Considered to be the Nellie McClung of Saskatchewan, early women's rights activist and homesteader, Violet McNaughton, is the subject of a new virtual exhibit from the Western Development Museum.
Despite being an influential journalist and outspoken advocate for the concerns of rural women during the 20th century, McNaughton has largely been lost to history. That's according to WDM education and public programs assistant, Amber Parker.
"She's one of those people who definitely aren't as famous as they should be. I had never heard of her before I started working at the Museum," says Parker. "Basically, she immigrated from England in 1909 and was the leader of the women's rights movement here in Saskatchewan. She had lots of achievements."
As a homesteader herself, McNaughton understood the difficulties rural and isolated women faced, especially when it came to accessing healthcare. She was an early leader in the cooperative movement and served as the first leader of the women's section of the Canadian Council of Agriculture. As a journalist, she began contributing to the Western Producer in 1926, working her way up to become the editor of the newspaper's women's section.
"It was a big deal for a woman at the time to be a journalist. She created her own column and it was kind of revolutionary for its time. Women wrote to her from all over North America looking for advice because there weren't many opportunities for women back then, to be honest about their feelings and talk about their problems. She provided a great space for that."
McNaughton was also unique among the early feminism movement as someone who was willing to work with women of all ethnicities and backgrounds.
"That early 1910 era is rightly criticized for its acceptance of eugenics," explains Parker, "But Violet was really different; there's no known evidence that she was at all racist or discriminatory. She promoted the idea that things would only get better for women if they got better for all women. Also, she worked a lot with women of colour and indigenous women to advance their causes as well."
Parker adds that we tend to associate things like Medicare only with Tommy Douglas, but that many of those movements were also influenced by McNaughton's ideas.
"As early as 1914, people like Violet were asking for things like free health clinics and better access to rural doctors. So there was a whole push before Tommy Douglass for free healthcare which has become one of those quintessentially Saskatchewan contributions."
McNaughton's story is told in the WDM's new exhibit through the medium of film. It gives a big picture view of Saskatchewan during the time McNaughton was alive and the impact she had on the province.
"The video talks about women's right to education and their entry into the workforce en masse after World War I. We also tackle access to birth control which is something that was taboo for a long time. Even as late as the 50s and 60s, women still needed their husbands' permission to talk to a doctor about birth control. That isn't too long ago and it's because of people like Violet that those things have changed."
By the time she passed away in 1968, McNaughton had been advocating for women's rights for over six decades. In the 1990s, she was acknowledged by the federal government as a person of significance in the nation.
The Western Development Museum's virtual presentation of McNaughton's life will be available starting March 8, to coincide with International Women's Day. To learn more, you can visit the WDM website by clicking here.