Casgrain, Thérèse (1896–1981)

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Casgrain, Thérèse (1896–1981)

French-Canadian feminist, humanist, pacifist, and social reformer who led the feminist movement in Quebec throughout much of her life. Pronunciation: Ter-ACE CAS-gra. Born Thérèse Forget on July 11, 1896, in Quebec, Canada; died in Quebec at age 85 in 1981; daughter of Blanche (MacDonald) and Sir Rodolphe Forget (a financier); attended convent school of the Dames du Sacré-Coeur in Sault-aux-Récollets; married Pierre Casgrain, in 1916; children: Rodolphe, Hélène, Paul, Renée.

Joined Provincial Suffrage Committee (1921); elected president of the Suffrage Committee (1928); vote for women is achieved in Quebec (1940); won the battle over Family Allowance checks (1945); joined Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (1946); elected to leadership of Quebec CCF (1951–57); toured Asia and the East (1956); formed Quebec branch of Voice of Women (1961); appointed to Canadian Senate (1970).

In her autobiography A Woman in a Man's World, Thérèse Casgrain reflects fondly on the country house where she spent the summers of her childhood. Located on a hill in the rural community of Saint-Irénée (Quebec), the estate consisted of a main house and many auxiliary buildings built on various levels interconnected by pathways and steps. The main house, used extensively for entertaining, was huge. With 16 bedrooms, Casgrain claims there was barely enough room for the guests and family. The grounds were beautifully landscaped with gardens, walkways, and an orchard. Tennis courts, an indoor swimming pool, a yacht and stables provided entertainment for the family and their guests. The size and splendor of this home graphically depicts the wealth and comfort within which Casgrain lived her life. She never rose to challenge the disparity between rich and poor in Canada. Still, at an early age, she devoted herself to a number of social and political issues, challenging the values of the existing society and forcing many changes. An important leader in the Quebec feminist movement, she fought to improve the legal, political, and social position of women in Quebec. Of particular importance was her contribution to the suffrage cause. Not content to achieve social reform exclusively through private charitable activities, she moved eventually to join the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a socialist party dedicated to improving the lives of workers, farmers, and the disadvantaged. Charming, confident and intelligent, Casgrain had unbounded energy that she used to alter the social inequities in Quebec society.

Thérèse Casgrain was born into a well-established, prominent and wealthy Quebec family. From colonial times, family members of both parents had been influential in the legal, political, and economic elite of the province. Casgrain's father Sir Rodolphe Forget was a wealthy Quebec financier and a member of the Federal Parliament from 1904 to 1917. Her mother Blanche MacDonald Forget lived the life of a woman in her socio-economic position. A house full of servants gave her time for leisure, social and charitable activities, and travel. Reflecting back on this from the perspective acquired as an adult, Casgrain spoke of the lifestyle and charitable actions of women like her mother: "Women, especially those of the comfortable classes, enjoyed playing the role of lady bountiful and distributed food baskets in the homes of needy families every Christmas. They never dreamed, however, of trying to find out why these people were in need." As an adult, Casgrain would deviate from her mother's path. Yet, in the early years, her life conformed to societal expectations for a young female of her class and social position.

At age eight, Casgrain was sent to the convent school at Sault-aux-Récollets (outside Montreal) where she boarded from September to June. At this time, the majority of schools in Quebec were run by the Roman Catholic Church. Girls, in particular, were educated by nuns from numerous religious orders. The school attended by Casgrain was run by the order of the Dames du Sacré-Coeur and was considered one of the best. Here, she would have learned the skills deemed important for a woman—domestic skills such as cooking, reading and writing, languages, and music. The purpose of a girl's education, it was believed, was to prepare her for her eventual role as a wife and mother.

Summers were spent at the country house or touring her father's riding (county) of Charlevoix during the years he was a Member of Parliament. One summer, the family accompanied Forget on a business trip to Paris, France. Detained beyond their scheduled return date, the family narrowly escaped death: their original return booking was on the Titanic. In 1913, Casgrain was awed by the spectacle of the 65th Regiment performing their yearly manoeuvres on the grounds of the country estate. As a finale, mass was held on the grounds during which a royal salute was fired from the top of the hill at the moment of the elevation of the Host. Discussing these events in her memoirs, Casgrain reveals a childhood that was peaceful, happy and comfortable.

