The Suffrage Movement in Guelph and Wellington County: A Tale of Resistance and Rights


Women began fighting for suffrage, which is the right to vote in political elections, in Ontario in the early 1800s.  But it was not until 1917 that women finally obtained that right. Although some of the early suffragists were privileged white women who demanded their rights to the exclusion of others, they paved the way to the legal rights that many women now hold. Ever since the Constitutional Act of 1791, women living in Lower Canada (present-day southern Quebec) were permitted to vote as long as they owned property. Many politicians were against this, however, and tried several times to stop women from voting. One failed attempt to amend the law in 1834 nearly succeeded because men deemed polling stations to be too dangerous for women.


In 1844, seven women in West Halton cast ballots in an election later contested by the losing candidate. Some people believed that women were not intelligent enough to participate in politics. The Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada met in 1849 to standardize the electoral laws for both Upper and Lower Canada. In response to the events of 1844, the Canada Reform Party included an amendment in the 1849 assembly for a complete ban on women voting in any election.  That action prompted the suffrage movement in Ontario. Women were determined to get the right to vote.  For example, a 1884 Guelph  Mercury newspaper clipping reported that 50 to 60 women had registered with the Minto Town Clerk to have their names included on the voter lists. Perhaps they acted in protest, or in expectation of a change in voting laws.


Hannah Williams, who had property in Guelph, was one of the West Halton seven. William's mother was Laura Secord, who is remembered for her heroism during the War of 1812.   Williams' first husband died in 1844 when she was 27.  At the time, adult British subjects who owned property could vote and as a widow, Williams qualified.  She, along with six other widows, exercised their right in that pivotal 1844 election.  Their decision to case their ballot, and in so doing, breaking social norms, changed the course of women's involvement in political life in Canada. 


Black and white portrait of Emily Stowe. This only shows her head, she is wearing something with a frill collar and glasses. Her hair rather short and seems to be in a bun.

Emily Stowe (1831-1903), who was the first female practicing physician in Canada, as well as a teacher and school principle. She is perhaps best known for her work as a Suffrage activist and founder of the Canadian Women's Suffrage Association based in Toronto, Ontario. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.  This is a sepia photo of Stowe wearing glasses.