Manitoba History: Francis Marion Beynon: The Forgotten Suffragist
by Brie McManus
Francis Marion Beynon was a dedicated suffragist who motivated women throughout the West to fight for the vote. Based in the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba,  Beynon was the women’s editor for the largest weekly western paper in Canada, The Grain Growers Guide.  Through her column “The Country Homemaker” she spent five years of her life, from 1912 to 1917, providing the average prairie women with advice and support. She became a friend to every lonely farm wife in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, and passed on to them her dreams for women’s suffrage and equality.
Beynon concentrated on the motivation of her reader in the fight for women’s rights, but she was always ready to provoke local or provincial politicians into supporting suffrage. In 1915 Beynon took on a fight against Liberal Premier Norris of Manitoba. The newly elected government had come to power on a suffrage platform with the help of most provincial suffrage organizations. After the government received a 40,000 signature petition supporting suffrage, Norris introduced a suffrage bill, but the bill failed to include the right to hold office. The bill, which was not yet made public, set off a confrontation between Beynon and Norris. Beynon telephoned the Premier’s office requesting the bill be changed before she left for Brandon at two o’clock or she would reveal its contents at the Grain Growers Convention where she was to be speaking. Norris had no choice. He had to change the bill or he would lose Liberal support from the most powerful farm organization in Western Canada, an organization that had been supporting female suffrage since the early 1910s. The influence Beynon had with the Premier demonstrated that she was a recognized and powerful leader of the suffrage movement.
At the same time Beynon felt that the suffrage movement in Saskatchewan was lacking leadership and direction; unlike Manitoba it had no organized urban center but only small, diverse suffrage groups. In a letter to Premier Scott of Saskatchewan, published in her column, Beynon demanded to know why women in his province had not yet gained suffrage. Scott minimized his involvement by stating that he was only representing the wishes of the voters who had not elected him on a suffrage platform.  Exposing Scott’s disinterest in suffrage, Beynon called upon her readers to force him to consider enfranchisement for women. She wanted it to be a policy he would have to adopt if he wanted to be re-elected. Beynon’s call to Saskatchewan’s women worked; a provincial organization was set up and more women responded to Beynon’s expectations.
Beynon’s influence on prairie politics was considerable and yet she is hardly mentioned in the study of important Canadian suffrage leaders. In general history books she is sometimes mentioned as a journalist or a pacifist, but not as a suffragist. Unlike the tributes paid to the Prairies’ “leading” suffragist Nellie McClung, books were not written about Beynon singing her praise nor plaques erected to commemorate her. 
Beynon’s contribution to the women’s movement has been either minimized or forgotten by most of Canada’s historians. Why has she been forgotten? Why is she minimized while McClung is hailed as the all important leader? Is McClung, a wife and mother, less threatening as the celebrated leader of the Prairie women’s movement than a young, single woman? Have historians overlooked Beynon because of her more radical feminism and her pacifism? An examination of Beynon’s role in the Prairie women’s movement will reveal the important contribution she made in attaining suffrage. This paper will weigh the impact of her radicalism, her pacifism, and her personality compared to McClung’s as factors in determining why she has become the forgotten suffragist.
The Nature of Beynon’s Contributions to the Women’s Movement
At the turn of the century two distinct types of feminism existed in North America; maternal suffragists advocated the vote for women as a means of mothering the country, while radical suffragists demanded the vote and other rights based on the idea of equality between the sexes. Maternal feminism was easily accepted by reform-minded politicians and the Protestant Churches who saw that it would not change women’s traditional gender role. Maternalists believed that women are naturally morally superior to men and that the vote would give them the chance to become mothers of the nation. Radical suffragists, meanwhile, wanted women to be made equal to men, even if the basis of Canadian society would have to change. Radicals posed a threat to traditionalism and the family structure.
Beynon’s brand of feminism is not easily labelled. Publicly she fluctuated between maternal and radical feminism. Although Beynon often appeared to have maternalistic views in The Grain Growers Guide, historians and readers can discover a more radical feminist in her book Aleta Dey,  a thinly disguised autobiographical novel. It is not likely that she suddenly developed into a radical suffragist when the book was published in 1919. Beynon had always believed in radicalism, but watered it down to an ideology that her readers, prairie farm wives, would be more able to accept.
