Lesson 2: The Strugle at the Turn of the Century
The Fear of Race Suicide:
As the 20th century began, more white middle and upper class men feared that the declining birth rate among
white women would lead to race suicide. In part, women caught in loveless Victorian marriages were less
disposed to have sex with their husbands many of whom (the husbands) were engaging in sexual relationships
outside the marriage. The double standard was an insult to women who were expected to remain loyal to men
they hardly liked. When abortion in the mid 19th century was rendered illegal, women began to abstain from sex
as an alternative birth control method. Really, for many women, there was little motivation to get pregnant. In
addition to the social reasons as to why women were not anxious to get pregnant, many knew the risks involved
with pregnancy and birth that could quite likely lead to their and their baby's deaths.
Other reasons for the decline in the birth rate among middle and upper class white women included women's
decision to seek advanced educations in the professions. Instead of marrying they chose careers or waited until
they were older before they married.
The concern about white women's lower birth rate came from the fear among politicians that Canada would be
over run by immigrants of lesser genetic "breeding".At the same time, immigrants were desperately needed as
labour in the massive industries growing in steel and textiles for example. White men feared their eventual loss
of dominance. And because of this fear, white women were further encouraged, cajoled and threatened in efforts
to force them to have more children. Threats about the decline of the "white race" or in more exuberant terms,
they were predictions about the end of civilization if white women continued to advocate for rights, abstain
from sex, and choose jobs over marriage. The moral duty as they were told was to reproduce for the well being
of the nation.
This was the social milieu in which a new generation of suffragists emerged in the 20th century. In the sections
that follow we examine briefly who some of the key figures were and what their ideas encompassed.
Nellie McClung was born into a pioneering family in Ontario. Soon after her birth the family moved to
Manitoba where she lived until her marriage. McClung was a public speaker, a writer, a satirist and most of all
an activist. She advocated for laws that would protect women and children; she analysed through her novels the
particular struggles in terms of race, class and gender that immigrant women faced; and she fought for the rights
of workers, and women's ordination in the church. She believed in freely chosen motherhood and marriage. In
fact, McClung felt that legal marriage was second to the priority of caring for children. She wanted all women,
married or not, to have access to the resources (i.e. access to education, a decent paying job) that would allow
them to bring up their children in economically and socially stable environments.
When McClung assessed the condition of women in Canada she found that women had no real legal protection.
One of the reasons that she remains a powerful figure in the history of women's suffrage is her own commitment
to action. Words without action she realized were not about to change the status of women, she would have to
act. McClung's line, "Never Retreat, Never Explain, just get the job done and let them howl" is, I believe the
quote that best exemplified her energy and drive regardless of the obstacles that were placed in her way.
Unlike other suffragists of the time, McClung tied together class, immigration, race and gender in her analysis
of women's subordination.And unlike other writers at the time, her novels always placed women and often
immigrant women as the core of her stories. Rather than depicting them as simply victims her protagonists acted
in the world to change society.
McClung knew how to survive. She understood the work and the potential of women from having grown up in a
pioneering family. She did not suffer well the inaction of middle class women.And she was greatly distressed
by the rising tide of commercialism seeing this as a way of convincing women to shop rather than engage in real
Pioneering life taught McClung that women not only had the skills (or could develop them) but had a moral
duty to participate in a process that articulated and built a just society. She was not impressed by the efforts of men. In this early stage of her thinking, she believed women were more moral than their male counterparts. She
was adamant that if women had the vote and could serve in government they would build a more equitable
society for all Canadians.
Some of her most brilliant writing can be found in your course package in which she expounds her views on war
and its causes. The First World War was problematic for many early feminists including McClung who saw war
as strictly a male response to conflict.At the heart of her political and ethical stance, McClung was driven by
the desire to create a society exempt of war and where each and every person had an equal say in the
development of society. She believed in a country that was fundamentally hinged on democratic practises. In her
vision, women would not be subject to the piecemeal handover of rights that seemed to be the current practise of
Today, I find it stunning to read her words and then read Canada's Charter of Rights that in so many ways
enshrines the very values McClung advocated. Her writing aimed at eliciting activism among her readers. Hers
was a call to action as individuals — an act she saw as a moral obligation.
