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“An Able and Wise Woman”

For the week of Monday March 31, 2008

On April 5, 1854, Edith Jessie Archibald was born in Newfoundland. Archibald would grow up to be a leading figure in the fight for women’s suffrage in Nova Scotia.

Edith Jessie Archibald
© Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management/ Gauvin & Gentzell/ ca. 1895
Archibald was born into a prominent upper-middle class family, with many of her male relatives involved in politics. In 1874, she married her second cousin, Charles Archibald, a mine manager, and they settled in Cow Bay, Nova Scotia.

During the 1880s, Archibald would become the leader of the Cow Bay Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The WCTU was created in 1874 to strengthen the morals and family values in society through social reform and the prohibition of alcohol. The WCTU was the largest women’s organization in Canada and would be the first major group to support women’s suffrage.

Archibald became the president of the Maritimes WCTU in 1892. Under her leadership, she justified that women should be allowed to vote because it was their right of citizenship and a woman’s “feminine influence” in politics would help clean up society and protect the home. Under Archibald’s leadership, the franchise department became the most active in the local branch. Archibald and her supporters wrote pamphlets and journals and sent petitions to the Legislature demanding suffrage. In 1893 they came close when a bill to give women the vote in Nova Scotia failed by just one vote. 

A WCTU temperance publication
© Glenbow Archives/ NA-2629-13, 1933

In 1897, Archibald and her followers switched tactics, from fighting for equal rights to “maternal feminism,” emphasizing voting as a means to protect children. Despite the switch in strategy, no suffrage petitions or bills were recorded in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly from 1897 to 1916.

The Suffrage movement regained momentum in Nova Scotia after successes in Western Canada and Ontario. In 1917, a bill passed third reading, but was opposed by the Premier George Murray, who stated that it served “no useful purpose at this time” and put the motion on a “three month hoist.” Archibald helped organize the Nova Scotia Equal Franchise League to change Murray’s mind, but the Halifax Explosion of 1917 sidetracked these efforts. Finally in 1918, after the vital role women played in the rebuilding of Halifax, the bill passed and the legislature granted Nova Scotian women the right to vote in provincial elections.

Edith Jessie Archibald was designated a National Historic Person in 1997 for her tireless work in promoting women’s suffrage and expanding the position of women in public life.

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