped the women gain access to policy makers and enabled them to withstand the hostility often directed toward proponents of the movement. Unlike the suffrage movement in the United States, the Canadian movement was relatively quiet. Canadian activists were able to employ effective persuasive strategies rather than having to rely on the more militant kinds of tactics used in the United States.

The pattern for achieving political equality was initiated at the local level and ended at the national level. For example, by 1900, several Canadian provinces permitted women to vote in elections of school trustees and municipal officials; however, as in Ontario, these privileges were likely to be restricted to unmarried women. Around 1900, suffragists began to focus their attention on gaining the provincial and dominion franchises. Between 1916 and 1922, they reached their goal, except in Quebec. Between 1918 and 1940, Quebec women were allowed to participate in federal elections, but not in provincial ones.

The first women’s organization to support political equality in Canada was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union Woman’s Christian Temperance Union[Womans Christian Temperance Union] (WCTU), which began organizing in Canada on the local level during the 1870’s. The WCTU used a strategy in which its workers petitioned local, provincial, and federal governments for rights. The most influential and recognized women’s organization in Canada was the National Council of Women National Council of Women (NCW), but the NCW did not compromise its status quo position during the 1800’s by strongly endorsing and supporting women’s political rights. It was not until 1904 that the NCW established its Standing Committee on Suffrage and Rights of Citizenship and openly acknowledged support for the suffrage movement. At its 1910 Halifax conference, the NCW endorsed woman suffrage. The widespread esteem in which the NCW was held made this endorsement extremely important for the movement.

Canadian women of the prairies had a far easier time in gaining the right to vote than did women in other regions of Canada because prairie women had tremendous support from male farmers. Because the rigors of prairie life required stamina and hard work from both women and men, prairie men had few illusions regarding the equality of women. Prairie women had support from farmers’ associations in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. The women founded associations in which they discussed and organized for woman suffrage. They waged the shortest and easiest fight, becoming the first to achieve woman suffrage in Canada. In Manitoba, success came primarily as a result of the work of a well-organized suffrage society, but in Saskatchewan and Alberta, influential farmers’ organizations and their women’s auxiliaries were mainly responsible for women’s gaining the right to vote.

In other areas of Canada, women found support from organized labor. For example, in 1912, a labor convention in Kamloops, British Columbia, drafted a resolution that called for woman suffrage. The British Columbia Federation of Labor endorsed this resolution the same year. The Protestant clergy in several English-speaking provinces also came to the support of the suffrage movement. In Quebec, however, the Roman Catholic Church consistently rejected woman suffrage. The English-language newspapers gave tacit support to woman suffrage; the French-language press, in contrast, did not hesitate to express strong opposition.

In British Columbia, the equal rights movement began in the mid-1880’s. Suffrage activists in British Columbia were primarily isolationist in advancing their cause, unlike the Ontario activists, who were involved in suffrage work in other provinces. One of the most active members and a leader of the British Columbia movement was Mrs. Gordon H. Grant of Victoria. For more than thirty years, she was active in the WCTU and the Victoria Council of Women. Grant led a delegation to the legislature nearly every year throughout the struggle for suffrage. During the primary years of the movement—from 1911 until victory in 1917—Grant and the Political Equality League (PEL), under her leadership, led suffrage activities in the province. The PEL organized delegations, held public meetings, and brought petitions containing ten thousand signatures to the legislature.

External influences on the Canadian suffrage movement included women’s activities in the United States. Canada sent delegates to a women’s rights convention in the United States in 1876, which influenced the initiation of suffrage societies in Canada. Canadian groups participated in the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., during Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration. Suffrage groups arranged for movement leaders Dr. Anna Howard Shaw and Susan B. Anthony to speak in Toronto in 1889.

On April 12, 1917, the Ontario government yielded to suffragists and approved the right to vote for women. Eventually, all the provinces from the Ottawa River to the Pacific Ocean passed legislation for woman suffrage. In Ottawa, long, heated debates took place in the Canadian parliament before the bill emerged from the upper chamber on September 20, 1917, enacting into federal law woman’s right to vote. More than half a million Canadian women received the right to vote for the first time on that day. The four eastern provinces granted women the right to vote soon thereafter.

The traditional conservatism of the Maritime Provinces—Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island—held up the progress of women’s gaining political rights. In November, 1917, it was reported that there was little opposition to the demand for woman suffrage in this region, but there was a tremendous amount of indifference. New Brunswick, however, was very active in the suffrage campaign, mainly due to the presence of an active branch of the WCTU. Prince Edward Island was the site of very little activity, which is attributable to its isolation from the rest of Canada.

Of all the provinces, Quebec put up the greatest and longest resistance. The WCTU, organized in 1883-1884 in Montreal, was the first organization in Quebec to demand woman suffrage. Quebec’s legislature refused to acknowledge bills and petitions relating to women’s political rights until after World War I. The first bill proposed to grant the provincial franchise to women was introduced into the legislature in 1927. The Montreal Local Council of Women (MLCW), founded in 1893, was active in seeking local political victories for women. The MLCW was the main force for women’s rights until 1913, when the Montreal Suffrage Association Montreal Suffrage Association (MSA) became a focal point for Quebec’s suffrage activities from 1913 to 1919. The MSA was hindered by its English-speaking orientation, however, and in May, 1919, it disbanded. Montreal was without a suffrage organization until the Provincial Franchise Committee was organized on January 16, 1922, under dual French and English leadership.

In 1939, suffragists in Quebec finally had a friendly premier in office and a legislature committed to woman suffrage. For three and a half months between the 1939 election and the opening of the 1940 legislative session, women intensified their campaign. On April 9, Bill Number 18 proposed to give women the dual rights of voting and office holding in the province. On April 25, 1940, the bill passed.


The acquisition of the right to vote was only the first step for Canadian women’s participation in political life. Winning political office was still difficult for women after suffrage was achieved, but in the House of Commons women saw steady growth in their representation in the country’s most important legislative body. As recently as 1972, women held only five seats, or 2 percent of the total. Their numbers steadily increased over three decades to sixty-five seats in 2004, 21 percent of the total. There is little reason to believe that Canadian women’s rising level of political representation will not continue as the twenty-first century progresses. Woman suffrage;Canada Suffrage;women Canada;woman suffrage Women;suffrage

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cleverdon, Catherine L. The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada: The Start of Liberation. 2d ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974. Excellent critical source on the Canadian woman suffrage movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kealey, Linda, ed. A Not Unreasonable Claim: Women and Reform in Canada, 1880’s-1920’s. Toronto: Women’s Press, 1979. Informative, analytic discussion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sheehan, Nancy M. “The WCTU on the Prairies, 1886-1930: An Alberta-Saskatchewan Comparison.” Prairie Forum 6 (Spring, 1981): 1-33. A close look at the regional approach to woman suffrage taken in Canada.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stephenson, Marylee. Women in Canada. Rev. ed. Don Mills, Ont.: General Publishing, 1977. A good general text on the history of women’s issues in Canada.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strong-Boag, Veronica, Mona Gleason, and Adele Perry, eds. Rethinking Canada: The Promise of Women’s History. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Collection of essays that examine the contributions of women to key moments in Canadian history. Includes discussion of the woman suffrage movement.

Pankhursts Found the Women’s Social and Political Union

First Woman Is Elected to the U.S. Congress

National Woman’s Party Is Founded

British Women Gain the Vote

League of Women Voters Is Founded

U.S. Women Gain the Right to Vote

Proposal of the Equal Rights Amendment

Categories: History