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The Grand Old Lady of Shuter Street and Women’s Suffrage

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During the month of October, Canada celebrates Women’s History Month. Massey Hall is part of the extraordinary story of women who have helped shape our country. One of the most progressive movements that Massey Hall became a community & political hub for was the suffragist movement in the early decades of the twentieth century. Massey Hall was visited by a number of feminists, such as Canadian-born Nellie McClung and the British-born Pankhurst women including Emmeline and her daughter Sylvia, all of whom paved the path for women’s equality.

On a visit to Massey Hall in December 1909, Emmeline Pankhurst was met with uncertainty by a curious audience that was not accustomed to exposure on the fight for women’s rights. At the time, Canadian women were not part of the suffragist movement the same way women overseas were. However, directly after Pankhurst’s talk, Mrs. Phillip Snowden was enthusiastically received when she gave details on the progress of the movement in Great Britain to a nearly full audience and went on to inspire the crowd by proclaiming that 15 different national associations were advocating for women’s suffrage in her homeland. The inaugural visits of these women inspired the local Toronto suffragist movement to grow as well as the rest of the country (The Globe, December 7 1909, p.14)

Emmeline returned to The Hall December 1911, 2 years after her visit, to an audience that was receptive and excited to her thoughts and ideas. The movement had gain traction and although she was more of a curiosity during her 1909 visit, this time around she was a force to be reckoned with. Pankhurst spoke about the unequal treatment of women by the law and she stood on stage, proud & strong, fighting for those conditions to improve. She made a plea for equality and faced lash back from an allegedly intoxicated man, who kept interrupting her lecture. As this happened, officers in the crowd stood by and did nothing, proving her point right there in the moment that the law was treating women unfairly (The Globe, December 13 1911, p.9).

Emmeline was not the only Pankhurst woman to speak to audiences at Massey Hall. Earlier that year in February, her youngest daughter Sylvia shared the successes of how their campaign had progressed in Canada. She spoke honestly to the crowd of her quarrels with law enforcement and of suffragette’s experiences in prison. With spirit and indignation she spoke out to the packed audience and said, “We do not feel the knocks on the head we get. We just see a great light in front of us, the light of our cause” (The Globe, February 13 1911, p.7).

The Pankhurst women laid the foundation for Canadian women to get involved and not long after their first visits to the Hall, Canadian-born and Winnipeg-raised Nellie McClung stood in the very same spot during the height of World War I on October 13, 1915 with a lecture titled “The War that Never Ends.”

McClung was praised for her ability to entertain, instruct, inspire and shock the large audience at Massey Hall. She presented her lecture under the auspices of the Ontario Equal Franchise Association for the benefit to provide a field kitchen for Canadians at the front. On stage she boldly stated, “We must all declare war on meanness and prejudice, we must drop bombs on prejudice and petty conceit and fight for better conditions. There isn’t any reason against equal franchise” (The Globe, Oct. 14 1915, p.10)

Women went on to campaign at every level of government to win the right to vote in provincial elections. The first victory happened in Manitoba on January 28, 1916 and other provinces began to follow with Québec being the last to concede the vote in 1940. All of this progress & success was thanks to women like those who were not afraid to stand up in front of crowds on stages like Massey Hall to inspire and educate women on the importance of equality.

Massey Hall continued to be a political arena and community gathering space over the years and to this day, the “Grand Ol’ Lady of Shuter” Street keeps her doors open for those seeking a stage to amplify their voice.

Ashley D’Andrea is Researcher in the Corporation of Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall’s Development department.