A Woman in a Man’s World

Casgrain receiving the Governor General's Award from Edward Schreyer © Government of Canada / Library and Archives Canada / e002415955
Casgrain addressing the Voice of Women for Peace © Government of Canada / Library and Archives Canada / PA-178173

For the week of October 15, 2017.

On October 17, 1979, Thérèse Casgrain received the Governor General’s Award in commemoration of the Persons Case, for her contributions to the achievement of women’s suffrage in Quebec.

Encouraged by activist Marie Gérin-Lajoie, Casgrain joined the campaign for women’s right to vote in 1921. They joined with other feminists to form the Provincial Committee for Women’s Suffrage. Led by Casgrain from 1928 to 41, the committee became the League for Women’s Rights and expanded the scope of its work to include advocating for amendments to Quebec’s Civil Code. This helped married women win control of their own property under the law.

They also lobbied provincial members of parliament to introduce legislation that would extend the right to vote to women. Faced with strong opposition from the Catholic Church and overwhelming fears that women’s right to vote would threaten French-Canadian society, the campaign for female suffrage in Quebec faltered. Nevertheless, Casgrain and others persisted, winning the right to vote in 1940. However, not all women in Quebec gained the vote through their efforts. Indigenous People, for example, remained excluded from the provincial franchise until 1969.

In 1942, Casgrain ran as an Independent Liberal in Charlevoix-Saguenay – a post previously held by both her husband and father. Disillusioned by the lack of party support, Casgrain quit the Liberal Party in 1946 to join the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a political party that united farmer, labour, and socialist groups. In the late spring of 1951, Casgrain became the first female party leader of the CCF in Quebec — the Parti social démocratique du Québec. As leader, she ran three times for federal election, but failed to win a seat in the House of Commons.

In another act of leadership, during the height of Cold War tensions, Casgrain helped found the Quebec chapter of the Voice of Women (VOW), which fought for nuclear disarmament. As president, she attended international conferences, including the World Peace Conference in Helsinki. Police in Paris, France, detained Casgrain for three hours, after she participated in a protest against the testing of nuclear weapons in 1964.

She held many leadership positions throughout her life, but was very aware of how gender limited the opportunities available to her. Casgrain once said, “Had I been born a man, either I’d be prime minister of Canada or in jail. What a choice!”

Thérèse Casgrain worked alongside Marie Lacoste Gerin-Lajoie, a designated national historic person.

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