Margret Jonsdottir Benedictsson
Margret Jonsdottir Benedictsson was a forerunner for the suffragist movement in Manitoba. For almost 25 years, from the late 1880s to 1912, Benedictsson led the way for women’s rights in Manitoba, as a suffragist, a social activist and organizer, a journalist and publisher. During this period before Nellie McClung arrived on the scene in 1910 and even today, Benedictsson has had a great influence on the women and men of Manitoba in their pursuit for equality, human rights and the vote for women.
To Benedictsson, the promotion of education for women was a key to their equality. In 1877 when she arrived alone as a young woman in North America, she went to school to educate herself first. Then Benedictsson encouraged women to use the tools they had and run for school board, which they could do at that time. In this way they could have influence over the curriculum on alcohol education and women’s rights in a democracy.
Benedictsson organized suffragist societies in Winnipeg and rural Manitoba beginning in 1904 and this was followed by other societies in Gimli, Argyle and Mountain, North Dakota. Men also joined these organizations. In 1908 she founded and became president of the first Icelandic Suffrage Society of America with headquarters in Winnipeg.
From 1898 to 1910, Benedictsson ran a publishing company with her husband, producing the journal Freyja. This paper was the first and only paper in Canada dedicated to the topic of women’s rights during those years. She wrote prolifically, sometimes using other names. The paper had a wide subscribership and gave the suffragist movement a focus and direction.
Benedictsson applied political pressure as well, to further women’s causes by organizing petitions to the government on women’s suffrage, two of which were presented in 1910 by the Icelandic communities. These petitions called for the rights of women to be equal to that of men irrespective of their marital status and property holdings.
In 1910 when Nellie McClung arrived in Winnipeg, she created a resurgence in the mainstream suffrage movement. The Icelandic women and the establishment women held a joint meeting to determine the best time to petition the government again.
In 1916, when women became enfranchised in Manitoba, Margret Jonsdottir Benedictsson was no longer centre stage. By 1913, she had divorced, was going blind and had moved out of the province to join family on the West Coast. However, it was no coincidence that third reading of the bill for women’s enfranchisement was moved by an Icelander, the acting premier and Attorney-General Thomas H Johnson. His mother had been a pioneer suffragist who had laboured alongside Margret Jonsdottir Benedictsson in rural Manitoba. Unfortunately, Benedictsson was unable to be at the legislature when the bill was signed but most of those in attendance were aware of the groundwork she laid for that landmark achievement.