Frances and Lillian Beynon: Early Feminist Writers

July 31, 2014

Right after I finished university, I spent a winter in Ottawa. Ottawa, being the capital city of Canada, has many national institutions in the National Archives of Canada and the National Library of Canada.

I was starting out as a writer and I had majored in history when in university. I found both the National archives and library were amazing places to rout around in. I know, I know, these places encourage research about the past and you might find it strange for a psychic like me, who works telling people what to expect in their futures, to have such a fascination with the past.

To me, the past is linked to the present and to the future. They are all different places in time. When I was working on my Bachelor of Arts at The University of Winnipeg, my favourite historian (herstorian?) was Sheila Robotham, a British academic and prolific author. She was a social historian who liked to write about history that was about, not to kings and queens and parliamentarians, what everyday people were doing in the past. When I was studying and quoting from her work for a paper I was preparing, it dawned on me (I love that phrase because university, at its best, helps our minds enter a new dawn or enlightenment) that what Robotham believed was if we know more about our past, we will do better in the present and in the future.

I think this was the beginning of me understanding that time is not really linear but a circle. The past does not end, when we are in the present and the future is already waiting when we are in the present. The Universe goes round and round as the globe does and as the seasons do. They go round and round but things can change within circular time. For example, if I learn from the past that it was wrong for King Henry VIII to behead his Queen Anne then I sign a petition against the death penalty in this lifetime. Or if I find out that someone who given the death penalty and then was found to be innocent, I would be motivated to work against the death penalty. In this way, the past impacts the present and the future.

This article is one of several that I researched at the National archives and library.
You could say because I found out about how women worked so hard to get the vote, I have always considered it important to do some ‘soul searching’ before marking the ballot at election time. And, I always vote, even though this is sometimes a bit difficult for me as I travel so much. When an Albertan woman once told me that she votes for the Conservative Party in her province because no one of any other political stripe ever gets elected, I was horrified. To me, this is like going along to slaughter like a sheep.

These articles, in different edited forms, about early feminists were published in my book, Women’s Rights/Writes, in Western People (The Western Producer) and in HERizons. They may still be the pieces of my writing that have been most widely read.

This is one of them (and there are others published in the past on this blog and more will be posted on this blog in the future; by the way, The Walker Street theatre referred to here is now named The Burton Cummings Theatre, after The Guess Who rock band bad boy):

June 1983
Frances and Lillian Beynon: Early Feminist Writers
by Tanya Lester

In Winnipeg, the Beynon sisters were editors of women’s pages and did exactly what their bosses told them to do. They ran articles of interest to women. The pages included recipes, household hints, letters — and stories concerning the suffragist movement. By the time some husbands realized just what their wives were reading in the pages, Prairie women were well on their way to winning the vote.

Frances Marion Beynon edited the women’s pages for the Grain Growers Guide
while her sister, Lillian Beynon Thomas, did the same for the
Free Press Prairie Farmer. Between the two of them, the Beynons planned farm women’s conventions, founded political equality leagues, and masterminded petition campaigns in support of the vote for women. Flanked by suffragists in the Women’s Press club and the Political Equality League, the sisters tackled premiers who hesitated to give women the vote, made contacts with men such as J.S. Woodsworth, and rallied grassroots support among both men and women for their cause. Their pages served as vehicles of information for their successful crusade which helped win the vote for women on the Prairies.

With Lillian as its first president, the Political Equality League began organizing meetings to gain grassroots support for the cause.

Frances slammed men who felt a woman’s place was in the home: “What I have always hankered to know is who says it is our place,” Frances wrote. “As nearly as I can find out it was by no divine revelation that this conclusion was reached. Some man said so and it was echoed around the world because most men felt so. They decided that woman’s place was the home, because they wanted her to stay there. I never yet knew a man who had any fondness for washing dishes and scrubbing floors, so they think it is the ideal work for a woman.”

One landmark occasion for Manitoba suffragists was the famous Women’s Parliament. The event was staged after a delegation from the League went to see Premier Rodmond Roblin. He told them that he revered women, thought they were superior to men, and queens of the home. If civilization had made it that way for women, he said, then that was the way it should stay.

The next night, the suffragists staged a mock parliament at the Walker Street theatre in Winnipeg. “My dear gentlemen you are beautiful cultured men,” Nellie McClung mocked the Premier in the women’s parliament she led in the play. “who I am sure make good homes, and you should stay there. It would be a shame for me to let you soil your hands in the dirty mess of politics — politics unsettles men and unsettled men means unsettled homes, broken furniture, broken vows and divorce. Men’s place is on the farm.” McClung was the star performer but both Lillian and Frances had played lower profile parts in staging the play.

The Beynon sisters did not merely write about the need for women’s role to change, but gave practical advice in their pages as to how that change could be made. As early as 1912, Frances was urging rural readers to start women’s clubs and advising how they could be organized. She believed any social gatherings of women could lead to the improvement of conditions for women. These rural women’s groups became the grassroots backbone of the women’s fight for the vote.

On January 28, 1916, T.H. Johnson, acting premier and the son of an Icelandic suffrage pioneer, moved the third reading of the Women Suffrage Bill. It was passed unanimously. Manitoba women were the first in Canada to win their right to vote. Included among the women who were asked to sit in the Legislature on this historic day were Frances and Lillian Beynon.
To read earlier posts on this blog, go to
Facebook. LinkedIn. Twitter.
Confessions of a Tea Leaf Readerby Tanya Lester can be purchased from the author or the first few pages can be read & the book purchased by going to the title and author name at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s