From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:
In the summer of 1923, a group of women’s rights activists travelled across Northern Ontario, driving 1,500 miles over the course of a month, speaking in upwards of thirty communities on social issues. One of their stops was in Sault Ste. Marie.
The most notable speaker was Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst, who was described in the Sault Daily Star as a “militant suffrage leader” whose actions were “known to everybody.”
Emmaline Pankhurst was an English activist. As the founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), whose members were famously known as suffragettes, she advocated for the voting rights of British women.
Throughout the early 1900s, Pankhurst and other suffragettes engaged in campaigns of civil disobedience, political activism, and rallies throughout England – actions that had her and the WSPU branded as militants. By the early 1910s, the WSPU’s actions took a more violent turn: breaking windows, setting fires and vandalizing. Pankhurst was arrested and served jail time on at least thirteen separate occasions – notably in connection with a rock thrown at the Prime Minister’s house and, later, for allegedly inciting activists to set off a bomb.
In 1920, Emmeline Pankhurst moved temporarily to Canada, first living in Victoria and then Toronto. She described Canada to Maclean’s magazine as having “more equality between men and women than in any other country [she knew].”
She had high praise for Canada, and she was received well by the country in return. She kept busy with speaking engagements, and reporters for Maclean’s noted “her dignity and poise and quiet force and gentleness.” They also commented on how beautifully she dressed, describing her as “a ‘womanly woman’ leading woman’s cause.”
In Canada, she worked with the Canadian National Committee for Mental Hygiene – now known as the Canadian Mental Health Association – on their social hygiene campaign. And that advocacy in the field of social hygiene is where her tour of Northern Ontario came in.
In 1923, one of the social hygiene councils provided a car – a Ford Sedan, the likes of which had never been seen in some of the communities before – to carry a group of advocates on a five-week tour of Northern Ontario. The group consisted, of course, of Emmeline Pankhurst, along with Mrs. R. A. Kennedy, Ottawa Women’s Club President, and Miss Hewson, Ontario Social Hygiene Council secretary and driver for the duration of the trip.
Their goal, according to The Globe was “to bring the people in the more remote places of the Province the need of awakening active interest in public health matters, with especial emphasis on the social disease evil.”
The change from suffragette to social hygienist wasn’t a particularly big leap for Emmeline Pankhurst. Social hygiene and the suffragette movement were strongly linked – perhaps best exemplified by Pankhurst’s daughter Christabel, who coined the phrase “Votes for Women and Chastity for Men.”
While the social hygiene movement most famously worked to eliminate venereal diseases, it actually had a much broader goal based on the moral standards of the time. As the Sault Star described, in their Mainly for Women section, the goals were “to teach the newer generation of humankind the real and true knowledge of life and the responsibilities of motherhood and the sacredness of love and marriage, that the time would come in the history of this world when divorces would be unknown and diseases would no longer cause little children to be born into the world prematurely, blind and deformed innocent victims of the sins of the parents.”
The social hygiene movement and its activists were not without their darker side. Emmeline Pankhurst, for example, praised Canada for being a blend of British and French, telling Maclean’s magazine that they were “the two greatest races in the world.” The movement as a whole has also been linked with eugenics.
In Sault Ste. Marie, however, based on newspaper reports from the time, little of that darker side was on display.
Instead, the conversation largely turned to women’s participation in politics. Pankhurst was asked at one point “if she had noted that only the active, interested, and alive class of women took time to think of the use of their vote.” She responded first by inquiring if the same could not be said for men, and then by observing that if women’s issues were more addressed in politics, more women would be politically engaged.
In Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., the group’s only American stop, they spoke to an audience of 500.
In Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., approximately 800 people filled the technical school to hear Pankhurst discuss social hygiene. She spoke about the movement, trying to rally Sault Ste. Marie women to participate in what she called “the greatest reform movement in the history of the world.”
Dr. A. S. McCaig, City Medical Officer, also spoke on the subject of social hygiene, describing the threat of venereal disease in detail.
At the conclusion of the event, the decision was made to start a local branch of the Canadian Social Hygiene Council. Twenty people signed up immediately following the meeting, including doctors, prominent Saultites, and their families.
Newspapers recounted some trouble they narrowly avoided on the ferry to Manitoulin Island. Apparently, the car compartment was shorter than the Ford Sedan. Squeezing it onto the ferry required that Miss Hewson remove the tires and also enlist “the help of eight husky men, who stood on the running-board and pressed to their full weight and strength.”
The tour ended largely without incident – although there were reports of blown tires and a near accident with a train. Miss Hewson, who had been driving since 1910, had high praise for the roads in Northern Ontario, saying that the stretch between Sudbury and the Soo felt “like pavement.”
Overall, the trip was seen as a resounding success, for both the speakers and those in the audience. It spurred people to become more involved in their own communities – and also afforded those in Sault Ste. Marie and elsewhere the opportunity to hear from one of the most famous of suffragettes.
Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.