We are approaching the 100-year anniversary of the First World War. What will we remember? Not usually remembered are those who opposed the war and spoke out against it. But they, too, were part of the story. And one of the most prominent was a woman born 130 years ago who grew up in western Manitoba.
Francis Marion Beynon was born in Ontario on May 21, 1884. In 1889, she came to Manitoba with her family, settling on a farm near Hartney.
Francis followed in the footsteps of her older sister Lillian, who taught school in small Manitoba communities like Chain Lakes and then became a journalist in Winnipeg. Francis was also a rural school teacher before moving to Winnipeg in 1908. She first worked in the advertising department at Eaton’s. In 1912, she got the job as women’s page editor of The Grain Growers’ Guide.
Beynon’s regular feature at The Guide was “The Country Homemakers.” In one column, she listed in-demand items her readers could make to earn extra money. Her suggestions: “first class pickles, mincemeat, head cheese, Christmas puddings and cakes, kitchen aprons, and sets of hemmed dish towels.”
With her recipes, household tips and family advice, Beynon mixed in ideas supporting women’s rights. Issues included women getting the vote, property rights and freedom from spousal abuse.
Those pre-war years in Winnipeg were a golden age for feminism. In the city with Beynon was her sister Lillian Beynon Thomas, an assistant editor at the Manitoba Free Press. Also there was author and activist Nellie McClung, pioneering physician Dr. Mary Crawford, and Free Press agricultural editor E. Cora Hind. Just imagine the conversations!
The solidarity of the women’s movement was shattered by the First World War. As the conflict progressed, most feminists became avid supporters of the war effort. Influencing women were loved ones enlisting and news (as well as propaganda) about enemy atrocities. Beynon was among the few who questioned the war.
Beynon was especially at odds with Nellie McClung. One dividing point was religion. Beynon had a radical, social justice, pacifist understanding of Christianity. She viewed organized religion as oppressive — contributing to harsh child raising in the home, exploitation in society and war in the world. McClung, on the other hand, was more conventional and came to see the war as not just a patriotic duty, but as almost a religious crusade.
The two women also differed over conscription. Beynon argued that Britain should cease its imperialistic intentions before any more Canadian men were sacrificed for the British cause. But McClung wanted men drafted. Additional troops would help those — like her own son — who were already serving in the trenches.
Beynon attracted negative attention from the authorities; she even had her phone tapped. By 1917, her situation had become unsustainable. She was forced to resign from her job at The Guide. She moved to New York City, joining Lillian who had gone there earlier.
In 1919, while in New York, Beynon wrote “Aleta Dey,” an autobiographical novel. The book describes her childhood in western Manitoba; her musings about society, religion and politics; and her falling in love with a man who goes off to war.
Today, Beynon and her novel are largely forgotten. But one person who wants them remembered is local playwright and Brandon University English and creative writing Prof. Dale Lakevold. A couple of years ago he adapted “Aleta Dey” into a play.
My wife and I were fortunate enough to see “Aleta Dey” in Brandon. It was a powerful performance — wonderfully written, directed and acted.
Beynon’s story is compelling because it “anticipates a lot of the 20th century,” Lakevold told me. “Aleta Dey” is “a groundbreaking novel that led the way for other writers from the Prairies and across Canada.”
After “Aleta Dey,” Beynon vanished into obscurity in New York. She never married, but remained close to Lillian, who moved back to Winnipeg in the 1920s. During a family visit to Winnipeg, Beynon died on Oct. 5, 1951. She is buried in Brookside Cemetery.
Issues that Francis Marion Beynon championed a century ago are still current. When our nation is at war, can we support our troops while debating the war itself? Can we have freedom of speech? Can we have electronic communication free from surveillance?
Above all, can women and men have dignity and equality: on the farm, in the city, and as citizens in the community?
» David McConkey is an active citizen. Contact him and read previous columns at davidmcconkey.com.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition April 28, 2014