Frances and Lillian Beynon: Early crusaders for women’s rights

September 20, 2014

“One woman asked a cowboy if he had ever known a lady who would desire the vote. He replied that his mother in California voted, and he had always thought she was a lady.”….

I have always liked finding out about people and reading about them whether they lived in the past or are living right now. How women got the vote particularly fascinated me for quite some time especially because women in the province of Manitoba in Canada, where I was born and raised, were the first in this country to win this right. Many of the women who worked for the vote were newspaper reporters as I have been. Both of these similarities between them and me strengthens my interest in these women.

In this blog, I have previously posted an article about the Beynon sisters role in winning the vote but this is a longer article with some interesting tidbits that were not included in the previous posted article:

Western People
October 1, 1981
Frances and Lillian Beynon: Early crusaders for women’s rights
by Tanya Lester

During the early 1900’s, a woman’s only place on most Western Canadian newspapers’ staff was editing the women’s page. Women editors were instructed to produce pages that would appeal to the papers’ increasing feminine readership.

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 page 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.

It was a letter to Lillian’s page which prompted a group of Canadian Women’s Press Club members in Winnipeg to start actively fighting for the women’s vote in Manitoba. Beginning in 1906, Lillian’s “Home Loving Hearts” page in the Prairie Farmer received hundreds of letters from women who discussed the unfairness of laws concerning their sex. They wrote of having no legal claim on their children, their homes, or even the clothes on their backs.

“It was a letter to the ‘Home Loving Hearts’ page from a woman in Alberta, that was the final straw to make women in Manitoba rise up and organize ‘The Political Equality League’, with a determination to change such conditions,” Lillian wrote. The Alberta woman was married to an alcoholic. One day when her husband was away on a “spree”, two men came to see her. They told her they had bought the couple’s farm and everything on it except the family. The men told her to leave the farm immediately. The women, upon checking with her lawyer, found that the men were right. She had no legal claim on the farm she had worked long hours to establish.

“You can’t help me, but you can help others who are in a similar position,” the pathetic woman concluded her letter. Lillian and a group of women who had read the letter, including Frances, E. Cora Hind, and Nellie McClung, held a meeting and formed the Political Equality League. It was 1912, and the women would have a three year battle ahead of them.

Frances and Lillian had moved to Manitoba from Ontario as young girls when their family decided to homestead at Hartney, and were familiar with the hardships women faced on the farms. This gave them reason to crusade for the woman’s right to vote. However, Frances also became a suffragist for a more universal reason.

She believed it was time for mothers to become involved in politics. She thought they could no longer be content at being good mothers to their own children, but must show concern for all children, especially those who were dying from disease and poverty. “I tell you, sisters, this kind of motherhood isn’t good enough for the present day,” Frances wrote. “We want a new kind of motherhood, mothers whose love for their own children teaches them love for all children, mothers who will not boast of their weaknesses but seek for strength to fight the battle for their own and their neighbour’s children.”

With Lillian as its first president, the Political Equality League began organizing meetings to gain grassroots support for the cause. Many mothers were not ready to take up this challenge. An editorial headed “We Don’t Believe in Women” in Frances’s “Country Homemaker” page expressed Frances’ indignation with women who opposed the vote. In the piece, she referred to a woman who had “strayed” into a Political Equality League meeting. “Now, what do you think of that — a woman to say that she does not believe in women!” Frances’ words echoed her disgust. “No wonder some of the men have their doubts about us when members of our own sex are going about inanely declaring that we are no good. I dare say that in her own case the lack of faith is justified — she ought to know — but it was hardly decent to try to drag us down to her level.”

While she was at it, 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. I wouldn’t so much mind them saying we ought to do it, if they wouldn’t insist that we like it.”

One event in which the League’s women took their share of jeers and insults was at a Manitoba stampede where they set up a suffrage booth and handed out information sheets. The macho crowd at the stampede may have seemed the suffragists’ least likely converts. Nonetheless, the women took the bull by the horns, so to speak. In the Grain Growers’ Guide, Frances expressed belief that the suffrage booth at the stampede marked “the changing of woman suffrage from a mere academic question to a live issue in Manitoba.”

The day certainly gave the League a boost. One woman asked a cowboy if he had ever known a lady who would desire the vote. He replied that his mother in California voted, and he had always thought she was a lady.

The next 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 if should stay…

To read the first posts in this blog, go to
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Confessions of a Tea Leaf Readerby Tanya Lester can be bought from the author or go to the title and author name to read the first few pages and buy it at Her other books include Women’s Rights/Writes and Dreams and Tricksters.


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