Through the first half of the Twentieth Century, people across Canada fought for the right of women to vote and participate in electoral office. The Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association developed in 1883, and the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association was incorporated in 1889. In the Prairie Provinces, the women’s movement was particularly active. Women were granted the vote in Manitoba in 1916, Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1917, and federally in 1918.
Responding to the significant legal barrier for women, represented by the language of the British North America Act of 1867, Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby, and Nellie McClung—now known as the Famous Five—led the Canadian feminist movement in its attempt to change the terms of the British North America Act and gain legal recognition for women as persons.
First-wave feminists fought for women to be considered persons and granted equal rights while eugenics proponents called for strict control of bodies. Yet many of the key figures in the suffrage movement in Canada were also involved in the eugenics movement. Early Canadian feminists were directly engaged in debates over defining good motherhood, child and family welfare, and public health. These debates included a broader scientific justification over ideal motherhood and creating the “healthiest” babies.
Defining Eugenic Feminism: The (Male) Response
Dr. Caleb Saleeby, an obstetrician and active member of the British Eugenics Education Society, opposed his contemporaries – such Sir Francis Galton – who took strong anti-feminist stances in their eugenic philosophies. Perceiving the feminist movement as potentially “ruinous to the race” if it continued to ignore the eugenics movement, he coined the term “eugenic feminism” in his 1911 text Woman and Womanhood: A Search for Principles to describe his attempts to mitigate the two seemingly oppositional ideologies.
Saleeby stressed the importance of motherhood, claimed that women were critical to the next generation, and further claimed to be “more feminist than the feminists.” He strongly opposed those eugenicists who exclusively focused on the male line of heredity and supported legal and educational rights for women so long as they retained their roles as mothers.
Saleeby and other pro-feminist eugenists argued that eugenic feminism was a way to elevate the role of white, middle class, Anglo Saxon women as critical to the nation in opposition to those deemed “inferior” or “degenerate”. Valued as Mothers of the Race, these women were to be educated in order to make them fit mothers and raise better children.
Eugenic Motherhood, The Vote, and Child Welfare
In Alberta, the relationship between suffrage and eugenics was more than merely rhetorical. Many central figures in the rise of women’s suffrage, including the Famous Five, were also instrumental in garnering support for and securing the legislative passing of the 1928 Sexual Sterilization Act.
Women demanded the vote so that they could more adequately defend their homes and children. The main goal of suffragists across Western Canada was to gain support for child and maternal health, education, and general welfare. These women believed these were not the interests of male politicians, and that they would not be able to make reforms without political power.
Influenced by the idea of strong children as symbols of a strong nation, women in Alberta organized around not just the vote but all issues relating to the health and welfare of mothers and children. Early female public health reformers believed that eugenics reform was critical to national growth, and that eugenics itself should be focused on more than just the bearing of children. Rather, eugenics required mothers who could bear “healthy” children, raise intelligent citizens, and be engaged in scientific motherhood methods.
The demands of these Anglo-Saxon women’s clubs, such as the Council on Child and Family Welfare, included health certificates before marriage to ensure “proper breeding,” but also included morality, education, maternal health and child reforms. Women were to seek personal advancement not to abandon their societal roles, but in order to enhance that role and advance the “race”.
The Famous Five
All of the Famous Five were also involved in the race hygiene movement and supported the passage of the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta; all wrote about various issues relating to eugenics, including birth control, immigration, child health, and sterilization. In The Black Candle (1922), Murphy argued that “wise folk” needed to be concerned with the falling birth rate and the “other scourges” such as illicit drug use and the procreation of less fit members of society. These degenerating factors served to motivate mothers to dedicate themselves to “proper” child rearing—an art they could only learn from being affiliated with organizations, attending conferences and workshops on child and family welfare, reading columns and papers written for women, and generally dedicating themselves to the consumption of motherhood theory.
Eugenic Feminism after Suffrage
Though it has been argued that women utilized popular eugenic rhetoric to secure their roles as “mothers of the race” and gain political power, the fact that Eugenic Feminism continued after the securing of the vote speaks to the dedication of these women to eugenic policies. The women’s movement in Alberta was more than simply the garnering of political equality. For women, the vote represented an opportunity to actively pursue those political issues that were not the focus of men.
The vote represented not the pinnacle success of the suffrage movement, but rather was the point of recognition that politics required women in order for the nation to progress. For women in Alberta, this formal recognition of their values as citizens presented an opportunity to make significant social changes. Combined with rhetoric of “mothers of the race”, the role of women was also linked to the biological future of the nation. Thus the activism of women in Alberta did not end but rather expanded after their success in obtaining the right to vote. In Alberta, the United Farmers continued to be in full support of the women’s group and supported many of the petitions put forward by female members. In fact, between 1916 and 1920 over one third of the petitions passed forward to the provincial legislature by the UFA were in the realm of health, education, and social welfare, and were drafted by farm women. These resolutions included training for nurses, courses in first aid and nursing for rural girls, a clean bill of health before marriage, amendments to the Health Act, increased funding for rural hospitals, and action to deal with “the problem of mental defectives.”
-Sheila Rae Gibbons
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Gibbons, Sheila Rae. “The True Political Mothers of Today: Farm Women and the Organization of Eugenic Feminism in Alberta,” Unpublished MA Thesis, 2010, University of Saskatchewan.
Gibbons, Sheila Rae, ““Our Power to Remodel Civilization”: The Development of Eugenic Feminism in Alberta, 1909-1921” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History. (Volume 31:1 2014 / p. 123-42).
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