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Women and Politics: Post-suffrage to the 1970s

The success of the 1916 suffrage movement gave women in Saskatchewan the right to vote and to hold public office. Sarah Ramsland became the first Saskatchewan woman MLA in 1919 and was Liberal member for the Pelly riding until 1925. It was two decades before another woman won a seat in the Legislative Assembly. Between 1919 and 1967 six women in total were elected to the provincial legislature: three Liberals (Ramsland, Mary Batten, and Sally Merchant), and three from the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF)/New Democratic Party (NDP) (Beatrice Trew, Gladys Strum, Marjorie Cooper). Two women became members of Parliament: Dorise Nielson (1940–45), who won on the Unity ticket in North Battleford; and Gladys Strum, who held office from 1945 to 1949 (Qu’Appelle Constituency) for the CCF. Several women sat on municipal councils or, more likely, on school boards.

As elsewhere, Saskatchewan women were most active in supportive auxiliary roles. Soon after enfranchisement Liberal women in Regina formed an association. As Liberal women’s associations proliferated, Conservative women also organized. Provincial associations emerged as well. Both parties depended on women as canvassers, constituency organizers, fundraisers, hostesses, publicists, clerical workers, and recruiters. Although women were rarely involved in policy formation, the contributions they made to the parent party organizations were extremely valuable.

Saskatchewan women had been actively engaged in the populist movements characteristic of the prairies, and when the CCF emerged during the 1930s from the agrarian movement of the previous decade, many women were attracted by its pledge to end the economic upheaval brought on by the Depression. The egalitarian ideology of the CCF, combined with the activism of farm women in the agrarian movement, led some Saskatchewan women to anticipate a prominent role in its development. The majority, however, worked at the grassroots level, carrying out tasks similar to those of Liberal and Conservative women.

Some CCF women were more deeply involved in the workings of party, usually able to do so because of the support, or at least acquiescence, of husband and family. They served on the provincial executive and local committees, acted as campaign managers for local candidates, and (rarely) ran as candidates themselves. As well, some functioned as political educators in the province. Through small farm gatherings, community meetings, and summer camps, CCF women educators played an important role in spreading the party’s principles and in recruiting support. The contributions made by women were essential to the development of the CCF as well as to its success in the 1944 provincial election.

By the end of the 1940s women’s primary responsibilities in all political parties continued to focus on the recruitment of volunteers, fundraising, media coverage, supervision of voters’ lists, organization of social events, and getting out the vote at election time. Although the CCF had promised women equality within the party, only one woman, Beatrice Trew, was elected to the Legislative Assembly during that decade (1944–48). The two old-line parties elected no women during the same time. However, those women who worked endlessly for their political beliefs displayed remarkable energy and determination. As previously, they adhered to the social norm that prioritized women’s responsibility for the household and family, and sought to balance it with their work in public life. As well, women continued to face opposition to female participation in the political arena, especially when they desired to participate in policy formulation or run for office.

Between 1948 and 1952 no women sat in the Legislative Assembly. Four women were elected between 1952 and 1970; but women’s involvement in policy-making continued to be negligible, regardless of party affiliation. The defeat of the CCF in 1964 contributed to the renewal of interest in women’s issues in the party and a re-evaluation of the role women played; in 1965 the Provincial Women’s Committee was formed. Also important to this development was the resurgence of feminism in North America, which awakened many women and men in Saskatchewan to the secondary role women had played in political organizations.

At the national level the Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (1970) included a recommendation that called for amalgamation of partisan women’s associations with the party itself—a sharp departure from the decades-old auxiliary groups. In accordance with the report, Saskatchewan parties instituted changes to their constitutions. Women’s committees and associations were either amalgamated into the provincial party organizations, as with the NDP, or they remained intact while women’s representation on the party’s provincial council increased, as with the Liberal Party. Such changes were part of a movement that aimed to secure greater equality for women in all aspects of society. Both men and women then began to recognize the importance of women’s equal representation in Saskatchewan’s governing bodies.

Joanna Leach

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Further Reading

Kalmakoff, E. 1994. “Naturally Divided: Women in Saskatchewan Politics, 1916–1919,” Saskatchewan History 46: 3–18; Taylor, G.M. 1984. “‘The Women … Shall Help to Lead the Way’: Saskatchewan CCF-NDP Women Candidates in Provincial and Federal Elections, 1934–1965.” Pp. 141–60 in J.W. Brennan (ed.), Building the Co-operative Commonwealth: Essays on the Democratic Socialist Tradition in Canada. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center.
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