Almost every elementary school child in Canada knows the names of the Famous Five, the courageous Albertan women whose persistence and tenacity famously opened the doors for women to hold political office at the Senate level. This achievement could perhaps be considered one of the crowning achievements of the women’s suffragist movement but it could not have been done without the work that came before, including that time when Alberta passed the Equal Suffrage Statutory Law Amendment Act on April 19, 1916.
Today, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of this act, which gave Alberta women the right to vote. This act of enfranchisement, following on the heels of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, helped pave the way for the Famous Five to achieve their landmark victory. It also helped change democracy in Canada, led by the pioneering women of western Canada.
Progressive social change usually comes by incremental steps and women’s suffrage was no different. Prior to April 1916, women had to use a variety of methods to exercise their democratic muscles, which had yet to become a right. They exploited loopholes, like the one in the 1791 Constitutional Act, which gave the vote to “persons”—and decided that this definition included women. Historica Canada lists the sporadic and clever ways women tried to exercise political power before the governments of the day stepped in to pass laws to close the loopholes to ensure the right to vote remained in the hands of men.
Undeterred by these early losses, women soldiered on, winning the municipal vote in British Columbia in 1873, in 1887 in Manitoba and 1910 in Alberta.
Empowered by this success, women’s organizations petitioned governments, held lectures and staged publicity stunts – like the famous 1914 “Votes For Men!” mock parliament. In February of 1915 Nellie McClung led a large delegation to the Alberta legislature to present a petition demanding the vote for women. It was rejected, but a year later, Alberta Premier A.L. Sifton conceded in the face of the strength of popular support for the women of Alberta.
Universal suffrage was still to be achieved but giving women the right to vote in 1916 was a major step forward, and one that we proudly celebrate.