Beynon turned her section of The Guide into a “moderately radical voice from the soul,”  in which she fought for suffrage, a Dower law, labour saving devices for the farm, and enfranchisement rights for women.  Beynon had been trying to teach Prairie women to act and concern themselves with others; readers often wrote each other help and advice.  She wanted to see a new type of woman who has “a duty not only to the little pink and white darlings who cuddle in their own arms but to all the babies in the world; that they are mothers not only of the homes, but of the nation.” 
By appealing to motherhood Beynon tried to motivate women to think about their rights and universal equality. She was so successful at involving women that many of her readers started grassroots suffrage movements, and without their husbands realizing what they were doing:
Beynon captured the attention of the women through poems, stories and cartoons. Her serial “The Story of Jennie and John Tightwad” ran in 1914 and portrayed the worst possible marriage a woman could enter into. It was a warning to many women that marriage and children are not always blissful, and that marriage is often parallel to slavery. Women needed to be protected from such situations by the law.
It is easy to misinterpret Beynon’s articles as being her direct thoughts and to believe that she became a suffragist for “a more universal reason”the maternal ideology.  A closer examination, however, reveals her anger at men and her desire for female emancipation:
Beynon goes as far as to advocate women’s independence from men. She feels women, once given the chance, want to be free of male dominance:
It is men, according to Beynon, who are stopping the human race from progressing, not the threat of women leaving the home. How can a fired, poor washerwoman who dies providing for her family, be less of a social threat than an independent woman?
Beynon used her intelligence and writing ability to moderate her radical inclinations into a movement that would appeal to the average prairie woman and contribute to the grass-roots movement that was forming. While. advising her readers on their suffrage organizations, she gave advice that she frequently followed; always be moderate:
Beynon often used opposition to female suffrage as a means of gaining more support, similar to an incident in Aleta Dey: 
She realized the power to be gained for the movement by provoking women into action.
Beynon’s support of women’s rights was not a conscious choice she had to make; the belief in the struggle is something she naturally felt: “In supporting the women’s cause I am only expressing one of the deepest convictions of my own mind.”  Beynon’s deep-rooted belief in women’s rights made it difficult to keep the subject out of her column, and therefore it often became the topic of her essays and even reader letters.  The questions Beynon asked her readers about the role of woman was not meant to convert her readers to radicalism, only to provide them with information on a subject that had long been considered taboo. The friendship that Beynon set up with her readers led to the establishment of many local suffrage chapters across the provinces.
Papers like The Guide raised the suffrage issue long before speakers would have the chance to travel through small towns in the Prairies hying to gain local support. The readers of The Guide were largely farmers who were concerned with the growth and influence of urban centers. They saw female suffrage as an opportunity to double the rural voice and let them have more power in the Legislature. In 1914, 90.31% of The Guide’s male readers across the Prairies who answered the reader referendum were in favor of female suffrage.  This prairie grassroots system, unknown in other parts of Canada, let Manitoba become the first province to give the vote to women. When Beynon and other Political Equality League members asked for a 17,000 signature petition for Premier Norris the women of Manitoba (mostly rural) responded with a petition 40,000 signatures long. Whether a materialist or radicalist Francis played an influential role in winning the vote for Prairie women.
The Downfall of Beynon: Pacifism
The war that broke out in 1914 had been relatively ignored by Beynon and other suffragists until the vote had been won in January of 1916 in Manitoba. Once that fight had been victorious, Beynon turned her thoughts to the battle taking place in Europe. Her egalitarian ideas eventually caused her to become anti-war, anti-militaristic and doubtful of nationalistic theories. While Canada was honoring its soldiers, Beynon condemned the world’s powerful nations for their war profiteering and imperialistic conquest. She could not support anything that would cause the destruction of nations and people:
It seems like a horrible nightmare that we are picking out our big, stalwart young men and instructing them hour after hour, in the ways of death. 
Beynon also voiced her dislike of the war because she saw it as the choice of the politicians and not of the people.
