BC Women Win the Vote

Posted by Daniel on Apr 15, 2010

A bout of the flu made me miss an important anniversary last week. On April 5, 1917, BC women got the right to vote in provincial elections.

The struggle for the vote really heated up across the country in 1912. Most of the action took place at the provincial level. Richard McBride was the premier and he opposed granting suffrage to the women. The arguments were familiar enough: women were too pure for the corrupt world of party politics; voting caused dissension in the home and led to divorce; as voters, women would neglect their husbands and children.

Suffragists sent delegations and petitions to the legislature where they received a polite hearing and a firm denial. Socialist MLAs introduced suffrage bills but they were always defeated, or never made it to a vote.

With World War One, though, attitudes began to change. Women were making such an important contribution to the war effort, it was harder to deny the case for political equality. At the end of 1915 McBride resigned the premiership and William Bowser took over. Bowser's position was that he would not introduce female suffrage without asking the question in a referendum first. A referendum in which women would not be able to vote, of course.

All during the summer of 1916 the referendum campaign raged. One of the leading suffragists was Helena Gutteridge. That's her in the poster above. Gutteridge had arrived in Vancouver from her native England in 1911, already a convert to the cause of women's suffrage. She was a tailor by trade, which marked her as different from the other activists, most of whom were middle-class professional women. Later, in 1937, Gutteridge would become the first women elected to Vancouver city council.

The referendum took place on election day, September 14, 1916. It passed. The election also put the Liberals in power under Premier Harlan Brewster and the following April the suffrage law was enacted.

BC was the fourth province to grant women the vote, the three Prairie provinces having gone first. In January 1918 Mary Ellen Smith won a seat in the legislature to become BC's first woman MLA.