After graduating from convent school, Casgrain's days were filled with shopping, party-going, and game playing. Her studies of literature, music and domestic skills continued on a less formal basis. All of these activities were directed towards providing her with the skills necessary for an upper-class wife. On reaching marriageable age, she, like her peers, began attending approved social events intended to give her the opportunity to meet an acceptable husband. At the annual oyster supper held to raise funds for the deaf, she met Pierre Casgrain, a young, independently wealthy lawyer from a good family. She did not feel that she had made an impression on him until the next day when a bouquet of roses arrived. On the first date, chaperoned by her eldest brother Gilles, Casgrain felt awkward and shy. She politely declined several items offered to her until a kick from Gilles under the table induced her to accept some ice cream. Apparently if she had not accepted, Pierre would have felt rejected and not asked her out again.

On January 19, 1916, they were married. It appears the relationship was happy and affectionate. Four children—Rodolphe, Hélène, Paul, and Renée—were born. Although the marriage was traditional in the sense that Casgrain speaks

of seeking his "permission" to pursue her interests, he was supportive, regardless of how much she deviated from the norms of acceptable behavior for women. Pierre not only supported her decision to join the CCF but expressed interest in her activities despite his lifelong affiliation with the mainstream Liberal Party. Pierre had a prominent and successful career as a lawyer and a politician. From 1917 to 1940, he was a Liberal Member of the Federal Parliament, serving in the prestigious post of speaker of the house from 1936 to 1940 and as secretary of state during the Second World War. On his retirement from politics, he was appointed a judge of the Quebec Superior Court.

During the early years of her marriage, Casgrain continued to fill the role expected. At this time, social services (the provision of support for the poor, etc.) were provided by private charities staffed and supported by middle- and upper-class women. Like her mother, Casgrain fulfilled this social function. Due to her unbounded energy, self-confidence and intelligence, however, she went beyond the requirements, creating charities and providing leadership. In 1926, she founded the Ligue de la jeunesse féminine (Young Women's League), which organized young volunteers for social work. She also created the Fédération des oeuvres de charité canadiennesfrançaises (Federation of French-Canadian Charitable Workers). During the war, her leadership skills were called upon by the federal government when she was put in charge of administering half of Canada at the Consumer Branch of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board. Despite the prominent role that Casgrain assumed in these organizations, they remained within the rubric of acceptable activity for women.

Canadian women are still considered second-class citizens and they are too often deprived of the treatment and consideration they deserve as human beings. To try to rectify these wrongs became my goal.

—Thérèse Casgrain

Rebellion against the limitations of both her gender and her class began not long after marriage. She had begun to tire of the continuous circuit of parties and social gatherings that filled her time. As well, she probably needed a wider range of activities to satisfy her. In her autobiography, Casgrain maintains that the opportunity came in 1921 when her husband became ill just before a campaign speech. Before the assembled crowd, Casgrain stepped up to the podium and gave a brief explanation. It was not the content of the speech but the act of giving it in public that helped raise her confidence and bring her more into public activity. Afterwards, several women involved in the women's movement came to see Casgrain, inducing her to join. For the next 60 years she remained one of the most prominent figures in the Quebec feminist movement.

In 1921, women in Quebec were in a peculiar situation. They could vote in federal elections but not provincially. Manitoba had been the first province to grant women the vote in 1916, and all the others, except Quebec, had followed suit. But the Quebec government had refused to extend the franchise, a situation that continued until 1940. The feminist movement that Casgrain joined in 1921 was just in the process of reviving after several years of inactivity. There was widespread opposition to female suffrage, particularly from the Catholic Church, which continued to exert considerable influence over attitudes in Quebec society. Thus, the newly formed Comité provincial pour le Suffrage féminin (Provincial Suffrage Committee) decided to pursue an educational rather than political campaign to teach the public that, in their view, female suffrage would not alter sex roles but would lead to a general improvement in society. Women, it was argued, deserved the vote because many political issues touched on the areas of home and family life, which were women's concerns. However, due to virulent opposition, the committee's activities were sporadic and low key until 1927 when the committee, along with a new suffrage group, began to increase their pressure on the Quebec government. Annually, for the next 13 years, the women had a sympathetic member of Parliament introduce a bill to grant the vote to women. They knew it would be rejected but believed it was good publicity. The jeers, sarcasm and vulgarities of some politicians during debate undoubtedly brought the issue to public consciousness, raising awareness and often sympathy.