Beynon’s outspokenness about the war at rallies and in her articles caused the deterioration of her life in Winnipeg. An important effect of her anti-war stance was the break it caused in Winnipeg’s women’s movement. Nellie McClung, another leading suffragist, had called for the disenfranchisement of all “foreigners” (non-British) until the end of the war, a policy Beynon felt contradicted all of The Political Equality League’s beliefs. Beynon attacked McClung’s policy and accused her of not being a true suffragist. McClung withdrew her policy saying that she had no desire to break the women’s movement, but it had already been split. Beynon had won the argument, but most of the public support was given to McClung for her patriotic support of Britain. McClung had won the battle.
In vocally opposing the war and the federal government’s Conscription Bill, Beynon “became a dissenter in a society that blurred the distinction between dissent and subversion.”  Winnipeg turned into a city whose ruling-class was solidly loyal to Britain, Canada’s mother country, and did not like Beynon’s open criticism of her policies. Beynon so threatened the establishment that Press Canada bugged her telephone and her last few articles were not allowed to be published in The Guide.
The most important effect that pacifism had on her life was that it caused her to be fired from The Grain Growers Guide. Beynon’s forced resignation as women’s editor in June 1917 was due to public opposition of her condemnation of male conscription. After five years with the paper she had to leave. Considering her views and her dismissal from The Guide, it would have been impossible to find another job in Winnipeg, so Beynon moved to New York City where she found work and her radical ideas were not subject to disapproval.
Beynon’s leaving Winnipeg reunited her with her sister and brother-in-law, who had also been forced to leave Winnipeg because of their pacifist views. Her sister Lillian had been fired from The Winnipeg Free Press because of her open anti-war statements. Vernon Thomas, Lillian’s husband, also a journalist, was dismissed for shaking hands with a known anti-war member of the Manitoba Legislature. The city of Winnipeg was clearly removing all of those who posed a threat to Canada’s support of the war.  Had it not been for her pacifist views Beynon would have remained in Winnipeg and continued to fight for women’s rights, probably making her more remembered and well thought of in the suffrage movement.
Beynon felt that the treatment she had received from her once supportive friends was unjust and violated the social equality for which they had been fighting. The anger she felt was documented in Aleta Dey.  Knowing that most of Winnipeg would read the book, even though it was never reviewed by The Guide, she turned the treatment she had received from them into the physical stoning of the book’s heroine Aleta at an anti-war rally. Aleta dies. Beynon painted a picture of what she felt Winnipeggers were trying to do to her, which was to keep her silent. She carried the idea of stoning back to Biblical times:
Beynon appears to be suggesting that she prophesied the changes of women and the error of war, but that no one who was patriotic to Britain would listen to her despite their support for her policies. In many ways she was a prophet; she spoke of rights and freedoms that women only now have.
Beynon’s life changed because of the war, but it is not likely that she would give up the right to voice her opinion just to stay in Winnipeg. Pacifism, like suffragism, was something in which she naturally believed. They were extensions of the same thought, the need for equality and understanding between nations and people.
McClung and Beynon
Beynon has faded into history’s blackhole while Nellie McClung, another Manitoban suffragist, is now considered a “leading figure in the early rights movement in Canada, and one of the most dynamic, energetic, and influential women in Canada’s history.”  Considering the fact that they were both fighting for the same movement, from the same place, and through the same organizations, it must be questioned why one is better remembered. Is it due to their personality, their approaches, their public life or their beliefs?
When the Political Equality League of Manitoba was formed in 1912, McClung and Beynon were already both involved in the women’s movement, but the root of their involvement differed. Beynon was in her late twenties, single and a newly-hired journalist. She had already worked as a teacher and as one of the first women managers of Eaton’s department store. Once she was living in Winnipeg, Beynon had become involved in the women’s cause through her older sister Lillian Beynon Thomas, the first president of the Political Equality League, who had secured her the job at The Guide. Beynon showed no inclination of settling down and having a family, the exact choice McClung had made at the same age. McClung had become highly involved in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union of Manitoba. It soon became her belief that alcohol was the root of all of Canada’s social problems, and if women’s votes could ban the bars all other social ills would disappear. McClung was now in her late thirties, married to a prosperous insurance agent and a mother of four. She had recently become a famous author for her family orientated prairie novels. The two women were fighting for the same rights, but that is where their similarities end.