Her fictional stories were powerful testaments to the strength that women could exercise when they chose. They
were intended not simply to describe the world as it was but provide the impetus and the means for changing it!
In her Pearlie Watson Trilogy McClung's objective was to demonstrate how social, political, and economic
conditions converged to affect women's lives differently from men's. Then inPainted Fires she added class,
ethnicity, gender and religion as categories of analysis.
McClung also understood the difference between "well intentioned" charity and real social change. She had
little patience for well-to-do people who believed they knew how to take care of those who had less
economically. Her analysis told her that such problems like poverty, housing, employment, ailing health etc...
where the result of power imbalances. The cure in her mind was neither blaming the poor for their own poverty
or hand outs that did nothing to attack the root causes.
McClung wrote, spoke, protested and lobbied governments and courts. She also served in theAlberta
Legislature from 1921-1926. What did she learn from this experience? She learned that party discipline that
demanded members of one party to vote in unison over issues did not allow for women's voices to be heard. Her
solution involved encouraging women to flex their ballot in directions that would assure the passage of bills
more conducive to the vision of women.
Perhaps the most articulate defence of the vote for women came in McClung's Mock Parliament in 1914. The
satirical piece was called, "Why Should Men Have the Vote". As a performance piece it captured with such
intelligence the silliness with which the argument against women was organized. It made a mockery of men's so
called "rational" thinking processes when it came to denying women the vote.
McClung had hoped that women would forge an independent voice against that of their husbands and others if
their ideas clashed. She hoped women would demand a higher moral standard for governance through their
exercise of the ballot.After McClung's many struggles and those of like minded women, she was disappointed
to discover that women did not treat the vote as a vehicle to create a better Canada independently of the men in
their lives. In the decades that followed the winning of the franchise and later the Person's Case, McClung
realized that women were no more moral than men.
The Famous Five:
On Parliament Hill in Ottawa you will find a rather unique sculpture amidst the many powerful male statues of
leading Canadian figures. This piece of art is an interesting contrast in how power and influence are created. On
the one hand, you can visit our former Prime Ministers cast in iron standing metres higher than any real human.
They look down on us rather less important citizens. Their gazes are severe and exude intelligence and immense
power. However, off to one side of the Parliament Buildings, still prominently placed, but on the ground level
where children and adults alike can take pleasure in their presence are the statues of five women. These are:
Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards and Irene Parlby. Unlike the
statues of the men, this display is at the viewer's height, some of the women are sitting others are standing.
Unlike the men who either gaze intimidating down from their perches or out beyond some undefined future, the women are in a circle having tea. While at first, it might seem that this is too "quaint" actually to befit the
importance of these women, in fact, it rightly reflects five strong, intelligent, fierce women who organized
themselves against the most powerful figures and institutions of the day without the trappings of institutional
Can you imagine being publicly ridiculed? Can you see yourself up against your society by fighting for the right
to vote; to serve as clergy; to earn equal wages; or, to demand an equal voice in government?All at a time when
science, religion, politics claimed women were only suited to keeping a home or raising a family. Remember,
we're not devaluing the work women do in the home, but we are talking about how women's place in the home
was measured as having less value than the important work men undertook.And, women's work in the home
was also severely restricted.
