On June 7, 1917, for the first time ever, (some) Albertan women headed to the polls for a provincial election. Their counterparts in Saskatchewan followed 19 days later, and before the end of the year, many women across the country helped select representatives to the federal parliament.
It was an historic moment for women. And Canada. But as renowned historian Sarah Carter demonstrates in Ours By Every Law of Right and Justice, established narratives about women’s suffrage often ignore “a complex and unsettling story.”
The traditional focus is prairie exceptionalism: that male politicians respected the contributions of their hard-working wives in the homesteading process such that they willingly caved to genteel requests for greater participation in politics. Similarly there is an assumption—implicit, if not explicit—that activists fought on behalf of and succeeded on behalf of all women. That, by 1917, all Canadians—at least on the prairies—could vote in elections and choose their own representatives.
These myths, Carter explains, overlook the decades-long struggle of female activists to convince men to act on their behalf, and the disturbing views of many suffragists that excluded Indigenous and non-British peoples. Instead, Carter’s discussion of key organizations and central characters in each prairie province, woven into an intriguing if occasionally clunky narrative, offers a nuanced understanding of the complex process undertaken to achieve the right to vote for non-Indigenous women on the prairies. Carter describes how women—individually and collectively—worked for years until men reluctantly acquiesced to their increasingly vocal demands. “In all three Prairie provinces, women were required to beg for the vote, again and again,” she writes. On the other hand, many suffragists held a “vision of the future” that was “simultaneously radical and reactionary.” These women were actively engaged in the construction of a patriarchal and white supremacist society and therefore exclusionary in their tactics and goals. The prairies were unique, then, not because the struggle proved easy and the victory inclusive, but because western settlement—including the legal realities for women involved in homesteading and the forced removal of Indigenous peoples from their territories—encouraged successful political action, but in service to the settler colonial project.
Overall, this well-researched and engaging book compels the reader to recognize “the contributions of these activists and the steps they took toward equality and justice while also recognizing the blind spots, shortcomings and exclusions that resulted in equality and justice for only some.”
—Roberta Lexier is an associate professor at MRU.