Winnipeg Unitarians and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage
By Rev. Stefan Jonasson
A few days before we celebrated the 125th anniversary of the founding of our congregation in 2016, Manitobans marked the centennial of women winning the vote in this province – the first province to enfranchise women. The two anniversaries are not unrelated.
Several factors influenced the establishment of the First Icelandic Unitarian Society of Winnipeg on February 1, 1891 – some theological, others sociological. Six years earlier, when representatives of the Icelandic churches in Manitoba and North Dakota met to organize the Icelandic Lutheran Synod, a dispute arose over whether or not women should have the vote in congregational matters. By a two-thirds vote at the organizing meeting, which was attended only by men, women were given the vote, but some congregations declined to ratify the constitution because of this. At the first annual convention of the synod, the constitution was revised to let each congregation decide the matter for itself. The liberals in the synod, which included several who subsequently became Unitarians, were incensed by the compromise.
When the First Icelandic Unitarian Society was organized, it was agreed that both women and men would enjoy full and equal rights of membership, including the right to vote in congregational matters, the right to serve on the board, and the right to occupy the pulpit. Thirteen years later, a Women’s Society was organized within the congregation under the leadership of Margrét J. Benedictsson and the first amendment to its bylaws provided that, “members pledged themselves to work for the rights of women to share equally in the vote.” The congregation’s bylaws were subsequently amended in a similar fashion so that, by 1905, one could not belong to the Icelandic Unitarian church in Winnipeg without being committed to women’s suffrage.
…by 1905, one could not belong to the Icelandic Unitarian church in Winnipeg without being committed to women’s suffrage.
Before Nellie McClung, Margrét Benedictsson was arguably the most important women’s suffrage leader in Manitoba. Beyond her work leading this congregation’s Women’s Society, she founded the city’s Icelandic Suffrage Society, and launched the magazine Freyja in 1898, which the only women’s suffrage publication in Canada at the time. In concert with others, this congregation’s Women’s Society circulated petitions that were presented to the provincial government. They helped keep the fledgling women’s suffrage movement alive.
From 1910 onwards, the women’s suffrage movement experienced a significant resurgence in Manitoba. With the organization of the Political Equality League and the arrival of Nellie McClung in Winnipeg, the movement gained steam. Members of the First Icelandic Unitarian Church, along with members of the more recently formed All Souls Unitarian Church, joined in this larger effort to win the vote for women.
So when the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba voted to enfranchise women on January 28, 1916, the province’s Unitarians had played an important part in the achievement. And less than a week later, the First Icelandic Unitarian Church celebrated its 25th anniversary.