Book Review: A Great Revolutionary Wave: Women and the Vote in British Columbia

Several times each month, we are pleased to republish a recent book review from the Canadian Law Library Review (CLLR). CLLR is the official journal of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL/ACBD), and its reviews cover both practice-oriented and academic publications related to the law.

A Great Revolutionary Wave: Women and the Vote in British Columbia. By Lara Campbell. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2020. 310 p. Includes photographs, illustrations, table of contents, bibliographic references, and index. ISBN 9780774863223 (hardcover) $27.95; ISBN 9780774863254 (eBook) $27.95. 

Reviewed by Dominique Garingan
Library Manager, Calgary
Parlee McLaws LLP
In CLLR 46:2

A Great Revolutionary Wave is a captivating work that explores women in British Columbia and their multifaceted journey toward suffrage and enfranchisement. The book is authored by Dr. Lara Campbell, a professor of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at Simon Fraser University and author of publications in the field of Canadian gender history. This book is an engaging narrative that conveys the challenges faced by women of various racial, social, economic, and political backgrounds while also showing how historical societies responded to their campaigns for equality. Although most of the book concentrates on the stories of British settler suffragists, this account of women’s suffrage identifies and reflects on the racial, economic, and gender disparities that endure to this day. 

The book is divided into 11 chapters, inclusive of an introduction and conclusion. The book’s bibliographic resources consist primarily of monographs, textbooks, academic articles, and news periodicals covering the women’s suffrage, gender, and the socio-political climate of Western Canada from the turn of the century to the post-war years. The book provides numerous search tools, such as a comprehensive index. The discursive Sources and Further Reading section provides the reader wishing to engage in further research with references and bibliographic notes. It must be noted that the book uses the term “women” in the cisgender context and does not delve into non-cisgender identities, gender expression, or sexual orientation.

The introduction and first three chapters of the book introduce readers to the global suffrage movement and how women’s suffrage manifested in the unique socio-economic and political climate of British Columbia. Characteristics such as multi-culturalism, immigration, Indigenous heritage, British settler heritage, Canada’s federal political structure, Eastern trade, and the Western pioneering ethos are cited as factors necessitating a regional look at women’s suffrage in the province. The book begins by conveying how philosophies underpinning religion, education, self-determination, and normalized gender roles all contributed to women seeking a voice in the legislative process and greater influence upon laws that governed them. While relegated to domestic life and cited as having intellects and dispositions that were unsuitable for law and politics, early suffragists responded by positioning themselves as integral stakeholders to regulatory processes governing health, food, temperance, property, inheritance, and the education of children, all of which had a direct impact on family wellbeing and the home. 

In early chapters, the author discusses how suffragists were compelled to demonstrate acute social perception by treading political lines and remaining cognizant of the social tenets that some women, along with many men and lawmakers, still embraced and sought not to deviate from. Debates on suffrage were peppered with views on morality and religion along with social and political considerations. These multi-layered perceptions contributed to the difficult task of compartmentalizing suffragists’ political agendas. The book highlights the way suffragists possessed diverse moral and social opinions regarding the grounds upon which enfranchisement should be sought. Some viewed suffrage as an issue of non-partisanship and humanistic self-determination, while others viewed suffrage as a vehicle for greater representation for their political affiliations. 

The author conveys how anti-suffragist sentiments were similarly diverse, with opinions grounded in the disruption of family life and the endangering of public and economic roles typically reserved for men. Positions held by oppositionists were anchored on moral and religious views surrounding the woman’s subservient place. Oppositionist claims also included the desexing of women, increased competition for occupations, insufficient education, and the incapability of women to engage in responsible political participation.

In succeeding chapters, the author insightfully contextualizes the issue of suffrage within historical ideas influencing the dominance of upper-class British settlers in Canada over labouring classes as well as Indigenous, Asian, and Black Canadian populations. Examples of how the book delves into the darker and possibly lesser-known matters surrounding the suffrage movement include a view of the grounds for enfranchisement that adhered to systemic negative perceptions and the stigma of superiority held by some British settlers toward immigrant and visible minority populations. Many visible minority groups formed associations and engaged in their own battles for enfranchisement and were not granted suffrage until several decades after the vote was granted to British settler women. The author sympathetically weaves both shared and contending interests of British settler suffragists and non-British settler groups, as some suffragists presented enfranchisement as a solution for advancing British colonialist agendas amidst ongoing non-British immigrant settlements in Western Canada.

In its final chapters, the book invites readers to critically examine the reverberations of the suffrage movement in British Columbia. Despite commonly held views of women’s suffrage being an integral accomplishment in the journey toward gender equality, the author thoughtfully notes the “rhetoric of injustice and unfairness” (p. 121) that persisted throughout the suffrage campaign. The author posits how few British settler suffragists may have understood the issues of racial, gender, and economic inequality as being interconnected and how many may have been incognizant of the disparities embedded in and perpetuated by the women’s movement. The book adequately reflects the dearth of historical documentation speaking to the enfranchisement of visible minority women of Indigenous, Black, and Asian descent in British Columbia and suggests how their journeys were often viewed through the lens of race first and the lens of gender second. 

A great strength of this book, and one that relates it to present-day social and political movements such as Black Lives Matter, 2SLGBTQ+ alliances, and more inclusive forms of feminism, is found in its intersectional examination of how various forms of inequality operated together and exacerbated each other during the relevant historical timeframe. The book incorporates discussions on historical disenfranchisement, as it affected people of all genders and not just cisgender women.

Finally, the book compellingly argues that the stories of women’s suffrage cannot be read in isolation without recognizing their intimate connections with the stories of all people who were discriminated against and denied the vote on account of race, ethnicity, religion, marital status, and other characteristics of their personal, social, and political identities. It concludes by urging readers to reflect on the legacies left behind by early women suffragists with whom we may be more familiar and extend these to many of the unknown women who fought the same battles and carried with them other intersectional barriers to equality, in addition to that of being women. Readers are encouraged to examine present-day implications of the views perpetuated by the women’s suffrage movement and the continuing need for inclusivity, equality, and political representation for all people and groups.

This book is recommended for the collections of academic libraries and public-serving law libraries, as well as the personal collections of readers seeking to expand their knowledge on women’s suffrage, gender history, politics, and human rights in Canada. The book is part of a series entitled Women’s Suffrage and the Struggle for Democracy, edited by Dr. Veronica Strong-Boag, and is likely to engage interest in other titles within the series. Although the book centralizes on the women’s suffrage movement, it does a commendable job of contextualizing timeless human struggles and victories in the pursuit of social justice and political equality by emphasizing historical perspectives that continue to underpin contemporary discourses on diversity, inclusion, self-determination, and equality.

Start the discussion!

Leave a Reply

(Your email address will not be published or distributed)