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Tomorrow British Columbians go to the polls to vote in their municipal elections. Unfortunately, many people will not bother to cast a ballot. It seems that fewer and fewer people consider the importance of this privilege.

If you think that casting a ballot is unimportant, especially if you are a woman, consider this: In England during the construction of a new House of Commons following a fire in 1844, a debate ensued amongst parliamentarians over whether accommodation should be made for women in the new building. Previously, women had been allowed to peer down a ventilation shaft if they wished to hear the debates or catch a glimpse of the proceedings taking place.

After much debate it was decided that a ladies’ gallery should be built, an innovation that included a large brass grille placed in front of the seating area as a compromise to those members who were opposed to exposing women to the workings of government.[1] Women visiting the House of Commons were confined to listening to debates from behind the grille which concealed their presence and obscured their view of the proceedings. Over the decades, the gallery’s ironwork became a potent symbol of female oppression.

In October 1908, suffragette Muriel Matters protested parliamentarians’ refusal to grant women the right to vote in a unique way. Matters chained herself to the grille in the ladies’ gallery, managing to deliver a speech to the House of Commons before the chain was cut and she was forcibly removed. Matters was charged with disorderly conduct and imprisoned for her actions. Although it would be another ten years before English women were finally enfranchised, Muriel’s protest contributed to a growing awareness of women’s lack of rights as citizens.

Suffragette 1908

Muriel Matters. Source: The Muriel Matters Society Inc.

On November 15, let’s honour suffragettes like Muriel Matters who were willing to give so much for your right to cast a vote in an election. Although you may think that your vote doesn’t count for much in the larger scheme of things, the fact that you can vote, and run for office, should be enough motivation for you to make your way to the polling booth.

[1] Ray Strachey, The Cause (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1928), 361.

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