1849: The Decline and Fall of Women’s Rights & Other Quebec Curios

Part of “Division and Resistance”, 1827-1863

code civil du quebec code civil du quebec

Quebec was the last province in a post-Confederation Canada that granted women a right to vote, in 1940 to be exact, but the story of how that happened is another story for another time. The exclusion of women from voting was not always the case. There was once a time where some women were able to vote, yet that right would be taken away in 1849 through a simple insertion of one word: “male”.

Until the British acquired the territory of New France, women were confined to the household and field, though they enjoyed limited rights in accordance with the Custom of Paris, such as certain rights to inherit goods and even a financial protection for widows of indebted men. With the imposition of the British system of government in the territory and the growth of cities, local forms of government emerged and elections were held to choose certain heads of government. As far back as the 1791 Constitution Act, we may see that there is a threshold to meet in order to be considered eligible to vote, and yet the Act stated that it had to be a “person” that needed to hold this specific amount of property. While many women did not exercise their right to vote, confined by a combination of propriety, tradition, and the general inability for a woman to hold the amount of property needed, some women who did own enough property did vote in elections through the 1790s and through the early 1800s.

Elections, however, were different from they are today, and in a world where a secret ballot is now held sacred, it’s jarring to modern senses to know that elections in the eighteenth and nineteenth century were a very public affair. Electors would announce their vote orally in the presence of other people, often intimidated into changing their vote by other electors, and in some cases culminating in physical fights. It is the violence and the tense atmosphere, along with the belief of a traditional woman’s duty to her family, that Louis-Joseph Papineau declared that women ought not to be dragged by their husbands to such assemblies. (Papineau, however, had a very unconventional wife for his time, who voted herself a few times in elections.)

Under the La Fontaine and Baldwin coalition, the woman’s vote was put to an end in the Quebec Franchise Act of 1849. Franchising, in its political sense, determined the qualifications of a person who could vote in elections. They decided to correct what they saw was a curio of history and change the right to vote to what they saw was and always had been the natural order: the duty of a man to vote. The government in the United Canadas, however, was not the first nor the last: the colonies around them would similarly explicitly deny the vote to women in the 1840s. The voting rights of women in Canada West would similarly be diminished, though resurged the following year in 1850 in order for women to have the ability to be involved in an elected administrative role in schools. Canada East, however, would have no such allowance for women to take on a voting or administrative role in municipal matters until the late 1890s, and despite gaining the right to vote in municipal elections were still unable to run for office until the twentieth century.