Divided by the Ballot Box: The Montreal Council of Women and the 1917 Election
Abstract: Prime Minister Robert Borden created the Wartime Elections Act in September 1917 – a move that granted temporary voting rights to women who had close relatives serving in the military. Their votes were positioned as key to winning the war because it was assumed that newly enfranchised wives and mothers would support Borden’s controversial conscription plans to reinforce their husbands and sons at the front. Suffragists across the country were divided by the act’s limited enfranchisement and its connection to conscription. This turmoil reached its pinnacle in Montreal, a city that was at the centre of nationalistic and ethnic strife caused by the war, and triggered rifts within the city’s largest Anglophone women’s organization, the Montreal Council of Women. One result of this tension was the impeachment trial of the council’s long-time president, Dr Grace Ritchie-England, for her criticism of the Wartime Elections Act and conscription during the 1917 federal election. Calling attention to the resistance of and conflicts between middleclass club women who were normally viewed as hegemonically supportive of the war effort widens our understanding of women’s disparate opinions and activism during the First World War and the fragile nature of suffragists’ political unity.
Keywords: First World War, suffrage, women, Montreal, elections ´ ´ Resume : En septembre 1917, le premier ministre Robert Borden fait adopter la Loi des ´ elections en temps de guerre, qui accorde temporairement le droit de vote aux femmes ´ ´ ´´ ayant des proches parents dans l’armee. Le vote de ces nouvelles electrices est considere ´ ´ comme determinant pour l’issue de la guerre, car on tient pour acquis que les epouses et ` ´ les meres appuieront le projet controverse de Borden d’envoyer des conscrits en renfort ` ´ ´ ` aupres de leurs maris et de leurs fils. Ce droit de vote limite et amarre a la conscription ` ´ divise cependant les militantes suffragistes du pays. La controverse culmine a Montreal, ´ ´ ` situe au cœur des tensions nationalistes et ethniques liees a l’effort de guerre, et provoque ´ des scissions au sein de la principale organisation feminine anglophone de la ville, le ´ ´ Montreal Council of Women. Il en resulte entre autres une tentative de demettre celle qui ´ preside l’organisation depuis longtemps, la Dre Grace Ritchie-England, pour avoir ´ ´ critique la conscription et la Loi des elections en temps de guerre pendant la campagne ´ ´ ´ electorale de 1917. En s’interessant aux resistances et aux conflits entre femmes de la ´ classe moyenne, membres d’associations feminines, habituellement vues comme ayant The Canadian Historical Review 89, 4, December 2008 ß University of Toronto Press Incorporated doi:10.3138/chr.89.4.473
474 The Canadian Historical Review
´ ´ unanimement appuye l’effort de guerre, cet article pose un regard plus nuance sur ´ ´ ` l’activisme feminin et la diversite de ses opinions pendant la Premiere Guerre mondiale, ˆ ´ de meme que sur la fragilite du consensus politique chez les suffragistes. ´ `re ´ ´ Mots cles : Premie Guerre mondiale – suffrage feminin – femmes – Montreal – ´ elections
In January and February 1918, a special committee made of members from the Montreal Council of Women (MCW), a coalition of forty-four local women’s organizations, met four times to hear complaints against their president, Dr Octavia Grace Ritchie-England, and decide whether she should be impeached for her behaviour during the 1917 federal election. It was the opinion of eight affiliated clubs that Ritchie-England was no longer fit to be president of the city’s largest women’s organization. Her patriotism and politics had been called into question and a few members had gone so far as to call her a traitor.1 One might assume accusations of this kind stemmed from Ritchie-England’s proclaiming herself against...