Suffragists in Ontario struggled to bring attention to their cause, even holding a mock parliament in 1896 on the question of voting rights for men.
At the start of 1896, Ontario’s women’s suffrage movement found itself lacking momentum. Seeking to reignite public interest, the local branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, with the assistance of the Women’s Enfranchisement Association, staged an unusual production at the Pavilion of the Horticultural Gardens. On the evening of February 18, 1896, seats and desks were arranged on the floor of the Pavilion so as to resemble the Ontario Legislature. The central feature of the evening’s entertainment was the staging of a satirical mock parliament, in which an all-female parliament debated whether men should be granted the right to vote.
The organized women’s suffrage movement in Ontario is generally considered to have begun in November of 1877, with the founding of the Toronto Women’s Literary Club. The official purpose of the club, as stated in the preamble to their constitution and by-laws, was to provide women with an atmosphere of “intellectual culture, where [women] can secure a free interchange of thought and feeling upon every subject that pertains to women’s higher education, including her moral and physical welfare.” Dr. Emily Stowe, best known to history as the first practising female doctor in Canada, served as the Club’s first president, and organized regular meetings in members’ homes. The group also began advocating for a variety of causes, including the improvement of local labour conditions, and is credited with persuading the University of Toronto to accept female students.
Many historians believe that the Toronto Women’s Literary Club was specifically formed for the purposes of advocating for women’s suffrage, but that Stowe and her fellow organizers were reluctant to be so overt about their aims until they could be assured of public support. In her 1950 book The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada, Catherine Lyle Cleverdon claims that “the time was not considered opportune for the bold use of the word ‘suffrage,’ the mere mention of that term producing violent reactions in many quarters; hence the camouflage of a ‘literary club.'”
By March of 1883, Stowe and the other members of Literary Club decided they could be more open about their activities, and they re-formed the group as the Toronto Women’s Suffrage Association. The new organization, which admitted men as well as women, achieved some early success in 1884 when Ontario widows and spinsters were granted the right to vote in municipal elections. Further gains proved elusive, however, and the Association soon ceased regular meetings. Cleverdon writes that “though no reason for the inactivity appears on the surface, one may imagine that many women were satisfied with the gains made and lost the momentum of their first enthusiasm. More than one veteran leader has told the author that these ‘breathing spells’ were a natural reaction to a heavy expenditure of energy, and lasted until some new set of incidents or leaders appeared to rekindle the crusading spirit.”
The spirit was rekindled in early 1889 when Emily Stowe held a small meeting at her home, where it was decided that the movement needed greater publicity to induce a wider interest. The result was the Women’s Enfranchisement Association, which sought to function as a national group. With a stated goal of securing women’s right to vote in both provincial and federal elections, the group invited several high-profile American suffragists to speak in Toronto, including Dr. Anna Shaw and Susan B. Anthony. In an 1895 article about the Canadian suffrage movement in Canadian Magazine, Edith M. Luke writes that Anthony’s visit to Toronto “succeeded in fanning the flame of interest in her chosen work, until it spread from the women of Toronto to those of surrounding towns, flourishing organizations into existence in many places.”
In the hopes of advancing the suffragist cause beyond the Toronto area, the Women’s Enfranchisement Association began working closely with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), arguably the most popular and powerful national women’s group in Canada at this time. Although primarily a temperance organization, the WCTU advocated for a variety of social reforms and by the 1890s had become the first organization with a truly national profile to officially support women’s suffrage.
In 1890, the Women’s Enfranchisement Association petitioned Oliver Mowat, the Premier (and, concurrently, Attorney General) of Ontario, to ask whether he believed women should be allowed to vote and whether he would be willing to introduce legislation to accordingly extend the vote to women. While Mowat said he personally favoured extending the vote to women, the Globe reported that “he replied in effect that as a practical politician he did not believe that public sentiment was yet so far advanced as to give good ground to such a measure.”
Support elsewhere at the provincial level proved hard to come by. One of the few MPPs to openly support women’s suffrage was John Waters, the representative for Middlesex North. During his time in office, Waters annually proposed measures to extend the vote to women. One biographer of Emily Stowe, Mary Beacock Fryer, writes that “at times [Waters] asked that the municipal franchise be extended to married women; at others, his plea was for the provincial franchise for married women. For the most part the members greeted his speeches with laughter, because even men of his own party treated his efforts as a joke.” In 1894, the year Waters left office, the Women’s Enfranchisement Association and the WCTU again directly petitioned Premier Mowat, but, in the words of Cleverdon, “again received nothing but polite sympathy.”
