Language selector

Women’s rights during WW1 in Canada

Page controls

Page content

By Tenzin Sungrab

The years of WW1 saw a great remarkable spread of women’s rights and female suffrage all over the world as well as in Canada. Female suffrage is the right of women to vote. Women at this time were treated differently from men, at least in voting rights. Especially, back then, women were considered to be inferior to men, but after many years of hard work and protest, women finally gained the same equality as men. Women’s rights in Canada were differentiated by three different periods of time, which are women’s rights before the war, during the war, and after the war.

Before the war started, the husband or the father indirectly owned women and children. The laws made by Great Britain are the reason for these laws. Women did not have any property rights except for her own land, and once she was married, she could no longer own her own land, and she couldn’t keep the money she earned by herself. But the men got to do everything that women were not allowed to do. For example, a man could sell their family’s farm, take all the money for himself and leave his children and wife with nothing. The other thing is if the man died without writing or leaving a will, then his wife was not able to inherit anything. This includes all the money she had earned herself, and the land she owned before the marriage.

Some changes started to happen even before WW1. Until 1891, husbands were allowed by law to beat their wives with a stick no thicker than a man’s thumb and to lock them in a room if they wished. Education was not available to working class women but, at the end of the nineteenth century, some of the universities began to accept a few wealthy women to study degree courses like at Oxford University. However, the women at that time were educated separately from the men.

Later on after going through some of the changes, the women’s suffrage campaign made women become more politically active. In 1897, 17 of these women’s suffrage groups came together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). They made peaceful protests. For example, they held public meetings, wrote letters to politicians, and published various texts. Later on in 1903 in Canada, “The Women Social and Political Union” was founded. The movement became more violent and the union became called “The Suffragettes.”

When World War I broke out, women’s roles changed from mothers to munitions workers. War was considered more important than anything else and society didn’t care about gender as much. The campaign for women’s suffrage ceased militant activities and the suffragettes agreed to assist with the war effort. Women were needed to help with the war effort by filling the gaps left by the men who went to fight in the war.

Back then women must do what they were told to do. Their role should reflect that of a “mother.” They must dress and act appropriately. Women were considered unequal to their male counterparts both legally and socially. But things started to change when the war broke out. Thousands of Canadian women spent their own time raising money for the war effort. Other women who couldn’t work in factories or in other jobs spent most of their time knitting scarves and socks for the soldiers who were fighting overseas. Women whose husbands, sons and brothers served in the war were given the right to vote.

Afterwards, when the war ended, things started to reverse as the gaps left by men then filled by women were given back to men. Women were expected to return to the kitchen and role of housewife once the men began to return home. Women on the home front, native women, and immigrants who worked during the war started to fight for equal rights such as the right to work like the men and they hated being under the control of their husbands. Some women in the war were happy to have their jobs because they had more rights, and the freedom to make their own decisions.

Not all the women got to vote in 1918, except for the women who were wives and mothers of soldiers because of the conscription crisis. Conscription crisis meant that all the men who were able-bodied would be required to join the army and would have no choice. It was no longer based on a voluntary basis only. It happened due to shrinking numbers in 1917, and the death of more and more Canadians in the war. The Canadian government forced people to join the armed forces during the war. But to do this they needed support from voters who wanted conscription as well. The Canadian government saw women related to soldiers as potential supporters, so they gave them the right to vote.

All in all, women have gained more respect after the war compared to women’s rights before WW1 because of their hard work during WW1. Immigrants got the right to vote in 1960 and First Nations women got the right to vote in 1967. Although many women lost their jobs when men came back from the war, attitudes changed permanently and partially; women were treated equally as men because of women’s contributions.

Tenzin Sungrab is a student at Parkdale Collegiate Insitute.