1. Emily Murphy:-Suffragist and reformer-First female magistrate in the Commonwealth-Organizer of the
"Person's" case-Wrote books and articles using the pseudonym "Janey Canuck"
2. Louise McKinney-Organizer of Women's Christine Temperance Union-First woman to serve as a member of
the Legislative Assembly in the Commonwealth inAlberta — 1917
3. Nellie McClung-Novelist, journalist-Suffragist, reformer-MLA for Edmonton 1921-1926-First female
director of the Board of Governors for the CBC-Delegate to the League of Nations 1938
4. Henrietta Muir Edwards-Published Canada's first women's magazine-Established the prototype for the
Canadian YWCA-Artist, legal expert-Founder of the National Council of Women (1893)
5. Irene Parlby-Advocate for rural women inAlberta-First female cabinet minister inAlberta, the second in the
Commonwealth-Delegate to the League of Nations (1930)
These Western Canadian women worked with determination over the course of their lifetimes to ensure women
throughout Canada received decent pay, access to serving in government, human rights, decent working
conditions and much more. But perhaps in terms of their combined efforts, they are most famous for the
"Person's Case". In 1927 Emily Murphy gathered her four other friends together to send to the Supreme Court of
Canada a petition asking for clarification on the process to become a Senator. The response from the all male
judges with the Supreme Court said that women were not persons under the British NorthAmericaAct and
therefore could not serve in Canada's Senate. Incredible! The five women, with the backing theAlberta
government took their case to the British Privy Council where on October 18, 1929 the Council ruled that
indeed women are persons.
This is a powerful story about women with little or no power or wealth but with tremendous intelligence and
commitment winning against great odds.
Early 20th Century Feminists:
Many of the first feminists in Canada were suspicious of any definition that intimated that all women shared the
same attributes or that they should be contained to the private sphere. They despised the double standard that
allowed men to operate without restraint in both public and private locations without any apology for
behaviours considered immoral when women displayed them. They wanted an end to the restrictions of identity
and vocation and fought for “voluntary motherhood” so that women could make choices about the direction
they wished to take their lives without the imposition of false social dictates on women’s “natural” roles. That
women would have ideas different from those of men, or that women wanted other things out of their lives than
what men set up for them was a complete surprise to men. The general assumption in society was that men
could and should determine what is best for women. Obviously, this perspective did not take into account any of
the prejudices white men in power embodied like sexism, racism and certainly also classism.
In all likelihood, men who fought against women gaining the vote feared a loss of control. If women could be
doctors, lawyers, politicians, in the minds of some of the men speaking at the time, what would define their
identity as men? Remember men for throughout the 19th and early 20th century had framed their identity as a
foil to what they decried as women’s identity. To maintain their masculinity and through this their power and
authority in both the private and public spheres as husbands, fathers and providers, this distinction was critical. Once again we need to cross the border into the United States to develop the ideas around biology, sex and
identity.At the beginning of the 20th century a number of women were working on ideas that would radically
alter how women thought about themselves and their right to a life beyond the Victorian model.
Emma Goldman, or as she was sometimes referred to as "Red Emma", was born in 1869 in Lithuania. When she
learned that her father had arranged a marriage for her at the age of 15 to a much older man, she fled on a ship
with her sister for the United States arriving in 1885. Here Goldman worked in factories in Chicago learning
first hand the brutality of industrialization. The event that propelled her into a life of political and social
activism was what would later be dubbed the Haymarket Riots of 1887. Workers were on strike and surrounded
by the police. In the midst of this volatile situation, someone threw a bomb into the crowd killing a number of
police officers. In the investigations that followed it became apparent that the actual person or persons
responsible for the act held little interest for the police and the government who charged eight known members
of an emerging anarchist group -- none who were known to be directly involved in the bomb throwing event.
The police justified their position by arguing that the views of the anarchists (a society organized without
institutions that dictate who has access to resources and in what measure) by nature of their political views
incited the riots and bomb throwing. The result was that eight men were arrested all of whom had no direct
connection to the bombing. Seven of the eight were condemned to death. In the end four of these men were
hanged, two had their sentences reduced to life imprisonment and one committed suicide. Goldman was
outraged by the miscarriage of justice but more powerfully she was also intrigued by a movement that looked to
dismantle political and economic institutions.
As an activist, Goldman campaigned for the rights of women. While women were her primary focus, she placed
less hope in the benefits of women achieving the vote. Unlike other women at the time, she disposed of any
idealism that claimed women as more moral than men. Her objective was to tear down the social restraints and
belief systems that divided women from men and disallowed women's access to public and private institutions
on equal footing to men. She rather accurately predicted that women would use the vote to stay the political
course of their husbands and fathers. So while she supported the women who were fighting for the vote her
concerns were philosophically different.
