Long before the suffrage movement, women’s groups in Newfoundland and Labrador worked for social change and community improvement. In the early 1900s and before, women’s organizations donated food and clothing to the poor, provided emergency relief in times of crisis, taught sewing, cooking, and other domestic skills, and raised money for orphanages, hospitals, and other social necessities later provided by the state.
These groups laid the foundation of Newfoundland’s future suffragist movement, which lasted from 1890 until 1925, when women won the right to vote. But women’s groups continued to focus on more traditional goals, such as fundraising for charity, and lobbying for better health, education, and other social services. The modern women’s movement became more influential in the 1970s, protesting social injustice against women.
Early Women’s Groups
Beginning in the first half of the 19th century, Newfoundland women began to organize to achieve such goals as raising money for the poor, curbing alcohol abuse, and improving child welfare and health-care services. Church-sponsored voluntary organizations were typical. Law and tradition barred women from the colony’s governing institutions, but church groups provided a way to influence society without overtly challenging prevailing conventions or power structures. Although women’s activities – such as curing fish, picking berries, and growing vegetables – contributed much to the household economy, it was men who inhabited the public world of business and politics. Church groups helped to redefine women’s roles by adding a public dimension to their traditional work.
An early example is the Dorcas Society, established at St. John’s in 1824 by Sarah Ward, the wife of the Congregational Church minister, the Reverend Daniel Ward. Members made and donated clothing to the poor, and supplied needy families with groceries and stove oil. There were branches in Harbour Grace, Carbonear, and Twillingate. The Roman Catholic St. Vincent de Paul Society formed a branch in St. John's in 1852, dedicated to helping the poor and disadvantaged. The society’s women’s section raised funds to help local families in need.
Not all groups were associated with a specific denomination. In 1851, women in St. John’s formed a branch of the international Daughters of Temperance to promote abstinence from alcohol. It soon merged with the Sons of Temperance (founded the same year), and thereafter, women accounted for no more than about 10 per cent of the membership.
At a time when government services were scarce and poverty widespread, women’s fundraising – often through bakes sales, bazaars, and teatimes – helped subsidize orphanages, health care, education, poor relief, parish expenses, and emergency response. By joining such societies, women learned how to hold meetings, manage money, speak in public, identify social problems, and work towards solutions. Collective action through association also allowed them to improve their communities and gain greater control over their social circumstances. All of this played an important role in women’s political development and helped lay the groundwork for the suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
First Wave of the Women’s Movement
Church-sponsored groups were pivotal in the development of feminist thought on the island. The first wave of the Newfoundland women’s movement dates back to 1890, when a group of about 60 Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregational women formed a division of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in St. John’s; branches later formed elsewhere, including Harbour Grace and Placentia. This is the earliest known organization that tried to improve women’s circumstances through political reform.
The WCTU argued that alcohol abuse led to many incidents of domestic violence, and that women and children were the primary victims. Thus women should be able to vote in local option elections – whether or not alcohol could be sold in a given locality – so that they could improve women’s overall condition in society. The House of Assembly rejected petitions supporting this reform, and the WCTU redirected its energies towards missionary and charitable work.
Suffrage remained a topic of public interest, since other countries in the British Empire granted women the vote, including New Zealand (1893), Australia (1902), Great Britain (1918), and Canada (1918). Newfoundland suffragists formed the Ladies’ Reading Room and its associated Current Events Club in St. John’s in December 1909. It was a place where women could read international newspapers and magazines, debate current affairs, and attend or deliver lectures. As Margot Duley has pointed out, the club acted as an informal university that helped politicize a generation of influential women, and gave them valuable experience in debating and public speaking.
The outbreak of World War One pushed suffrage into the background, but also revealed the critical importance of women’s contributions to society. In 1914, the island-wide Women’s Patriotic Association was established to support men serving overseas and their dependents at home. By the end of its first year, it had a membership of approximately 15,000. Members knitted, sewed, and collected clothing for troops overseas (the WPA’s grey socks became a wartime icon), raised money to help pay for the war effort, visited family members of servicemen, made bandages, dressings, pillows, and other medical supplies, and undertook a wide range of other charitable activities.
The WPA was praised by the press, politicians, and the public in general. By the time hostilities ended, it had contributed more than $500,000 (worth about $6.5 million today) to the war effort. By demonstrating that women’s traditional work had such tremendous economic and social value, the WPA gave suffragists a persuasive argument – if women contributed so much to society, then they should have a say in its governance.
In 1920, suffragists formed the Women’s Franchise League and launched a publicity campaign to increase public support. League members wrote letters to local newspapers, canvassed houses and businesses, and placed advertisements at movie houses. They argued that the involvement of women voters would improve health care, education, and other social services, and they reminded the public that Newfoundland was one of the last members of the British Empire to deny women the vote. Finally, on 9 March 1925, the Newfoundland legislature unanimously passed a franchise bill giving women the right to vote and run for office at age 25 (men only had to be 21). It became law on 13 April 1925.
After the Suffrage Movement
In the years between 1925 and the emergence of the modern women’s movement in the 1970s, women activists in Newfoundland and Labrador focused their efforts on traditional areas of concern, usually through volunteer work. For example, the Child Welfare Association (founded in 1921) promoted maternal, infant, and children’s health. The Newfoundland Outport Nursing and Industrial Association (NONIA), 1920, aimed to provide nursing, midwifery, and other medical services to rural parts of the island by selling knitted and woven goods made by women volunteers.
The Jubilee Guilds became established in 1935. The aim of this volunteer organization was to improve the quality of life of rural women and families through self-help, crafts, and education. The Guilds nurtured local cottage craft industries by teaching weaving, sewing, and other skills. They also encouraged women to socialize, discuss common concerns, and deal with community issues. In August 1968, the Jubilee Guilds became the Newfoundland and Labrador Women’s Institutes, which expanded educational programs to include urban as well as rural women. The Institutes today hold meetings and workshops on topics such as agriculture, environment, citizenship, home economics, health, and international affairs.
There were also groups that supported non-traditional roles for women in the early 20th century. In 1928, business and professional women living in St. John’s formed the McDonald Fellowship Club. In 1945, a branch of the Canadian Federation of University Women was formed in St. John’s to promote higher education for women and encourage graduates to become involved in public affairs.
The first organization that can be said to have been directly linked to the modern women’s movement was the St. John’s Local Council of Women, formed in 1966. It was affiliated with the National Council of Women of Canada, which had been active since 1893. The Council was not as overtly feminist as some later groups, and lasted for only 10 years, but it helped pave the way for them.
Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2012, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.
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