We Shall Persist: Women and the Vote in Atlantic Canada by Heidi MacDonald

Heidi MacDonald’s book We Shall Persist: Women and the Vote in Atlantic Canada is a comprehensive mapping of the political contexts and challenges faced by advocates for women’s suffrage and wider rights in the Atlantic Provinces. Looking at each provincial context in turn, the book chronicles the long and arduous struggle that women in this region endured in the pursuit of equal rights, documenting the obstacles they faced and the victories they achieved along the way.

I had some prior knowledge about the fight for women’s suffrage in Canada before picking up this book, but my understanding of the specific circumstances that prompted provinces to adopt suffrage bills at different times was limited. I was not aware of the persistent misconception that the Atlantic Provinces had lagged behind their more progressive western neighbours. MacDonald directly addresses this fallacy in her introduction, emphasizing that the delay was not as significant as some scholars have implied. Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta granted women the right to vote in 1916; British Columbia and Ontario in 1917; Nova Scotia in 1918; New Brunswick in 1919; Prince Edward Island in 1922; Newfoundland in 1925; and finally, Quebec in 1940. But as MacDonald states, “A conservative stereotype has often substituted for research when non-Atlantic Canadian historians write about the area. As a result, traditionalism haunts its economic, religious, political, and gender history.” This points to the importance of taking a regional lens when telling the story of suffrage in Canada, as each provincial campaign required a different approach.

We Shall Persist strikes the perfect balance between depth and readability.”

Taking this regional lens also enables MacDonald to offer a more nuanced analysis of the suffrage movement, highlighting the challenges faced by women of different races and classes in the Atlantic Provinces, including Acadian, Black, and Indigenous women. As an Acadian, I was particularly interested in those details and appreciate MacDonald’s thoughtful and balanced approach, neither disparaging those who did not participate in the fight, nor overly exalting those who did. She understands that poor, marginalized, and racialized women had more pressing concerns than the right to vote, and that middle-class White women who led the charge frequently overlooked the experiences of others in their pursuit of expanded rights.

While she acknowledges the impact of the First World War in changing attitudes towards women’s rights, MacDonald stresses that it is not the full story. Women in Atlantic Canada were fighting for the vote long before the war and came close to making gains on numerous occasions. “Persistence was key,” she writes. But most importantly, MacDonald recognizes that the legacy of suffrage is unfinished. Until women, particularly racialized women, find equal footing in the political landscape, the fight continues.

We Shall Persist strikes the perfect balance between depth and readability. MacDonald skillfully contextualizes the history of suffrage within a larger historical framework without overwhelming the reader with too much information, a testament to her ability to communicate complex concepts in an accessible and engaging way. The book is well-structured, and each chapter could be read independently or as a whole without leaving the reader feeling like they are missing anything or being bombarded with repetitive information.

This is a powerful and inspiring book that sheds light on an important chapter in the history of women’s rights in Atlantic Canada. It is a testament to the determination of the women who fought for wider rights and a reminder of the ongoing work required to achieve true gender, race, and class equality.

Heidi MacDonald is dean of arts and professor of history and politics at the University of New Brunswick, Saint John. She is a co-author of Vatican II and Beyond.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Univ of British Columbia Pr (June 19 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 265 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 077486317X
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0774863179

Renée Belliveau is a writer and archivist from the Siknikt district of Mi’kma’ki (Sackville, NB). She is the author of The Sound of Fire, a novel based on the true story of the devastating 1941 fire at Mount Allison University, and a memoir about her father’s battle with cancer entitled Les étoiles à l’aube. She is a graduate of Mount Allison University, the University of Waterloo, and the University of Toronto. When not writing about the treasures she finds in archives, Renée can be found knitting, foraging, or perusing new titles at her local library.