Today’s young women may not know who Violet McNaughton was but they are reaping the benefits of the farmer and journalist’s activism.
McNaughton died in 1968 at age 88, after a lifetime of work to secure women’s place in society, including the right to vote.
A video showcasing her life and work was produced by Saskatchewan’s Western Development Museum for this year’s International Women’s Day and is available through the museum website until June 30.
Amber Parker, education and public programming assistant, researched the project, wrote the script and serves as the viewers’ guide to McNaughton and Saskatchewan at the time.
“I’d never heard of her actually so this is kind of like a journey of discovery into Violet and her life for me,” Parker said. “As I learned more about her I couldn’t believe that she wasn’t more famous because she’s just done so much for the women in Saskatchewan.”
McNaughton, nee Jackson, was born in England and arrived in Canada in the fall of 1909 at 30 years old.
A year later, she married John McNaughton, a farmer near Harris, Sask., who supported her efforts in farm politics and women’s rights.
The video notes that Violet was disappointed with the “male construct” of agriculture and knew that the survival of farms depended on the work that women did. She became an agrarian feminist and began organizing women under several causes.
In 1914, she became president of the Women Grain Growers, which was considered one of the most radical groups in Canada at the time.
She also served on the Saskatchewan Equal Franchise League, Saskatchewan Grain Growers’ Association, the Inter-provincial Council of Farm Women and the women’s section of the Canadian Council of Agriculture.
“She was the face of the women’s right to vote campaign in Saskatchewan and she also did a lot of work to advance women’s access to health care, including birth control methods,” Parker said. “She was involved in women’s right to education and to participate in the workplace. She was really like Saskatchewan’s Nellie McClung.”
McNaughton advocated for health reform long before the days of Tommy Douglas, Parker said, and beginning in 1925 she used the pages of The Western Producer to do that.
It was illegal under the Criminal Code of Canada to distribute information about birth control but that’s what McNaughton did.
She used The Western Producer to suggest methods of birth control and to correspond with women who were looking for help, such as one woman who wrote in 1927 to say she was 31 years old with seven children between the ages of 11 and eight months.
McNaughton edited the Mainly For Women section until she retired in 1950 and then penned a column until 1959. In 1997, the federal government named her a person of national historic significance.
Parker said the research into McNaughton’s life and work has led her to other trailblazers of the time, such as Georgina Binnie-Clarke, a single woman who raised enough money to buy 320 acres of land in Saskatchewan because women weren’t eligible for free quarter-sections available at the time.
Parker said women’s stories haven’t always been well told and the museum is committed to doing so.
“The museum is trying to move in a direction where we focus more on diversity and inclusion, and women are a big part of that,” she said.
The response to the video drew viewers from four provinces and three countries earlier in its run.
Parker said there could be an in-person tour later this fall if the COVID-19 pandemic allows. The museum has many of McNaughton’s personal items, including her wedding dress, and pins from various conferences.
The museum also has artifacts that focus on McNaughton’s causes, such as a box of condoms from 1929, and a diaphragm from the 1950s when women had to have permission from their husbands and their doctors to obtain one.
“She was a lot more radical than maybe people realized,” Parker said. “She was really ahead of her time.”
To watch Violet’s Saskatchewan, click here. There is a cost to watch the video, available on demand, with a discount available for museum members, volunteers and Western Producer subscribers.