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  • Writer's pictureMyrna Driedger

Celebrating women’s century-old rights victory here in Manitoba

Province’s 1916 law enfranchising women is pivotal milestone in Canadian history.

One hundred years ago, on Jan. 28, 1916, Manitoba women were the first in Canada and the British Commonwealth to be awarded the right to vote and to hold provincial office. This enfranchisement of Manitoba women can be regarded today as the first of a series of sweeping changes that ultimately allowed women to take their rightful place in our democratic society.

To mark this pivotal milestone in Canadian history, on Jan. 28, 2016 the Nellie McClung Foundation, in partnership with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, will be hosting a Centennial Gala: celebrating 100 years of Manitoba women’s right to vote. I hope you are among those joining us to kick off these celebrations in Canada.

Introducing the Nellies

This once-in-a-lifetime event will be held at the RBC Convention Centre, hosted by Entertainment Tonight Canada’s Cheryl Hickey, with special guest speaker, Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon. Highlight of the evening’s program will be presentation of the inaugural Nellie awards, presented in part by the Winnipeg Free Press, recognizing Manitoba women who have followed in Nellie McClung’s footsteps through their work in social justice and women’s and human rights.

Another facet of our celebrations is the Manitoba Museum’s new travelling exhibit, Nice Women Don’t Want The Vote. The exhibit looks at some of the ways Manitoba and Canada have struggled to provide full voting rights for all its citizens. Opened on Nov. 5, Nice Women will run until Feb. 9. For the following several months a portable version of the exhibit will travel around Manitoba, before its expected opening in the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa next November.

Readers who have an artifact or story that they think should be considered for this exhibit, please contact Roland Sawatzky, curator of history at the Manitoba Museum, at 204-988-0634 or

The Nellie McClung Foundation has begun to digitize a collection of unique source material. The database contains a small selection of catalogued items primarily focusing on the history of Nellie McClung and the women’s movement in Canada. The information is available on the Nellie website at

One of the groups that played a large role in the historic Manitoba decision was the Political Equality League of Manitoba. The league had a brief existence – it was around only in the years from 1912 to early 1916. Those early feminists believed that if women got the vote it would solve many of society’s ills. They believed that because of their “maternal instinct” and innate “moral” superiority women could, if they were able to vote, abolish political, economic and social corruption and injustice. Of course the league’s most famous member was Nellie McClung.

The core of active members was largely dominated by journalists. There were also a number of men involved. The majority of members were professional women with good education. They strictly forbade the use of any violent or unlawful activities. They believed in maintaining society’s laws and norms while at the same time trying to reform the status quo.

The league used satire, suffrage literature and speeches as its main weapons. The most famous example of their satirical tactics is the highly successful mock parliament, staged in 1914. They also sponsored teas, public meetings, public debates and speaking tours.

Many women were forbidden by their husbands or fathers to attend these “dangerous” meetings, and others simply did not have the confidence to do so. “Pink teas” were developed as a way for women to gather and discuss issues of importance, including suffrage. Only women were invited, and frilly decorations and many pink doilies festooned the tea tables. If opponents appeared, the women simply changed the subject to the bland pleasantries one might expect at a regular tea gathering.

Petition sparked legislative vote

But the work of the Political Equality League was serious business. And it was this league which, in 1913, presented a petition bearing the signatures of 20,000 men to the leader of one of the political parties. In 1915, a larger 40,000-strong petition was produced, and the transformation it sought became Manitoba law.

In keeping with the spirit of the past, we are hoping to see not only women at the Gala, but also men, as many men have been part of this journey.

The Jan. 28 Gala is almost sold out. I encourage readers to snap up the last seats, to celebrate with us this momentous moment in Manitoba and Canadian history. You will meet many inspiring women at the event. You might even meet Nellie.

Myrna Driedger is MLA for Charleswood. She founded the Nellie McClung Foundation through a private member’s bill in the Manitoba legislature in 2003.


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