The difference between McClung and Beynon also arose because of their outlooks on life. McClung often advocated the assimilation of immigrants and their children. She saw them as becoming important to Canada agriculturally, but as social hindrances if they lived in the city. Her motivation for changing Canada was the “Christian faith which was the ground of her being and action.”  Even in her novels there are Christian morals of good faith and trust. Beynon often spoke for minority women in Manitoba and never advocated cultural changes. She had long ago given up on organized religion as being effective to the betterment of the world and saw it instead as a repressive factor.
The fact is that the Church has been one of the most ardent persecutors of these supremely great souls who have dared to follow the light. Founded by a rebel and an outcast from a society, a despised soap-box orator, it has become the leading hound in the pack of social tyrannies with which to try to drive the fine free souls of men to uniformity of thought. 
Beynon’s interpretation of religion is contrary to McClung’s. It was a utopia for McClung that let her believe that goodness could be achieved, especially by the vote.
McClung and Beynon had different means of reaching the women of the Prairies. Beynon wrote to their homes each week and became a shoulder to cry on. Unfortunately she did not give many speeches, either because of lack of time or ability. These speeches gained publicity and provided zealous support for the cause. McClung, already known for her novels, spent most of her time travelling and speaking through rural Manitoba. She had started out reading from her novels with small lectures on suffrage or prohibition at the end, but as her ability as a speaker increased, along with the support for suffrage, she was hired to speak only on enfranchisement. She had a lively presence on stage, and was even able to win over, if only for the duration of her speech, hostile audiences.
From the time of Nellie’s first venture into the entertainment field newspaper accounts mention her attractive voicegentle, yet clear and heard in every part of the hallher flashing eyes, her vitality and compelling presence on the stage. 
Her incredible ability as a speaker was demonstrated in 1915 in Winnipeg at the Mock Women’s Parliament. She played Premier Roblin who was opposed to suffrage while Beynon was a part of the Opposition backbench. McClung’s speech framed her in the listener’s memory, thereafter connecting her always with suffrage.
Although there were many similarities between the two, a break in their friendship arose in 1917 because of the war. It is possible that McClung would not have supported the war if it had not been for her son’s enlistment.  Still, McClung appeared to be more willing to give up her ideas for social convention than Beynon did and in doing so she appeared the good British wife and mother. If McClung had earlier been ridiculed by members of the press over suffrage, she gained their support during the war. The reason McClung is so remembered could be due to her ability to entertain and amuse, but the difference between the two women was much deeper. Beynon expressed the division between Pauline and Aleta, modeled after herself and McClung, in Aleta Dey as the following: “The bridge between two such extremes is not arguments but generations.”  The different ideologies of the two overrode their similarities.
The Fate of a Radical
The fate of Francis Marion Beynon was not unlike that of other radical feminists from the early twentieth century who dared to condemn the capitalist society, or World War I, or who demanded emancipation. An example is the anarchist “Red Emma” Goldman of New York City who called for the overthrow of the capitalist system to allow women’s emancipation. Goldman was deported. American nurse Margaret Sanger felt that working-class women should have no more than two children to improve the woman’s health and the family’s finances. She also opened a birth control clinic, and was sent to jail. The Canadian suffragist Flora Macdonald Denison, who led the Canadian Suffrage Association from 1911 to 1914, rejected capitalism and orthodox Christianity for the restraints it placed on women. She was forced to resign.  Their fates do not differ from Beynon’s; all were persecuted in their time and are generally overlooked today.
In other countries feminists who had been condemned as radicals and ridiculed received praise once they publicly supported the war. In pre-war England the Women’s Social and Political Union of England, run by Emmiline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, was denounced by the British government for its radical and militant action. In contrast, Emmiline’s other daughter Sylvia, and a group of London’s working class women, had been allowed to meet with the Prime Minister, something that the WSPU had never achieved, and talks on suffrage looked promising. Once the war started, however, the WSPU gained public support by holding war rallies and knitting socks for the soldiers. Sylvia in turn lost the support she had won when she took a vocal pacifist stand. When women in England did get the vote it was attributed to the important role the WSPU had played in helping to win the war. Women were praised for retaining their maternalism once they took on responsibility, contrary to what men had feared.