She advocated free love (no to arranged marriages) as well as voluntary motherhood. In her work with women
she had often seen how pregnancy could lead to death or how additional children increased poverty.And like
Nellie McClung, her thinking extended to all walks of life including struggling for decent wages and work
practises. It was however, her work to bring to women information on birth control that landed her in jail several
The striking feature of both Nellie McClung and Emma Goldman was their commitment to live their ideas.
Imagine for instance Goldman literally perched on a soap box on a street corner delivering her impassioned
Within the anarchist movement, Goldman often fought to have the analysis examine gender and not simply
economics. She used gender to demonstrate how governance, social structures, economics, religion and
education were delivered differently according to ideas about masculinity and femininity. Unlike other thinkers
of the time, she knew that institutions and systems were patriarchal even though the impulse was to imagine
them as gender neutral.
At one point, she decided she would be of greater value to women if she were a trained a midwife despite the
illegality of this vocation in NorthAmerica. Since no schools existed in NorthAmerica, Goldman travelled to
Austria where midwifery was widely accepted. Her time in Europe offered her more than just medical skills; she
was also introduced to a wealth of new ideas including psychotherapy. What she learned while abroad came to
form the basis in her thinking on human sexuality and ultimately human freedom. This thinking was critical in
her understanding women's containment to the private sphere, their treatment at the hands of the medical
profession that claimed women were asexual, women's role in marriage and in many other avenues of social
encounters. Perhaps it was because of this experience with new tools to analyse the world, that Goldman was
able to raise the veil on the family and examine its oppressive elements that left women often battered or silent. Goldman was fiercely antimilitarist which meant as the United States entered the First World War she opposed
the draft that unquestionably sent young men off to their deaths. Many feminists (Nellie McClung in Canada
was one) held similar views but speaking out against the war and the draft could land a resistor in the United
States in prison and charged with treason. The fear of prison kept many people quiet about their opposition to
the draft but not Goldman. By 1918 ironically as the war was winding down she was imprisoned and then
deported to the Soviet Union. (Wilfrid Laurier University has a video on Emma Goldman's life made by a
Toronto filmmaker -- if you happen to be on campus take some time to view it). However the Soviet Union was
neither a fan of Goldman nor she of it.After witnessing the repression of rights, she loudly and vociferously
spoke out against government abuses.And soon she was deported once again. Her next few years were spent in
exile in Britain, France and later here in Canada. These were difficult years for Goldman who missed the
activism she had known in the United States. While she was permitted one last short visit to New York, she
eventually died in Toronto in 1940.
While many vilified Goldman for her ideas on freedom and rights others saw her as a "woman 5,000 years
before her time." Her anarchism was not about chaos but about a society where mutual aid and not competition
framed the core of all principles.
She believed in freely chosen lives where harm to one another was minimized. In your Shaw and Lee textbook
you will find an article on marriage written by Goldman. Many of her ideas are still used by social theorists so
you may want to see if her ideas are useful to you.
In fact, here's a challenge:
Go to the library or onto the Internet and find some of the writings of the early suffragists and reformers. Read
what Elizabeth Cady Stanton said on religion (she revised the Bible at one point — the Women's Bible), or
Nellie McClung's book on war. While the language is not necessarily how we would write and speak in these
times, you may find yourself saying, "Yeah, these ideas still stand as valid today."
The other point perhaps you may want to think about is how feminists during the various waves (you have an
article in your course package on this) are really about creating a more just society for all peoples not simply
white women, or women in general, but a better world for men as well.
Margaret Sanger, like Emma Goldman, led the fight in the United States on access to birth control for women.
In your course package you have an extract of an experience that changed her life in terms of her own profound
sense of responsibility to ensure that women would cease to have lives of despair burdened by unwanted
pregnancies (too many women were unable to afford more children and women continued to die in childbirth).
Sanger’s experience as a nurse presented her with countless examples of women atte