100 years ago, Ontario elected its first-ever female city councillor

Constance Hamilton was a suffragette, a trained pianist, and a part-time farmer. In 1920, she captured a seat in Ward 3
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Jan 02, 2020
Constance Hamilton was a leading figure in the Toronto’s suffragette movement in the 1910s. (January 2, 1920, edition of the Evening Telegram; December 31, 1919, edition of the Evening Telegram)

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New Year’s Day 1920. As was their annual tradition, Torontonians headed to the polls to cast their ballots in a municipal election. While the main issues revolved around public ownership of hydro and the city’s streetcar system, a major milestone was achieved that day in the race for the three council seats representing Ward 3 (a long skinny ward with Yonge Street as its spine). Thanks to provincial legislation enacted several months earlier, women 21 and older were now eligible to run for municipal councils. In a tight eight-person contest, suffragette and social activist Constance Hamilton became Ontario’s first-ever female municipal councillor.

Born Constance Bodington in England in 1862, she moved to Vancouver with her family in 1887 and soon after married Lauchlan Hamilton, a surveyor who named many of that city’s streets. After spending several years in Winnipeg, the Hamiltons settled in Toronto around the beginning of the 20th century. “Warm, open-hearted and resilient in her pursuit of social justice,” writer Mark Maloney observed in a 2007 Toronto Star profile, “Hamilton worked tirelessly for the city’s less privileged, yet this gifted, trained pianist, who founded Toronto’s Bach Society, was also a part-time working farmer, one concerned about the plight of women on farms.” Her ability to speak several European languages assisted her efforts to help new immigrants and refugees settle in the city, and she established a colony for struggling artists in present-day Mississauga.

During the 1910s, Hamilton was a leading figure in the city’s suffragette movement, favouring moderate methods of achieving the vote and other social reforms. As president of several suffragette organizations, such as the National Equal Franchise Union, she supported the federal government’s handling of the First World War and was caught up in the imperial patriotic fever of the period. Along with the leaders of three other women’s organizations, Hamilton signed a public letter in 1917 that declared that Canadian women were willing to forgo the right to vote so that the country would “remain true to her sacred trust to the Canadian men now fighting the battle for freedom.” The letter caused some backlash among members of those organizations who were unhappy that they hadn’t been consulted. She supported the limited federal voting rights granted to women under the Wartime Elections Act, arguing that those with ties to Germany couldn’t be trusted and that, as she suggested in a letter to the Globe in September 1917, those who didn’t have relatives in the military “may console themselves … with the knowledge that by their own temporary sacrifice of the privileges of citizenship they prevent the woman slacker from voting.”

Across the country, restrictions preventing women from running for municipal council had gradually loosened. The first to succeed was Annie Gale, who was elected in Calgary in 1917. Two years later, Ontario premier Sir William Hearst introduced two bills allowing women to run for municipal and provincial seats. “The services and sacrifices of women during the war, and the splendid executive ability displayed by them in war work of all kinds,” Hearst observed, “have won for them the admiration of the men, at all events, to such an extent that we feel they should be put upon the same basis as men.” With no amendments during the reading process, the Women’s Municipal Qualification Act received royal assent on April 24, 1919.

When nominations were made in late December 1919 for Toronto’s next municipal election, Hamilton entered the race in Ward 3, while lawyer Clara Brett Martin ran in Ward 2 (which included Cabbagetown and Rosedale). So few voters showed up to the nomination meeting that no speeches were given. The press said little about either candidate, other than asking whether they preferred the title “alderman” or “alderlady.”

Hamilton’s platform included support for the public takeover of the city’s privately owned streetcar routes, increased public ownership of the hydro system, more playgrounds and recreational facilities, and a strengthened library system and police force. She also suggested halting traffic for half an hour daily to allow children to play in city streets.

Hamilton observed that female candidates were better than men when it came to dealing with social issues, because men were obsessed with institutions and objects. “I feel the first thing the city should look for is the improvement of humanity within its limits,” she said during a December 26 speech to female voters sponsored by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. “The women want to pay attention to humanity. I believe in public ownership, in fat cattle in the abattoir, but I believe more in the fat baby.”

Of Toronto’s five daily newspapers, only the Daily Star didn’t endorse Hamilton. The Globe believed “her logical manner of discussing her subject from the platform, her breadth of view and her obvious sincerity, will appeal very forcibly to the electors of her ward.” The Evening Telegram approved of her support for public ownership of hydro and the streetcar system, as well as her advocacy for better housing and more recreation centres.

When the results came in, Hamilton had captured the third seat in Ward 3; just over 200 votes separated her from the top candidate. “I feel humbled as much as anything,” she told the Globe. “I feel a curious mingling of pride, unworthiness, and gratitude. I think about the women who have worked for me and with me, and feel that I am a sort of symbol for them.” She made no promises to clean up government, focusing instead on improving social conditions. Martin was less successful, gaining only two press endorsements and finishing fourth in her contest.

Her initial council duties included serving on the parks committee and representing the city at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario), the Children’s Aid Society, and the Toronto Housing Company. Headlines noted that she attended her first council session hatless, which, while that was consistent with council decorum, broke with the custom for women of the day. She supported raising the minimum wage, improving working conditions for domestics, and health initiatives, such as a play promoting awareness of venereal disease.

Re-elected in 1921, she was joined on council by social-service worker Ethel Small. There are few indications of how the rest of council treated them. For unknown reasons, Hamilton declined to run in 1922, while Small retired after the 1923 council term. Not until 1936 would another woman, Adelaide Plumptre, be elected to council.

Until her death in 1945, Hamilton remained dedicated to various causes — for example, she helped refugees find work and wrote many letters to the editors of the city’s newspapers. Her name lives on via a women-run housing co-operative and the Constance E. Hamilton Award for Woman’s Equality, which the city has handed out annually since 1979.

Sources: Liberation Deferred? The Ideas of the English-Canadian Suffragists, 1877-1918 by Carol Lee Bacchi (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983); “Historicist: ‘Alderman or Alderlady’” by Kevin Plummer (Torontoist, September 26, 2009); the September 20, 1917, December 29, 1919, and January 2, 1920 editions of the Globe; the April 2009 edition of Municipal World; the December 27, 1919 and January 12, 1920 editions of the Toronto Daily Star; the March 10, 2007 edition of the Toronto Star; and the December 30, 1919 and December 31, 1919 editions of the Evening Telegram.

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