The contrasting fates of Beynon and McClung can also be compared to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, two influential nineteenth century American suffragists. Stanton, like McClung, was respectably married (with eight children) and an enthusiastic speaker but of the two friends, Anthony is the most widely accepted and recognized. During the 1970s the United States introduced a dollar coin with Anthony’s head on it. The U.S. government and the women’s movement have failed to recognize Stanton in the same way. While the two fought together for the vote, Stanton widened her battle to divorce laws, the oppressive role of the Church on women  and often criticized marriage as an institution. Unlike Anthony, Stanton became more radical in her old age and less willing to settle for just the vote. The elimination of Stanton was not done because she did not present a proper image as a woman, but because her message was unacceptable.
Beynon was forced to remove herself from Winnipeg if she ever wanted to work again, leaving behind friends and memories. The anger she felt over having to leave Winnipeg because of her pacifist views, views which over-rode all the good she had done for the suffrage movement in the eyes of the public, was documented in Aleta Dey. She alone saw the tragedy of not being allowed to carry on the women’s fight in Canada. Who knows what she might have achieved? Instead Beynon spent the rest of her life in New York writing for various newspapers until she died in 1951. She did not return to Winnipeg after the War with her sister and brother-in-law: at least there is no documentation that she ever returned. Once Beynon left Winnipeg nothing is known about her life, in fact very little is known about her life in Winnipeg except for a few published essays. Beynon has yet to have a biography written about her or any acknowledgement from the province of Manitoba. In some ways the story of her life has not been resolved.
There are many factors that contribute to Beynon’s obscurity; her brand of feminism, her public character and her open pacifism. Her opposition to the First World War made her unacceptable in her own time. As seen in the study of other anti-establishment feminists:
The power of those she opposed still prevents Beynon from being remembered. It is tragic that because of her pacifism she is not acknowledged for her role in obtaining the vote for Prairie women. Her grassroots voice has faded.
1. This is part of a reader’s letter published in The Grain Growers Guide, January 14, 1914.
2. Winnipeg at the beginning of the twentieth century was the meeting place of many cultures and ideologies as immigrants travelled through the city into the frontier. Ramsay Cook discusses Winnipeg as a radical center of Canada in his article “Francis Marion Beynon and the Crisis of the Christian Reformism,” published in The West and The Nation. It is his opinion that Winnipeg, like any other city in the midst of “a pulsating economic boom and social and ethnic frictions of growing intensity” would have produced a large group of intellectuals and radicals. Many of its inhabitants, John W. Dafoe, J. S. Ewart, J. S. Woodsworth, Salem Bland, Nellie McClung, Cora Hind, Ralph Connor, F. J. Dixon, Lillian and Vernon Thomas, to name a few, actively discussed public social questions, whether in articles or speeches.
3. The circulation of the paper in 1914 across all the Prairie provinces was 34,000 copies.
4. Premier Scott responded by saying: “There must be some misunderstanding. I could not extend the franchise on the say so of women; I’d need the approval of the electorate.” Scott was refusing to give women the vote if the only reason to do so was that they wanted it, he would only let them vote when the men wanted it. The women responded by forming the Provincial Equal Franchise Board in 1915 and four months later presented the provincial Legislature with a 10,000 signature petition. The petition was ignored for a year until the other Prairie provinces showed signs of supporting suffrage. In 1916 the women of Saskatchewn were enfranchised, only after they handed Scott another 10,000 names supporting suffrage. Saskatchewan became the second province in Canada to grant women the vote.
5. In Canada Nellie McClung has been recognized for her participation in the suffrage movement with a Canadian stamp, a “Canadian Heritage Moment” on television, and by a plaque and pamphlet put out by The Manitoba Historical Society. She has also been recognized by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Her home in Manitou has become a museum and more than four biographies have been written about her life. None of the above honor Beynon’s memory. An example of the discrepancy between the recognition the two have received is apparent in Canadian Women: A History published by Harcourt Brace in 1988. Even feminist history only mentions Beynon’s name four times (pp. 133, 196, 207, 355) but devotes over sixteen pages to Nellie McClung. Beynon is mentioned for her journalistic involvement with women and her pacifist beliefs but not as a suffrage leader.