Once again, women in Toronto sought to reinvigorate public interest in the suffragist cause. Dr. Emily Stowe was now joined in the cause by her daughter, Dr. Augusta Stowe-Gullen, who had become the first woman to graduate from a Canadian medical school, and who had already entered politics by becoming a Trustee of the Toronto School Board in 1892.
On January 23, 1896, an item appeared amongst the local briefs of the Globe: “At a special meeting of the Executive of the Toronto District WCTU held yesterday at headquarters it was decided to hold a mock Parliament and promenade concert in the Pavilion on February 18. The committee in charge of the Parliament is Mrs. McDonnell, Mrs. Stevens and Dr. Gullen. “Within a few weeks, the Globe reported that the WCTU had been granted the use of the Pavilion for a fee of $20, and noted that “the Parliament is to be run entirely by ladies who announce their intention of surprising the gentlemen who run Parliament at the capital and other places.”
In the 1890s, mock parliaments were a popular form of entertainment through which organizations could expose the perceived shortcomings of real parliaments and promote their own agendas. Toronto newspapers of the time report on other mock parliaments staged by reform clubs, churches, and universities. In Redressing the Past: The Politics of Early English-Canadian Women’s Drama 1880–1920, Kym Bird identifies at least nine different women’s mock parliaments which were staged in Canada, of which the 1896 Toronto production came chronologically second. The first, organized by the WCTU in 1893, was held at Winnipeg’s Bijou Theatre, and may have served as an inspiration for 1896 Toronto production.
The Horticultural Gardens, known today as Allan Gardens, already had an association with the Canadian women’s movement. In October of 1893, the Pavilion—a large, glass structure which both housed plants and served as a concert venue until it burnt down in 1902—had been the site of the inaugural meeting of the National Council of Women. (Led by Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Governor General, the National Council of Women was intended as an umbrella group of local Canadian women’s organizations, but did not officially advocate for suffrage, instead focussing its efforts on other, less contentious causes popular amongst women.)
Research by Kym Bird reveals that the script of the 1896 mock parliament appears to have been a group effort. “. . .Traces can be detected in the many small scraps of paper that comprise all that remains of the original 1896 script: many are penned by different hands. Presumably, most women who took a part in the production also wrote their own lines.”
Rehearsals began in early February. After one early run-through, the Globe reported that “considerable difficulty was experienced by some in making themselves heard.” By February 17, however, the Star reported that “the members were out in full force, and judging by the way they acquitted themselves, a rich treat is in store for all who will attend. . . [T]he members have already acquired the trick of throwing their voices to every part of the house.”
Officially billed as “Mock Parliament and Promenade Concert,” the production at the Pavilion included performances by the “D’Alessandro Orchestra,” and vocal performances from the “Verdi Quartette.” Mayor Robert Fleming had originally intended to attend the evening and introduce the musical program, but was called away to Ottawa; alderman John Hallam assumed this duty. According to the Globe, Fleming sent a telegram which was received during the evening, “congratulating the Parliament on its success, and hoping that it would not nominate one of its members for the civic chair.”
The stage, according to the Daily Mail and Empire, was arranged to resemble the Ontario Parliament, “with seats arranged on each side, with desks and all the appurtenances appertaining to a house of parliament. There was a throne for the speaker, a table for the clerk of the house and her assistant, and little girls in handsome dresses flitted about as pages.” The participants in the parliament were women drawn from the ranks of local suffrage organizations: Annie O. Rutherford, president of the WCTU, acted as Speaker; Emily Stowe served in the role of the Premier and Attorney General Oliver Mowat. Other notable participants in the parliament included longtime WCTU activist Letitia Youmans, Margaret Burwash, the wife of Victoria College president Nathanael Burwash, and Adaline Mareau Hughes, credited as the first kindergarten teacher in Toronto and mother of noted feminist Laura Hughes.
Following the overture, the first theatrical component took place: the women’s parliament heard a deputation from men representing the “Men’s Enfranchisement Association” and the “Men’s Christian Temperance Union.”
The deputation was met by a response from Emily Stowe, who, in the role (and spirit) of Oliver Mowat, delivered a long-winded speech thanking the delegation for their petition and expressing sympathy for their cause, before adding “but, as a practical politician whose visual rays always converge and focus through the telescope of expediency, I cannot hold out to you any hope that you will get what you want this year or even next.” The Daily Mail and Empire‘s account of the mock parliament, likely written by their regular women’s columnist Kathleen “Kit” Coleman, noted that “this was a reply equal to Sir Oliver’s best.”
