by Michael Lehan Wednesday October 20, 2010

Last week Civics101 published a new interactive graph. It outlines the electoral history of Ontario since the first election as a province of Canada under Confederation in 1867: who we voted for, how many of us could vote, how many of us did vote. Check it out here.

Take a look at the year 1919 and you see a fascinating statistical change. In the previous election in 1914 there’s approximately 700,000 registered voters. In 1919 that number jumps to around 1.38 million. In that same five years, the population grew by 500,000, so how did the number of eligible voters double?

In 1917, half of all adults, women, won the right to vote in Ontario.* This very significant
accomplishment was the product of a long and sustained campaign, not just in Canada, but in the United States, the British Empire and much of Europe.

The women’s suffrage movement spanned multiple generations, starting in the late 18th century but not seeing results until the early 20th century. Finland was the first country to grant full suffrage in 1906. Saudi Arabia is the only country yet to do so.

Alongside the 1960s civil rights movement in the United States, it’s probably the most significant and pervasive civic engagement process in modern history. It overturned traditions as old as civilization, even democratic ones. Take a look at the Civics101 animation about the history of democracy (don’t worry, it’s very, very brief!) to see just how limited citizenship was prior to the suffrage movements.

The electoral system was established long ago with the sole intent of exclusion, not just of women, but of most men in general. Indeed, the two parties that have ruled for most of Ontario’s (and all of Canada’s) history are direct descendents of a Renaissance-Era English competition between constitutional monarchism and absolute rule.

That might explain the other revealing anomaly in 1919, that neither of the two traditional, entrenched parties were elected. In fact, the Farmer-Labour party that was elected was the most radical departure in Ontario political history, creating the first welfare programs, allowances for widows and children, and a minimum wage for working women. Perhaps a war weary population was eager for radical change, the First World War had only just ended, however the sudden influx of over half a million voters with uniquely different expectations of governance undeniably had an impact.

Enfranchising women with the right to vote wasn’t the same as granting equality in government and politics. Many cultural and economic barriers to entry remain. Some even argue that the structure and language of our parliamentary system is inherently male oriented, making participation from a female perspective inevitably that of an outsider.

It’s no surprise then that the right for women to hold elected office, which quickly followed in 1919, took almost 30 years to produce results in Ontario, with the election of Agnes Macphail to Ontario’s Legislative Assembly in 1943. (Macphail, however, was elected first to federal parliament in 1921).

In the 2007 provincial election, women won 28 out of 107 seats, just 26 per cent. That’s about in-line with the national average federally and across the provinces.


Compared globally, that number is dismal. In fact, Canada ranks 50th in the world according to the United Nations. Compare that to 57 per cent in Rwanda, 47 per cent in Sweden and 45 per cent in South Africa.

In 2008, TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin held a panel discussion on this very issue. Considering the province-wide municipal elections next week, the discussion is worth a watch or re-watch if you tuned in when it aired.

According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, just 17 per cent of Ontario’s mayors are women. If anything is clear from the dominantly male candidate list, little is going to change next week.

* It's worth noting there was some political convenience to this enfranchisement. Prime Minister Robert Borden's Conservatives initially only granted the vote to women serving in the armed forces, and allowed soldiers serving abroad to grant female relatives permission to vote on their behalf. This ensured strong support for the war effort in Europe at the polls.


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