6. Francis Marion Beynon, Aleta Dey (London: Virago Modern Classics, 1988).
7. Anne Hicks, “Francis Beynon and The Guide,” First Days, Fighting Days (University of Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1987) pp. 41-49.
8. Prairie women’s main problem was their lack of legal rights. Beynon and other Political Equality League members took on the battle of the Dower Law. The Dower Law had guaranteed that a woman would inherit her dead husband’s land, but the law was revoked in the early 1900s because of the large number of Métis wives. Without the law widowed women were in danger of losing their livelihood. Another problem faced by rural women was the fact that a woman could not earn the title to a quarter section of land by working on it unless she was the head of a household, therefore being widowed. Urban women were faced with the fact that fathers of illegitimate children were considered to be sole parent, where in a married family the man had the legal authority of a parent. A father could even have his child adopted without the permission of the mother if he chose. Women were not legal persons or citizens.
9. Throughout the years women wrote to Beynon and each other asking for help with illnesses, child rearing and their domestics. At one point a new mother wrote in asking if anyone would adopt the child she could not afford to raise. Someone did.
10. Francis Marion Beynon, “The Country Homemakers,” The Grain Growers Guide, January 1, 1913.
11. Tanya Lester, “A Tale of Two Sisters,” Women Rights/Writes (Xerox Canada Inc., 1985), pp. 45-55.
13. Francis Beynon, GGG, November 5, 1913.
17. In 1913 a woman with the pen name “Wolf-willow” frequently wrote to Francis to express her disgust at female suffrage. Although the letters were meant to sway opinion against the vote for women, Francis published a number of her letters and without it having a negative effect. It seemed to encourage a debate between her readers and as a result many women wrote in to express their views on enfranchisement.
18. Beynon, Aleta Dey, pp. 152-53.
20. In Beynon’s first year as women’s editor she ran sections of Olive Schreiner’s Women and Labor, published in 1911, in “The Country Homemaker.” Schreiner felt that women would have to enter the work force as industries, like bakeries and laundries, took over traditional tasks of women. Francis was very influenced by Schreiner’s book and ran it for more than two months in 1912, passing on the knowledge to her readers.
21. Reader Referendum vote, GGG, February 4, 1914.
22. Beynon, GGG, September 9, 1914.
23. Ramsay Cook, “Francis Marion Beynon and the Crisis of Christian Reformism” in Carl Bergen (ed.), The West and The Nation, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976), p. 199.
24. The elimination of Winnipeg’s radicals is documented in Ramsay Cook’s essay “Francis Marion Beynon and the Crisis of Christian Reformism.” Cook accounts for the departure of many radicals: “Not long afterwards J. S. Woodsworth’s Social Research Bureau, financed by the three prairie governments, was closed at least partly because of its director’s publicly professed anti-war views. So, too, was it widely believed that radicals like Professor Salem Bland and Rev. William Ivens were relieved of their posts in the Methodist Church for political reasons.” (p. 198)
25. When reading the novel the context in which it was written must be considered. It was not meant to be only fiction; it had a message. Beynon was using it as a vehicle to show her anger towards her old friends.
26. Beynon, Aleta Dey, p. 222.
27. Mary Hallett and Marilyn Davis, Firing the Heather (Saskatchewan: Fifth House Ltd., 1993), book cover.
29. Beynon, Aleta Dey, p. 147.
31. In Firing the Heather, McClung’s position on the war is described as the following: “As for Nellie, Jack’s her son] involvement in the war had changed her from a near pacifist to one who believed that this war at least was a battle against the forces of evil and, perhaps, a war to end all wars, though she never became an enthusiastic patriot”, p. 166.
33. Donna Goodman et al., Canada in a North American Perspective, (Scarborough, Ontario: Prentice Hall Canada, 1989), pp. 331-32.
34. Elizabeth Stanton, The Women’s Bible (1898). She undertook, with some friends to re-write the Bible so that it could no longer be used to justify the subordination of women.
35. Dale Spender, Women Of Ideas (And What Men Have Done To Them) (London: Ark Paperbacks, 1982), p. 9.
Page revised: 11 April 2010