Following another musical number, the mock parliament began in earnest. A series of motions and questions were introduced by the members on a variety of topics, and accounts note that parliamentary procedure was carefully followed. Several of the discussions took aim at aspects of parliament not specific to women’s suffrage; one member asked “When do the government [sic] intend to abolish the ridiculous office of Lieutenant-Governor and the expensive establishment in connection therewith?”
Most of the discussion, however, centred on the role of men in society and how their behaviour should be regulated. One member introduced a bill entitled “an act to prevent men from wearing long stockings, knickerbockers, and roundabout coats when bicycling,” while another suggested “a measure to provide for the ringing of a curfew bell at ten o’clock each evening of the week, warning all men off the streets unless accompanied by their wives.”
After several discussions, most of which reportedly generated considerable laughter amongst the men and women in the audience, the final act of the women’s parliament was to discuss the bill “extending the franchise to men on the same conditions as women.” By all accounts, the debate was at times hilarious, as various arguments frequently invoked by men were inverted. According to the Mail and Empire, Miss Wiggins, the Minister of Agriculture, “began by saying that when she was leaving home she asked her husband if he wanted the vote and he said ‘No.’ From that she argued that all men were against the measure. Her speech was highly humourous.” Other speeches came across as more poignant. Mrs. F. S. Spence, arguing in favour of the motion, was said to have “touched a responsive chord in the hearts of the men present”; Mrs. M.M. Jackson, also arguing in favour of giving men the vote, “closed the debate in a calm, deliberate speech which, if delivered by a man, would have been considered a finished piece of parliamentary oratory.”
At the conclusion of the debate, a vote was taken and the bill defeated. Several musical selections followed, and food was made available “on the European plan.” The evening ended with a “promenade concert,” in which the audience was free to roam amongst the plants in the Pavilion while the orchestra played a selection of songs, including John Philip Sousa’s “King Cotton.”
The Mail and Empire, Globe, and Star all published enthusiastic reviews of the mock parliament, the Star referring to the evening as “heaps as fun.” All three papers reported that a great many men and women were in the audience, although no numbers were given. Calls soon emerged for a restaging, which took place in April, again at the Pavilion.
Although it may have seemed like a success, it does not appear that the 1896 mock parliament kickstarted the Canadian women’s suffrage movement as had been hoped. Cleverdon writes that “between 1896 and 1905 there was little agitation for woman suffrage [in Ontario].” Emily Stowe’s health began to fail soon after the mock parliament; she died in 1903. Women finally got the vote in Ontario in 1917, one year before the franchise was extended federally.
Additional material from: Carol Lee Bacchi, Liberation Deferred?: The Ideas of the English-Canadian Suffragists, 1877—1918 (University of Toronto Press, 1983); Kym Bird, Redressing the Past: The Politics of Early English-Canadian Women’s Drama, 1880—1920 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004); Catherine Lyle Cleverdon, The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1950); Constitution and By-laws of the Women’s Enfranchisement Association of Canada (Blizard & Co, 1889: Toronto); Mary Beacock Fryer, Emily Stowe: Doctor and Suffragist (Hannah Institute & Dundurn Press, 1990: Toronto); The Globe (March 7, March 23, 1883; June 13, June 14, 1890; October 7, October 26, October 28, October 30, 1893; January 23, January 30, February 8, February 11, February 12, February 17, February 18, February 19, March 11, April 2, 1896); Carlotta Hacker, The Indomitable Lady Doctors (Formac, 2001: Halifax); Edith M. Luke, “Woman Suffrage in Canada,” in The Canadian Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 4 (August 1895); The [Daily] Mail and Empire (February 18, February 19, February 20, 1896; October 24, 1928); Heather Murray, “Great Works and Good Works: The Toronto Women’s Literary Club, 1877—83,” in Historical Studies in Education, Vol. 11, No. 1 (1999); Toronto Star (January 25, February 13, February 17, February 18, February 20, April 10, April 25, 1896); The Toronto Evening Telegram (October 27, 1893); Joanne Emily Thompson, “The Influence of Dr. Emily Howard Stowe on the Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada,” in Ontario History, Vol. 54, No. 4 (December 1962); The Toronto World (March 12, 1883; October 28, 1893).
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