David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Early Feminists Dreamed of a World Free of Alcohol, Drugs and War

Brandon Sun, January 25, 2016 - David McConkey

This week we celebrate the centennial of women winning the right to vote. We remember that Manitoba was the first province in Canada to do so. We remember that three feminist leaders – Nellie McClung and sisters Francis Beynon and Lillian Beynon Thomas – grew up in Westman. And we remember that the global fight for women’s equality is not over yet.

Beyond getting rights like voting, the early feminists had two big dreams. The two dreams were a society without alcohol, and a world without war.

Feminists saw prohibition of alcohol as a specific solution to the overall problem of men exploiting women. Men depleted their family’s grocery money to buy alcohol. Men got drunk and violent and abused their wives and children. The remedy seemed simple: get rid of alcohol.

But the answer was not simple. We tried Prohibition of alcohol – introduced in Manitoba along with female suffrage in 1916. But Prohibition did not end alcohol abuse, it just added problems like crime. We now understand that the answer is complicated, and involves legalization, regulation and rehabilitation. We are still learning that lesson today with drugs.

And feminists of a century ago share some of the blame for today’s War on Drugs, with its racism, its mass incarceration, and its failure to stop the illegal drug trade.

Canadian feminist leader Emily Murphy was one of the first to whip up hysteria in white society over race and drugs. (In a more positive campaign, Murphy and McClung were part of the “Famous Five” case. This enabled Canadian women – as “persons” – to become Senators.)

In her 1922 book, The Black Candle, Murphy spread alarm about non-white races and drugs. Murphy advocated harsh laws to crack down on users of drugs like opium, cocaine and a “new menace” – marijuana. (This was years before the movie Reefer Madness.) We are still saddled today with the fallout from the racism and bad policies of Murphy and other drug warriors.

The second big dream was a world without war. While the First World War was raging, McClung wrote about that dream in her book In Times Like These. McClung’s writing was conversational, ironic and humourous. Yet she was fierce in criticizing men, in defending women, and in identifying the cause of war.

“Away back in the cave-dwelling days,” McClung wrote, “there was a simple and definite distribution of labour. Men fought and women worked. Men fought because they liked it; and women worked because it had to be done.” 

McClung described the sad scene at Manitoba train stations after war was declared. Men were happy to go off to war. But the men were deserting their families, abandoning their children, leaving their wives “crying bitterly.”

But there would not have been a world war, McClung asserted, if women had been in the German Reichstag. If they’d had a say in governing, German women would have stopped “the Kaiser and his brutal warlords” from starting the war.

A mother herself, McClung sympathized with mothers in Germany: “I do not believe women with boys of their own would ever sit down and willfully plan slaughter.”

“Although men like to fight, war is not inevitable,” McClung wrote. “War is a crime committed by men and, therefore, when enough people say it shall not be, it cannot be. This will not happen until women are allowed to say what they think of war.”

Sentiments like McClung’s have been hotly debated over the years. Could there be an end to war if women shared equally in decision making? Interestingly, we seem to be coming around full circle today, with McClung’s thoughts having a new resonance. More involvement of women really does change societies for the better.

So what about the feminist dreams of a century ago? There is progress. Women got the vote, a big accomplishment. In 1916, Manitoba set an example for the rest of Canada. Today, women’s rights in countries like Canada set an example for the rest of the world.

A society without alcohol? Not possible: prohibition of alcohol (like drugs) does not work. But we can get better at dealing with these problems.

A world without war? That actually looks more possible today than 100 years ago.
McClung’s In Times Like These remains a classic expression of first-wave feminism in Canada. The book is still a provocative read today.

“The world,” McClung concluded, “has suffered long from too much masculinity and not enough humanity.“

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See also:  

Nellie McClung on Amazon.ca        (on Amazon.com)

Remembering Nellie McClung

Francis Marion Beynon: Compelling Story of a Manitoba Suffragist, Pacifist

Brandon's Messenger of Peace: J.S. Woodsworth

Remember Lesson of History on International Women's Day

Reflections on the Great War

Reflections on the War on Drugs

Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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