A suffragist battle royale

By Jesse Keith

Nellie McClung is a name synonymous with the women’s rights movement in Canada. You might remember her from your grade 10 Social Studies class, a Canadian Heritage commercial on CBC, or maybe you’ve seen her statue gracing Olympic Plaza or Parliament Hill. History has made McClung the poster girl for the women’s suffrage movement in Canada. Sometimes people seem to forget McClung wasn’t the only women fighting for equality at the turn of the 20th century, and hers isn’t the only name that deserves to be in the history books.

The Fighting Days, the Depart-ment of Drama’s final 2003–04 production, tells how women’s rights activist Francis Beynon may have missed her share of the historical limelight through her unwillingness to compromise her values and lend her name in support of something she thought was wrong.

Beynon was a close associate of McClung’s in the battle for suffrage. She was herself a powerful women’s rights activist, publishing columns and essays describing the injustices suffered by women. However, during World War One, Prime Minister Robert Borden, worried about the upcoming election, excluded immigrants–with whom he was unpopular–from voting. McClung, sensing a chance to get a foot in the door, advised the Prime Minister to allow women to vote and bolster his ratings.

Immigrant women were, of course, excluded from this arrangement.

Beynon refused to accept McClung’s "the end justifies the means" tactics, which she saw as a compromise to women’s equality, instead leaving McClung’s movement and moving to the United States where she continued to write and speak out on issues concerning women and the lower class.

The Fighting Days director James Dugan thinks it’s important history is set straight, important Canadians recognize Beynon’s contribution to the women’s rights movement and the sacrifice she made to fight for her values.

"You can go down to Olympic Plaza and see Nellie McClung’s statue as part of the monument to the famous five women of the prairies," Dugan says. "Who knows, Francis Beynon might have had her statue on Parliament Hill or in Olympic Plaza too, had she stayed and been willing to compromise.

"I think it’s always important to remember people who worked hard and did a lot of good, but have been forgotten."

Dugan believes Beynon isn’t the only thing we’ve forgotten. Most Canadians know very little about the suffrage movement and the women who fought to give us the more equal society we live in.

"I think today a lot of males get a little annoyed and occasionally irritated at what they see as the relentless feminist agenda," Dugan explains. "I think it’s good to be reminded that there was a time not that long ago when women were completely disenfranchised. They couldn’t vote, they couldn’t own property and they had no rights in a divorce. It wasn’t that long ago, and I don’t think anybody today who complains about the women’s movement would want to return to those days."

Wendy Lill, author of The Fighting Days, offers a unique perspective on the battle for women’s equality in politics. On top of being a critically acclaimed and award winning playwright, Lill is currently a Member of Parliament for Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Lill’s plays have been produced throughout Canada, and she has received four nominations for the Governor General’s Literary Award for drama.

If Lill’s reputation holds true, The Fighting Days’ portrayal of Beynon will be as interesting as it is historically important. As Lill herself put it, "Francis Beynon gave up everything for her beliefs and one can only hope the world is a better place for it."

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