the vote

The current election made me wonder about the history of voting in Canada, and when Canada achieved universal suffrage.

In the US, African American men won the right to vote in 1870 (15th Amendment: "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged ... on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude"), and all women finally achieved suffrage in 1920 (19th Amendment: "...on account of sex.").

Canada lurched to universal suffrage in fits and starts, first granting voting rights only to property owners, then extending it to all women (1917), and only later, to Asian Canadians (1947 and 1948), Native Peoples (1960), the mentally disabled (1988) and incarcerated people (2002). On the provincial level, women in Quebec were the last to achieve suffrage, fighting until a mind-boggling 1940 to achieve that milestone. Here's a good CBC mini-lesson on the history of voting rights in Canada.

Since it's a special interest of mine, here's a global timeline of women's suffrage, including when women were able to run for elected office.

Not every progressive person believes voting is important. The great feminist and activist Emma Goldman felt fighting for women's suffrage was a waste of time.
Needless to say, I am not opposed to woman suffrage on the conventional ground that she is not equal to it. I see neither physical, psychological, nor mental reasons why woman should not have the equal right to vote with man. But that can not possibly blind me to the absurd notion that woman will accomplish that wherein man has failed.

. . .

But, say our suffrage devotees, look at the countries and States where female suffrage exists. See what woman has accomplished--in Australia, New Zealand, Finland, the Scandinavian countries, and in our own four States, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. Distance lends enchantment--or, to quote a Polish formula--"it is well where we are not." Thus one would assume that those countries and States are unlike other countries or States, that they have greater freedom, greater social and economic equality, a finer appreciation of human life, deeper understanding of the great social struggle, with all the vital questions it involves for the human race.

The women of Australia and New Zealand can vote, and help make the laws. Are the labor conditions better there than they are in England, where the suffragettes are making such a heroic struggle? Does there exist a greater motherhood, happier and freer children than in England? Is woman there no longer considered a mere sex commodity? Has she emancipated herself from the Puritanical double standard of morality for men and women? Certainly none but the ordinary female stump politician will dare answer these questions in the affirmative. If that be so, it seems ridiculous to point to Australia and New Zealand as the Mecca of equal suffrage accomplishments.

On the other hand, it is a fact to those who know the real political conditions in Australia, that politics have gagged labor by enacting the most stringent labor laws, making strikes without the sanction of an arbitration committee a crime equal to treason.

Not for a moment do I mean to imply that woman suffrage is responsible for this state of affairs. I do mean, however, that there is no reason to point to Australia as a wonder-worker of woman's accomplishment, since her influence has been unable to free labor from the thraldom of political bossism.

Finland has given woman equal suffrage; nay, even the right to sit in Parliament. Has that helped to develop a greater heroism, an intenser zeal than that of the women of Russia? Finland, like Russia, smarts under the terrible whip of the bloody Tsar. Where are the Finnish Perovskaias, Spiridonovas, Figners, Breshkovskaias? Where are the countless numbers of Finnish young girls who cheerfully go to Siberia for their cause? Finland is sadly in need of heroic liberators. Why has the ballot not created them? The only Finnish avenger of his people was a man, not a woman, and he used a more effective weapon than the ballot.

As to our own States where women vote, and which are constantly being pointed out as examples of marvels, what has been accomplished there through the ballot that women do not to a large extent enjoy in other States; or that they could not achieve through energetic efforts without the ballot?

True, in the suffrage States women are guaranteed equal rights to property; but of what avail is that right to the mass of women without property, the thousands of wage workers, who live from hand to mouth?
The entire text of this famous speech is here.

Goldman didn't oppose women's right to vote as much as she thought the voting system useless and ineffective. Last night on The National, there was an interview with Canadian activist Jaggi Singh, who refuses to vote, and a civil liberties activist attorney taking the more accepted view. I'm hoping there'll be a video or a transcript of the conversation available, because it was excellent.

Singh views voting as participation in an unjust system, a soporific, placating people into the illusion of democracy, while never accomplishing real change (a general a tenet of anarchist thought).

The activist attorney noted that just because something is not sufficient, doesn't mean it's not effective. He said (to paraphrase), that voting alone is not enough to bring about social change, but it's one tool in the toolbox, and we should use all the tools we have. [Unfortunately I didn't catch this person's name. If you saw it and know who he is, let me know and I'll edit this post.]

It should come as no surprise that I believe strongly in voting. I've never missed an opportunity to vote, and the right to vote will likely be my greatest incentive for wanting Canadian citizenship. We get so little say in the world - I never want to miss an opportunity for input. Yet it's true that for too many people, dutifully trudging to the ballot box once every however many years is where participation in society begins and ends. (That, and paying taxes, of course - which some Americans strenuously object to and imagine as a form of slavery!)

I agree with Singh and others who note that real change begins on the grassroots level, and the voting system does little to nurture that. But every grassroots movement seeks to grow, to cover society as a whole. And when it does, the populace has to vote to help make it a reality.

I don't mock or automatically reject the anarchists' position. Goodness knows there's enough of that in the mainstream without progressives joining in the ridicule. When I read that Emma Goldman, whose life and work I admire tremendously, didn't care about women's suffrage, I sought to understand her reasoning. I've found it very useful to try to understand other progressive points of view, if only to help clarify my own. (Unlike extreme positions on the right, which elicit my automatic, visceral rejection as morally wrong.)

Getting back to the very admirable Jaggi Singh, here's an essay about how Singh was treated after anti-globalization protests in Quebec in 2001, and something Singh wrote about the 2004 anti-RNC protests, countering the media's portrayal of him with a dose of reality.


Granny said...

Wonderful - I'm going back to check the links later.

Nerdbeard said...

Voting has value. But I'd wager nearly any one of your blog postings has a greater net effect on society than does any one of your votes.

The idea of taxation as slavery is, if a bit exaggerated, interesting to think about. Wouldn't it make tax season more fun if we got to individually allocate our tax dollars to the programs we wanted to support? A sort of fiscal democracy. The right is fond of telling me that I can make better spending decisions than they can, anyway.

laura k said...

But I'd wager nearly any one of your blog postings has a greater net effect on society than does any one of your votes.

Interesting idea! Since most of my votes in the US amounted to very little, you might be right.

Wouldn't it make tax season more fun if we got to individually allocate our tax dollars to the programs we wanted to support? A sort of fiscal democracy.

The reasons I left the US could be summed up as my strenuous objection to where my taxes went.

I don't think we should be able to cherry-pick our tax spending, but how a society spends does reflect its values.