Recalling these years, Casgrain wrote in her autobiography of a conversation with the premier of Quebec, L.A. Taschereau. Popular opinion held that women who wanted the vote were unattractive spinsters, unable to attract a husband and deprived of children. According to Casgrain their encounter went as follows:

[H]e said to me with a smile, "Of course now that you're campaigning for the woman's vote, there'll be no question of your having any more children. But if such a thing should occur, I'd like to be godfather. If it's a boy we'll make him a bishop." "And if it's a girl," I retorted, "she'll be a suffragette." At that moment, as it happened, I was pregnant.

Apparently, when the little girl was born, Premier Taschereau and his wife were appointed the godparents. The story is interesting, not only because it reveals the belief that a "feminist" woman would reject motherhood but also because of the friendly relations between Casgrain and her opponent. As leader of the suffrage movement (Casgrain became president in 1928 of the Provincial Committee), she was effective because of her social connections to the most influential people in the province.

Eleven years of persistence bore fruit at the Liberal Party convention in 1938. The Provincial Committee (renamed the Ligue des droits de la femme [League for Women's Rights] in 1929) was able to force the party to include women's suffrage in their platform. Casgrain was understandably skeptical about the sincerity behind Liberal support. After all, it was the Liberals who had jeered and repeatedly voted against women's suffrage during their years in power in the 1920s and early 1930s. Now out of power, it was questionable whether they really intended to fulfill their promise if they won the next election. Still, when the election was called in the autumn of 1939, Casgrain and the League came out in support of the Liberals and worked hard to ensure a Liberal victory in 1940. Casgrain also worked to ensure the Liberals kept their promise by encouraging women to write to the Liberal leader, resulting in a barrage of letters, telegrams, and petitions. Their efforts succeeded when the Liberals won the election. On April 25, 1940, Quebec women were granted the privilege to vote in provincial elections and to stand for election; they were the last women in Canada to achieve this right.

Casgrain was not only dedicated to women's suffrage, she also worked to increase female access to the professions and to improve the position of women in law. Legal inequality was of particular concern. Married women, under the Quebec Civil Code, had few rights. The husband was the head of the family. As such, he had total control over all family assets and was free to dispose of it, including his wife's wages and inherited property, as he saw fit. Quebec feminists, including Casgrain, had hoped to change this when the government appointed a commission to study marriage laws in 1929; they were not rewarded. The commission recommended few changes, leaving married women in the same position. In 1945, the same issues arose again, but this time Casgrain achieved success. In 1945, the federal government introduced a "family allowance" program for all of Canada which provided families with children a small monthly check. The check was to be made payable to the mother because of the belief that she would use it for the benefit of the children. When this was discovered, the Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis, several Quebec cabinet ministers, and the clergy intervened to ensure that checks going to Quebec families would be paid to the fathers. They argued that, by law, the husband was the head of the family and its administrator, and, thus, payments had to be made to the fathers or they would violate Quebec statutes. When Casgrain heard of the change indirectly, she had little time; the first checks were due to be issued in two months. Immediately, she formed a committee and began a publicity campaign through the radio and newspapers urging mothers to protest to the government. Though the church opposed her actions and asked her to stop, she refused. In July 1945, when the first checks were paid out, they were sent to mothers in Quebec as in the rest of the country. Casgrain may not have actually changed the laws regarding marriage, but she had dealt a serious blow by challenging the foundation on which they were based.

It was around this time that Casgrain made the decision to join the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. Created in 1932, the CCF was a socialist party formed from a coalition of farmer, worker, and intellectual groups dedicated to reform. In the post World War II atmosphere, it was growing in popularity in Canada but continued to be marginal in Quebec. Casgrain joined because she was attracted to the philosophy that emphasized working for the good of all people rather than the few. At some point, she had become disillusioned with the Liberals, the party of her husband, believing that it only worked for the interests of the wealthy. Working for the CCF was difficult. Quebeckers generally rejected the CCF (believing that it was a manifestation of western and English Canadian concerns), funds were severely limited, and it received continuous abuse from the mainstream parties and the church. Eight times Casgrain ran as a candidate but was not elected. Although the CCF was unable to achieve electoral success in Quebec, in many ways it was a positive experience for her.

