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Friday, May 6, 2011

Women, the Vote, and Raising One's Voice

This post originally appeared here:


Equal Voice, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to getting more women elected to all levels of government, has a new initiative called the iCommit Campaign, basically asking young women to commit to voting in the election, and staying engaged in politics beyond. If you're a woman between the ages of 18 and 24, you should go do just that.

I've already displayed the graphic that shows voting intentions by age. Here's another one, voting intentions by gender:

This isn't as drastic as the youth vs. senior because it cuts across all age groups, but there is still an important difference. And if you, like me, are both young and a woman, well, you've probably noticed that the composition of Parliament mostly reflects the votes of older men (who also make up most of the composition of Parliament). That's why it's important, not only to vote, but to be politically engaged. We do need more women in Parliament. We don't have nearly enough women running for election let alone winning. As Jack Layton points out, it's a historic first that even 40% of NDP candidates in this election are women.

All this has made me reflect on the history of women's votes. Well, no, actually that's a lie. I was already reflecting on the history of women's votes because I wrote a paper about it two weeks ago so it's all fresh in my mind. (I'm a nerd, so sue me.)

You may not know this, but up until the 1840s it was common practice for women in Montreal to vote. When we think about the history of women voting, we usually think of the suffragettes. But I kind of like these earlier women who weren't necessarily fighting for anything, who just went out and voted like it was no big deal.

The thing you have to understand is that before democracy became the big new thing in the late 1700s/early 1800s, position in the social hierarchy was a much better indicator of your power than gender. Anyone who's seen The Tudors or Marie Antoinette will know that women in court had a lot of power. And poor women were just as likely to riot in the streets as their male counterparts.

In order to be eligible to vote in most parts of the British Empire, you had to be a subject of the King/Queen, over the age of majority, and hold a certain amount of property in your name (this was to keep the voting to the more prosperous members of society, rather than the rabblerousers on the street). Traditionally, property was held by men, who passed it down to their oldest son. In the absence of sons, a daughter might inherit some property in the richest of families (think Anne de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice), but not in families that were less well-off (think Mr. Collins and the Bennett sisters). Whoever did inherit would be expected to care for the widow (think Mrs. Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility). So women rarely held enough property to be eligible to vote, although they were not banned from doing so should they meet the requirements.

Quebec, however, maintained French Civil Law even under the British Empire. Under Quebec laws, property was jointly held by married couples, although the husband, as executor, was essentially considered to own the property. However, this meant that upon a man's death half of the marital property belonged to the widow, and the other half was generally split among all children who were of age. This meant that many widows of voters, especially those whose children were under the age of majority, were eligible to vote. It also meant that more daughters inherited property. And the "separation of goods"--a marital contract that stopped property from being held jointly by keeping it in the name of the person who brought it into the marriage--was common for upper middle class families like the Molsons (beer) and the Redpaths (sugar).

So in many parts of Quebec, and particularly Montreal, women were in the habit of voting. This was sometimes controversial, since polls were much more violent places in the early nineteenth century than they are now. And some people were afraid that married women who voted were being dragged to the polls by their husbands in order to provide an extra vote for the husband's chosen candidate. But all in all, women voters were accepted, especially the widows.

And then equality happened. The thing with equality is that it was all men who were born equal, not all people. It was liberté, égalité, fraternité. Women were kind of squeezed out of the political arena, firstly because most women who had power were aristocrats, and also because women were associated more and more with the private sphere: motherhood, domesticity, and being a good little wife. (Think the Victorian era, or maybe the 1950s.)

All of a sudden the idea of a poor little wife and mother being pushed onto the hustings and forced to say, "My name is x, I am a loyal subject of Queen Victoria, I have property worth x amount on x street, and I would like to vote for candidate x," in front of a jeering crowd of thugs, was unthinkable. (Yes, this was how people voted back in the day). Any woman who would do that willingly was clearly of questionable morality, and DUDE GUYS WE NEED TO SAVE THE WIMMENZ WHO ARE BEING FORCED TO PARTICIPATE IN DEMOCRACY!!!!! There was also a thing where they were afraid that if women could vote, women would try to run for seats, and then they would be pregnant all the time and never able to show up to Parliament, but that's just so ridiculous I'm not even going to try to unpack it.

In the Election Act passed in the Province of Canada (ie Ontario and Quebec) in 1849, buried in 30 pages of minutiae on determining county boundary lines and the legitimacy of returning officers, is this line:

Article 46: "And be it declared and enacted, That no woman is or shall be entitled to vote at any such election, whether for any County or Riding, City or Town."

Just one sentence! Just one sentence that in a stroke strips thousands of people of their voting privileges!

And it was such a non-issue that I haven't even been able to find a reference to it in any of the newspapers of the time.

So that's why I think it's important for women to vote. Because our government and our parliament were built in a time when people had that mindset. Most of the Fathers of Confederation were already in politics by the time that bill went through. Sir John A. Macdonald voted on it, probably without thinking about Article 46 because I'm pretty sure that's the shortest article in the entire Act. The only reason women got to vote again in the first place was a political ploy by Sir Robert Borden during the First World War, when he allowed the wives and mothers of soldiers to vote, knowing they would most likely vote for him and keep him in power.

Don't you think we should be reasserting our rights, reinserting our voices? I understand that a system created when the idea of women voting was counterintuitive, doesn't really speak to women. But that's exactly WHY we need to speak up for ourselves, why we need to get in there and MAKE things more accessible for women.

Because the old men that run our country right now? They sure ain't gonna do it.

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