A Vote for Votes, Love and War

Reviewed by Ian McKercher

Votes, Love and War, a new novel by local author Ruth Latta, weaves together the coming-of-age story of prairie farm girl Charlotte Tyler with the emergence of the women’s suffrage movement in Manitoba amid the calamitous effects of the First World War.

Throughout the novel, Latta works hard to balance Charlotte’s fictional memoir with the factual development of the Manitoba suffrage movement and the pivotal role it played in advancing woman’s rights in Canada.

The novel opens in rural south-eastern Manitoba in 1913. High-school graduate Charlotte Tyler leaves her farm family and heads 80 miles into Winnipeg looking for work. Charlotte had hoped to follow her late mother into a teaching career but a bad crop year and a disastrous barn fire meant family funding for her normal-school education was not available.

The fictionalized Charlotte entwines her life with real participants in the Manitoba suffrage movement when she comes to board with Lillian Beynon Thomas, editor of the woman’s page in the Weekly Free Press. Thomas’ sister, Francis Marion Beynon, was also a Winnipeg journalist who wrote “The Country Homemaker” column in the weekly Grain Growers’ Guide. Both women were pillars of social reform, most particularly female suffrage. Other reformers such as Reverend J.S. Woodsworth and Mrs. Nellie McClung make cameo appearances in the novel.

One challenge in writing historical fiction is keeping the voice of the characters free of modern jargon and Latta successfully captures speech patterns true to the era. Charlotte notes that a male friend “sometimes gave off a whiff of a second-day shirt.” She realizes that a teaching companion had more than friendship in mind when “his lips sought mine.”

Latta details how a wide range of reform groups with varied interests coalesced to lobby for the female franchise. The Political Equality League felt simply that democracy demanded equal rights for all adults regardless of gender.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) held that the abuse of alcohol had a particularly deleterious effect on women and children. Men drank the dinner money then often turned violently on their wives and children. Women had a vested interest in seeking the vote –they could support political parties in favour of prohibition. Mind you, this belief competed with other “vested interests” in that liquor taxes were a major provincial revenue source.

The National Council of Women and the Women’s Labour League lobbied ceaselessly for improved working conditions and a living wage for female factory workers. But with women lacking the power of a vote, these efforts failed to enlighten factory owners who favoured profits over the welfare of employees.

Manitoba had abolished dower law in 1885 because it interfered with land sales. Dower law was a tenet of English common law which held that a wife automatically received a third of a husband’s property if he died without a will. Without dower law, women were left homeless when their husbands mortgaged the farm then disappeared or gambled away the homestead while drunk. The Women’s Press Club and the Women’s Equality League lobbied the provincial government to redress this travesty.

The outbreak of World War I was greeted with enthusiasm by most Canadians. Indeed, the major Protestant Churches held that victory over Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany was of paramount importance. But the war split the western Canadian women’s suffrage movement. As the death toll mounted, divisions developed between women who supported the war as a patriotic duty and a minority, like the Beynon sisters, who felt that Canadians were being used as cannon fodder.

Some social reformers were content when the Wartime Elections extended the franchise to women who had husbands, sons or brothers in military uniform. Others, including Charlotte, felt that all women of legal age should be enfranchised. Another objection Charlotte had to the act was that it disenfranchised male “aliens” – recent immigrants from Germany and its allies.

Latta’s book conveys the impression that the Manitoba suffragists, who secured the vote for women in 1916, were civil, peaceful and inclusive, eschewing the public disruptions of Carrie Nation in Kansas and Mrs. Pankhurst in England in favour of humour, debate and alliances with other progressive groups. Thanks to them, Manitoba was the first Canadian province to enfranchise women.

Votes, Love and War is available from Baico Publishing, info@baico.ca, 280 Albert St #402, Ottawa, or from the author at ruthlatta1@gmail.com. The price is $32.

Ian McKercher is a long-time Glebe resident, a former Glebe Collegiate teacher, a part-time historian and a current novelist, whose latest work, Carbon Copy, has just been published.

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