As we mark the 100th anniversary of women being granted the right to vote in Canada, with Manitoba being the first province to take the initiative, it is important that we honour, recognize and celebrate all of the suffragettes who made it possible. The Famous Five, led by Nellie McClung, are widely recognized as the women on the frontlines of the struggle. We cannot, however, forget those who made indelible contributions to women’s enfranchisement. One such woman was Margret Benedictsson, of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
On February 17th, 2016, I rose in the Senate to deliver a statement in honour of this remarkable woman.
– Honourable senators, the women of Manitoba were given the right to vote on January 28, 1916. Manitoba was the first province to pass legislation to this effect, which also defied the disgraceful clause in the Dominion Elections Act which read, “No woman, idiot, lunatic or criminal shall have the right to vote.”
In the ensuing months and years, other provinces would follow suit, with the right granted at the federal level in May 1918. Our indigenous women were finally given the right to vote in 1961.
The icon of the Canadian suffragette movement was Nellie McClung, the leader of the Famous Five. The Famous Five have my undying respect and gratitude for their leadership and courage.
But like every major movement for gender equality, there are other heroines whose stories go untold and yet belong in the annals of Canadian history. I want to tell you about one such woman, Margret Benedictsson.
Like most Icelandic immigrants, both men and women, she brought with her a progressive and enlightened cultural background that placed education at the centre of domestic and civic life. Margret Benedictsson began her work not long after immigrating to Winnipeg in 1890. She was inspired by Icelandic trailblazers such as Briet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir and Ólafía Jóhannsdóttir, prominent leaders of the women’s movement in Iceland.
After attending night school to improve her education, in 1898 Benedictsson founded Canada’s first feminist literary journal, Freyja, published in Selkirk, Manitoba, and later in Winnipeg.
For over 12 years, honourable senators, the Icelandic-language paper would publish articles focusing on women’s political, economic and social rights. By 1910, its readership had swelled to over 1,200 in Manitoba and North Dakota — unheard of in that era.
It stirred women to begin fighting for enfranchisement and also cultivated an intellectual atmosphere that flourished on the Prairies. In homes, fields and classrooms — where women worked — this would become a call to action.
After much campaigning, the Icelandic Suffrage Association joined forces with the Manitoba Political Equality League in 1915.
Only months later, on January 28, 1916, they would stand proudly when the province’s Solicitor General and acting premier, Thomas H. Johnson, a fellow Icelander, moved third reading of the bill to grant women the right to vote.
Today we have a long way to go with respect to gender equality in Canada and indeed around the world.
Honourable senators, progress is being made. We have legions of outstanding young women making it happen.
Thank you very much.