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As chance would have it, in 2012 Pauline Marois, the first woman ever to be elected Québec premier, unveiled the monument to the first woman to be elected to the National Assembly, and to three pioneers of the long struggle by Québec women to win the right to vote. The historical contrast spoke volumes about how far women in Québec have come in their quest for emancipation.
In April 1940—after 13 such bills had been rejected by the National Assembly between 1922 and 1939—Québec Premier Adélard Godbout at last granted women in Québec the right to vote and to stand for provincial elections. They were the last women to win the right to vote in Canada.
The three suffragettes on the monument played key roles in the struggle to win the vote. In 1921 Marie-Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie helped found the Comité provincial du suffrage féminin (the provincial committee for women’s suffrage), later becoming its co-chair. Despite its activism, the organization had little success in the face of unwavering opposition from Premier Taschereau and the clergy.
A new generation joined the movement in 1927 when teacher Idola Saint-Jean created the Alliance canadienne pour le vote des femmes (the Canadian alliance for women’s votes). Two years later Thérèse Forget-Casgrain, whose husband and father were both politicians, transformed the Comité provincial du suffrage féminin she chaired into the Ligue des droits de la femme (the League for Women’s Rights). None of these initiatives made any headway until Premier Taschereau resigned in 1936 and then Premier Duplessis, who was against giving women the vote, lost the 1939 election.
In 1791 when the rules governing Canada’s parliamentary system were put in place, every land or property owner had the right to vote and stand for election, regardless of sex. This right was taken away from women in 1849, however. The first to react were English-speaking women who in 1893 founded the Montreal Local Council of Women to call for more rights. Inspired by a similar swell of opinion in the United States, they argued in favour of equality before the law, the vote for women, and education for girls. But their demands met with strong resistance from largely French-speaking Québec society. The movement was bolstered by the Montreal Suffrage Association in 1913.
The decisive support Canadian women gave to the First World War effort played in their favour. Starting in 1916 Canadian provinces began to grant them the right to vote, with the Canadian government giving its consent in 1918. But Québec remained on the sidelines until 1940.
Attitudes in Québec were slow to change. In the 1940s and 1950s fewer than a dozen women sought election, none successfully. The first woman to sit in the National Assembly was Marie-Claire Kirkland-Casgrain, who is shown on the monument. She was elected in a Montréal riding in 1961. Made a minister, she spearheaded a number of bills that impacted women’s rights, in particular a bill on the legal capacity of married women, which was adopted in 1964 and freed women from their husbands’ legal guardianship. She also proposed creating Québec’s Conseil du statut de la femme, a council on the status of women that was set up in 1973 and ushered in the beginning of a new era.
Beginning in the 1970s women in Québec quickly made significant progress in every sphere of society, spurred on by a strong feminist movement. Today Québec as a whole sees men and women as equals and many social programs help women enter the labour market. The result is that Québec has caught up with the Canadian average for the proportion of women in employment, and many of them work as leaders in less traditional careers, including politics. This has ensured greater financial independence and the freedom that comes with it.
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