Within the party, Casgrain achieved prominence as a politician and as a figure known to Canadians. In 1942, she had run as a Liberal candidate in her husband's old riding of Charlevoix-Saguenay. Her defeat was particularly disappointing because she had not received any aid from Liberal Party members, either through endorsements or by visits to the riding during her campaign. In the CCF, her experience was much different. In 1948, she was elected, in absentia, to one of the posts of vice-president in the national party, a post she held until 1963. From 1951 to 1957, she was leader of the party in Quebec. To Casgrain, this success meant that the party did not discriminate against women. As such, it allowed her to serve in the prominent, leadership roles that were not accessible to women in the mainstream parties. This opportunity, combined with a sincere attraction to the policies of the party (such as free access to education), motivated her to perform the time-consuming and unrewarding task of building the party in Quebec.

After relinquishing party leadership in Quebec in 1957, Casgrain's interests shifted towards international concerns. As a delegate for the CCF (which amalgamated into the New Democratic Party [NDP] in 1961), she attended numerous socialist conferences such as the International Socialist Council held in 1963. Having turned 60 in 1956, Casgrain remained energetic and involved. Her new interest in international affairs meant that traveling became a significant part of her life. When appointed the CCF delegate to the Congress of Socialist Nations of Asia in 1956, Casgrain decided to tour Asia and the East. Accompanied by a friend and the mother of Pierre Trudeau (future prime minister of Canada), she traveled from Paris and Rome to India, Greece, Iran, Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, Hong Kong and Japan. Throughout the trip, the well-known Casgrain was treated with diplomatic courtesy in most of these countries.

In these later years, significant interest and activity was devoted to the peace movement, particularly the cause of nuclear disarmament. In 1961, Casgrain formed a branch of "Voice of Women" in Quebec. This too provided her with opportunities to travel, as in 1965 when she went to Russia by invitation of the Committee of Soviet Women. At home, Voice of Women attempted to affect foreign policy by petitioning the government to reject nuclear weapons for Canada, to halt the export of materials used in the creation of nuclear weapons, and to transform the Canadian economy to only peace-time production. In this capacity, Casgrain again ran for Parliament as an NDP (Peace) candidate in 1962 and 1963. NDP policy, unlike that of the other parties, was clearly opposed to war and the development of destructive potential.

In 1970, Casgrain's desire to sit in Parliament was finally realized when she was appointed to the Canadian Senate (the upper chamber of the federal government). Although she knew she could only serve for one year due to mandatory retirement at age 75, Casgrain was honored and enthusiastic. She believed, despite the lesser powers of the Senate (as compared to those of the elected House of Commons), that Senators were able to influence government policy. As she stated in her autobiography, as a senator her opinions would suddenly become respectable in the eyes of many.

To list every one of Casgrain's activities throughout her life would be a momentous, and confusing, task. At any one time, she was involved in numerous activities and organizations. Social connections due to her class position allowed her access to the most influential people in the country. However, it was the boundless energy combined with sincere devotion to social reform, women's rights, and international peace that allowed her to influence the development of Canadian society. Many of the issues that Casgrain fought for were achieved within the span of her lifetime. In 1969, the Civil Code was amended giving married women control over their own property. Women's suffrage and access to the professions, such as law and medicine, had been achieved. As well, a wide range of social reforms ensuring universal access to health and education and the provision of social welfare had evolved. Although by 1970 Casgrain spoke of the many obstacles to overcome, especially in the area of women's rights, she must have recognized how fundamentally Quebec and Canada had changed.


Casgrain, Thérèse F. A Woman in a Man's World. Translated by Joyce Marshall. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972.

Trofimenkoff, Susan Mann. "Thérèse Casgrain and the CCF in Quebec," in Canadian Historical Review. Vol. LXVI, no. 2, 1985, pp. 125–153.


Thérèse Casgrain Papers located in the Public Archives of Canada (PAC), Ottawa, Ontario; CCF Papers located in the PAC, Ottawa, Ontario.

Catherine Briggs , Ph.D. Candidate, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada