Jack's Twisted Kingdom
2003-06-17 08:41:38 (UTC)

today's contribution to world trivia

An Angel's Wings Get Tired: the Struggle for Provincial
Enfranchisement of Quebec Women, 1918 - 1940

Quebec has the dubious distinction of being the last
Canadian province to grant women the right to vote in
provincial elections. This is often attributed to the
antiquated beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church, which
staunchly opposed the enfranchisement of women in Quebec.
Yet this opposition alone does not provide a satisfactory
answer to the question of why it took twenty-two years
following federal enfranchisement in 1918 before women in
Quebec were granted the right to vote provincially. Other
important factors in this delay include the effects of
rising Quebec nationalism and the ideological basis of the
brand of feminism embraced by women in Quebec. The Roman
Catholic Church, the nationalist movement and many important
women's groups shared common perceptions of women that
contributed in great measure to the difficulties that women
faced in obtaining the vote. The contributions of these
shared perceptions to the consistent opposition of women's
enfranchisement will be elaborated to demonstrate that
placing the blame solely on the Roman Catholic Church is
simplistic and fails to provide a complete answer to the
question of why resistance to provincial enfranchisement was
so powerful.

Historian Karine H?bert notes that though the quest for
female suffrage is commonly associated with feminism based
on a belief in the equality of the sexes, in reality it is a
more complex issue. For female proponents of suffrage from
prominent Quebecois groups, including the French, Catholic
F?d?ration nationale Saint-Jean-Baptiste (FNSJB) and the
English, Protestant Montreal Local Council of Women (MLCW),
feminism was characterized by the idea that women were
morally superior to men. Women's domain was the home, and
from that sphere women were expected to act as guardians of
social mores, religion, education and the family. Quebecois
women had been active in the philanthropic projects of the
Social Reform movement since the late 19th century. The
FNSJB in particular considered that its role was to combine
feminism, Catholicism and social reform. Many maternal
feminists believed that their moral superiority required and
was justification for legislative authority in order to
carry out their social responsibilities. The vote was
considered a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Yet whether the vote was a means or an end was of no
importance to many who opposed the enfranchisement of women.
It was generally held that "La femme peut facilement
conduire le monde mais 'par des mouvements gracieux, ? la
fa?on des anges." Women were to master the art of indirect
influence, and should not tarnish themselves in the dirty
world of politics. Politicians, including Louis-Alexandre
Taschereau (Premier of Quebec 1920 - 1936) and Maurice
Duplessis (Premier of Quebec 1936 - 1940), seemed especially
prone to this point of view. Bourassa's vitriolic tirades in
a variety of popular newspapers left no doubt as to the
strength of his sentiments. Though he believed in the moral
superiority of women, he considered that it was limited to
the private sphere and that public action would cause women
to lose their influence at home and would eventually lead to
the disintegration of society. For his part, in 1922
Taschereau informed a delegation that petitioned for female
enfranchisement that though he conceded that women might
someday get the vote he would never be the one to grant it.

Both Taschereau and Bourassa were devout Catholics, and
believed that the enfranchisement of women was contrary to
the interests of the Church. The opposition of the Catholic
Church in Quebec to women voters, based on its belief that
women voters would damage Quebec's social fabric, is well
documented. This was a source of deep frustration for the
FNSJB as the Vatican issued a statement in 1927 that female
suffrage was acceptable to the Church. However, this was
limited by the condition that suffrage should be approved in
each country by the episcopate. As far as Quebec women were
concerned this was the equivalent of admitting that they
would never be granted the vote.

Belief in the strength and power of the Catholic Church in
Quebec was very strong. The overwhelming majority of
Francophones were practicing Catholics; religion was of such
tremendous importance that protection for Catholic education
was enshrined in the Constitution Act of 1867. Yet in the
first quarter of the twentieth century there was a growing
faction that believed that French-Canadian Catholicism was
incompatible with urban living. Such belief must have been
deeply alarming, given that according to 1921 and 1931
census data not only was Quebec becoming more urban but
migration into the cities was occurring at a faster rate
than in the rest of Canada. The increase in urbanization led
to increases in urban poverty, disease and unemployment. The
problems associated with rapid increases in urbanization
contributed to the feeling that society was dissolving.
During the 1920's the identification of French-Canadian
culture with Catholicism and the Christian desire to combat
these problems took on a dimension of Quebecois national pride.

Susan Mann Trofimenkoff claims that every generation of
French-Canadians tries a different brand of nationalism. In
the 1920's the new nationalism involved a resurgence of the
traditional ideas of pure French-Canadian women, angelically
guarding the integrity of the French-Canadian family and
raising patriotic, Catholic French-Canadian children. Though
feminist organizations such as FNSJB and MLCW joined forces
and worked together, French-Canadian nationalists persisted
in viewing feminism as "unhealthy, egalitarian, the fruit of
degenerate Protestantism." This vision of feminism as an
Anglo-Protestant phenomenon furthered the notion that
enfranchisement of women would erode the national culture of
Quebec, beginning with the family.

Nationalists, feminists and the Church all felt responsible
for maintaining social order, based on the traditional unit
of the family. It is my contention that the common
perceptions of women held by these groups contributed in
great measure to the difficulties that women faced in
obtaining the vote. Though all agreed that women had a
special role as guardians of French-Canadian morals,
culture, religion and education, there was no consensus on
how this ought to be achieved. Women's belief in the
necessity of enfranchisement to accomplish the goals that
they had set stood in sharp opposition to the Church's image
of women as domestic angels. The identification of the
growing French-Canadian nationalist movement with the
Catholic Church and it's traditional image of women
contributed to the impasse that resulted in a twenty-two
year gap between the granting of the federal and provincial
franchises to Quebec women. It has been suggested that the
promise of enfranchisement made by Adellard Godbout's
Liberal party prior to their election in 1939 was the result
of pressure from the federal Liberal party. Without federal
intervention it is difficult to say how long the impasse
between these conflicting views of women might have
continued to deny the women of Quebec voting rights in their
home province.